How to get good politi­cians

What fac­tors de­ter­mine whether well-ed­u­cated, ded­i­cated peo­ple choose to go into pol­i­tics?

Finweek English Edition - - OPIN­ION - Ed­i­to­rial@fin­ Jo­han Fourie is as­so­ci­ate pro­fes­sor in eco­nomics at Stel­len­bosch Uni­ver­sity.

politi­cian­scan shape the for­tunes of coun­tries. Pres­i­dents, in par­tic­u­lar, set the tone: bal­anc­ing many stake­holder in­ter­ests, their job is to cre­ate a uni­fy­ing vi­sion that should guide pol­i­cy­mak­ing. Mem­bers of par­lia­ment act upon this vi­sion, de­sign­ing and im­ple­ment­ing poli­cies that af­fect the lives of mil­lions of peo­ple. One would imag­ine, then, that those with the best ap­ti­tude for lead­er­ship get elected.

That is the the­ory. But in prac­tice pol­i­tics is a messy busi­ness. For many rea­sons, it is of­ten not the smartest can­di­date who gets elected, or the most ef­fec­tive mem­ber who gets se­lected for higher hon­ours.

Some eco­nomic mod­els even ex­plain why it is not the most ca­pa­ble that move up: Some­one with­out a proper ed­u­ca­tion (but a charis­matic per­son­al­ity) has a much higher chance to see greater re­turns in pol­i­tics than in the pri­vate sec­tor. (In tech­ni­cal terms, lower op­por­tu­nity costs give the less able a com­par­a­tive ad­van­tage at en­ter­ing pub­lic life.)

These se­lec­tion ef­fects are com­pounded by the free-rider prob­lem in pol­i­tics, where work ef­fort is not di­rectly cor­re­lated to po­lit­i­cal out­comes. In other words, ac­cord­ing to this model, it is so­ci­ety’s “chancers” who are more likely to end up in pol­i­tics – and the hard-work­ing, smart ones will tend to end up in the pri­vate sec­tor.

Com­pe­tency in pub­lic of­fice is, of course, not the only goal of a par­lia­men­tary sys­tem. Rep­re­sen­ta­tion – hav­ing politi­cians that re­flect the de­mo­graphic and ge­o­graphic make-up of so­ci­ety at large – is also a key con­cern. But com­pe­tency and rep­re­sen­ta­tion, at least the­o­ret­i­cally, do not al­ways cor­re­late.

Take the fol­low­ing ex­am­ple: a pro­por­tional rep­re­sen­ta­tion sys­tem, like we have in South Africa, would re­quire mem­bers of all dis­tricts to be rep­re­sented. But what if one re­gion – let’s call it Far­mville – has few uni­ver­sity-trained cit­i­zens, whereas an­other re­gion – Sci­ence City – has many cit­i­zens with uni­ver­sity de­grees? A pro­por­tional rep­re­sen­ta­tion sys­tem will ne­ces­si­tate some Far­mville politi­cians also be elected to par­lia­ment, even though the Sci­ence City politi­cians will prob­a­bly be best qual­i­fied for the job. In con­trast, in a plu­ral­ity rule sys­tem – where the can­di­date with the most votes gets the job – com­pe­tency of­ten trumps rep­re­sen­ta­tion.

A new Na­tional Bureau of Eco­nomic Re­search (NBER) work­ing pa­per – Who Be­comes a Politi­cian? – by five Swedish so­cial sci­en­tists, casts doubt on this trade­off. Us­ing an ex­traor­di­nar­ily rich dataset on the so­cial back­ground and com­pe­tence lev­els of Swedish politi­cians and the gen­eral pub­lic, they show that an “in­clu­sive mer­i­toc­racy” is an achiev­able goal, i.e. a so­ci­ety where com­pe­tency and rep­re­sen­ta­tion cor­re­late in pub­lic of­fice.

They find that Swedish politi­cians are, on av­er­age, sig­nif­i­cantly smarter and bet­ter lead­ers than the pop­u­la­tion they rep­re­sent. This, they find, is not be­cause Swedish politi­cians are only drawn from the elite of so­ci­ety; in fact, the rep­re­sen­ta­tion of politi­cians in Swedish mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties, as mea­sured by parental in­come or oc­cu­pa­tional class, is re­mark­ably even. They con­clude that there is at best a weak trade-off be­tween com­pe­tency and rep­re­sen­ta­tion, mostly be­cause there is “strong pos­i­tive se­lec­tion of politi­cians of low (parental) so­cioe­co­nomic sta­tus”.

These re­sults are valid for Swe­den, of course, which is a coun­try un­like South Africa. Yet there are lessons that we can learn. First, what seems to mat­ter is a com­bi­na­tion of “well-paid full-time po­si­tions and a strong in­trin­sic mo­ti­va­tion to serve in un­com­pen­sated ones”. In other words, a po­lit­i­cal party in SA that re­wards hard work for those who serve in un­com­pen­sated po­si­tions is likely to see the best lead­ers rise to the top, where they should be re­warded with mar­ket-re­lated salaries. Sec­ond, an elec­toral sys­tem which al­lows par­ties to “rep­re­sent var­i­ous seg­ments of so­ci­ety”. Po­lit­i­cal com­pe­ti­tion is good. Third, the “avail­abil­ity of tal­ent across so­cial classes”. This, they ar­gue, is per­haps unique to Swe­den, known for its uni­ver­sal high­qual­ity ed­u­ca­tion.

This re­minded me of our State of the Na­tion red car­pet event, where the cam­eras fix­ated on the gowns and glam­our of SA’s po­lit­i­cal elite. How do the lev­els of com­pe­tency in our Par­lia­ment, I won­dered, com­pare to Swe­den and other coun­tries? Let’s just look at the top of the pyra­mid. The pres­i­dent of Brazil, Michel Te­mer, com­pleted a doc­tor­ate in pub­lic law in 1974. He has pub­lished four ma­jor books in con­sti­tu­tional law. The Chi­nese pres­i­dent, Xi Jin­ping, also has a PhD in law, although his ini­tial field of study was chem­i­cal en­gi­neer­ing. Naren­dra Modi, Prime Min­is­ter of In­dia, has a mas­ter’s de­gree in po­lit­i­cal sci­ence. Former US Pres­i­dent Barack Obama grad­u­ated magna cum laude with a doc­tor of ju­rispru­dence de­gree from Har­vard Uni­ver­sity. An­gela Merkel, Chan­cel­lor of Ger­many, has a PhD in quan­tum chem­istry. Most of these widely re­spected lead­ers gave up a top job in the pri­vate sec­tor or academe to pur­sue a po­lit­i­cal ca­reer.

Pol­i­tics is messy, but given the right con­di­tions, it can still at­tract high-qual­ity lead­ers. For that to hap­pen, though, as­pir­ing politi­cians must put in the hard yards, even if ini­tially un­com­pen­sated, sup­ported by a com­pet­i­tive po­lit­i­cal party sys­tem and broad ac­cess to qual­ity ed­u­ca­tion. SA, un­for­tu­nately, is still a long way from meet­ing these cri­te­ria. Former US pres­i­dent

Most of these widely re­spected lead­ers gave up a top job in the pri­vate sec­tor or academe to pur­sue a po­lit­i­cal ca­reer.

Barack Obama

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