Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Should politicians be required to meet competency standards?

‘Until philosophers are kings, or the kings and princes of this world have the spirit and power of philosophy, and political greatness and wisdom meet in one, and those commoner natures who pursue either to the exclusion of the other are compelled to stand aside, cities will never have rest from their evils’ – Plato, ‘The Republic’.


Plato proposed that the philosophers and warriors who are guardians of his ideal state should live in poverty. I can see some merit in that idea. I find it difficult, however, to see much merit in the breeding program that Plato suggested for producing guardians. Plato suggested that individuals should be deceived into thinking that they were participating in a lottery for the selection of their partners, but the lottery would be rigged by a breeding committee in an attempt to produce the best offspring.

If those are the serious proposals of a great philosopher, then it seems to me we might have reason to be concerned about the quality of public policy that philosopher kings might seek to implement. The great philosopher sets out to devise a system that would ensure that we are not governed by numpties and ends up, unwittingly, demonstrating what life might be like if we were governed by numpties. (I am indebted to Shona for introducing me to the word, ‘numpty’. According to one online dictionary, a numpty is a person ‘who, sometimes unwittingly, by speech or action demonstrates a lack of knowledge or misconception of a particular subject or situation to the amusement of others’. Others dictionaries that are less inclined to mince words suggest that a ‘numpty’ is a fool. Either way, it is probably a good idea for Australians to know what a numpty is before visiting the UK.)

There seems to me to be a lot more merit in the suggestion that politicians should be required to meet minimum competency standards than in the idea of breeding philosopher kings. This suggestion has arisen as a result of a discussion I have been having with Shona about political institutions. (Our discussion of politics began in a recent post.)

As a discussion starter, Shona suggests that politicians should be required to have a Master of Politics – something like an MBA for politicians. The degree would include practical work and be politically unbiased. It would cover a range of topics including political science, debating and language skills, law, economics and presentation. Shona noted that there could be a problem in ensuring that all politicians earn their MP degrees from reputable academic institutions. It would be necessary to find a way to stop some of them from just purchasing a degree on the internet.

When asked why she included presentation in her proposed course, Shona explained as follows:

‘Interestingly, I have just read and reviewed a large number of technical reports as part of my work. What infuriates me in doing so is the poor presentation, continual mistakes and many inconsistencies. Remind you of anything? I get angry with myself as a woman, looking at Julia Gillard and being distracted by a jacket too tight, poor make-up or dodgy hair, as opposed to focusing on what she has to say. When men do this it makes me very very angry. But I also notice the nose hairs, bad mannerisms and appalling body language of her male counterparts – so I’m not just judging the women. Presentation matters. Bad presentation distracts the reader/listener from the content/message. People would be more inclined to listen to what politicians have to say if they shine their shoes and clip their nose hair.’

In order to provide an example of how Australian politicians could present themselves in order to distract people from what they are saying it seems appropriate at this point to link to an interview of Sir Les Patterson.

The concern I have with the development of some kind of formal qualification for politicians is that it might tend to reinforce problems stemming from the similar backgrounds of many politicians. These days many seem to come from political families, study law at university and become party apparatchiks before standing for election. Mark Latham raised a related question in a recent article: ‘how can the Labor Party, having professionalised its ranks in the 1980s now look so unprofessional in office?’(‘A party without a point’, AFR, 30 June).

By coincidence, I am currently reading Vernon Smith’s book, ‘Rationality in Economics’, which has a useful discussion about wisdom of crowds and the characteristics of groups that enable good information aggregation. Smith (citing Suroweicki) suggests that four characteristics of groups enable good information aggregation outcomes: diversity, independence, decentralization and an aggregation principle to process private knowledge and yield group outcomes.

Does that mean that candidates for election should all do different work placements for a year – for example, as police, teachers, child care workers, hospital staff or garbage collectors? I am not confident that would produce better outcomes.

Mark Latham suggests, in the article mentioned above, that the Labor Party’s problems stem from a collapse of its policy-making culture. A particular problem for Labor has been the narrowing of the political divide following the end of the Cold War. Another contributing factor he mentions – the recent tendency for reformist ideas to be seen as an electoral liability – has inflicted both sides of politics.

So, that leaves me wondering whether competency of politicians is a fundamental problem in Australia. The basics of the system seem to me to be OK. Voters choose on the basis of criteria that are important to them. Political parties have strong incentives to find candidates who are acceptable to voters. The system should be able to weed out politicians who do not meet minimum competency standards.

Yet it would be hard to claim that in our political system everything is for the best in the best of all possible worlds. What is the problem with Australian politics? Why are the major parties finding it more difficult to promote sensible policies?

Postscript:
The web page I have linked to claims that the interviewer of Sir Les Patterson was Clive James. The interviewer was certainly not Clive James, whose web page can be found here.
Shona tells me that the interviewer was Clive Anderson. He is indentified as Clive Anderson in the description of the relevant video here.

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