In our democracies there is a problem of competence at the top

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Published on July 28, 2022


In a column published in Financial TimesJanan Ganesh believes that there is a serious personnel problem in Western democracies. It is not voters who prefer third knives to real accessible statesmen, but a political class that is trying to recruit: “(d) able-bodied persons of liberal or moderate views, [qui] they are not enough to go into politics”.

The author of the tribune is referring to Boris Johnson’s succession as Prime Minister of Great Britain. It is easy for us to understand that the problem also arises after the eventful re-election of Emmanuel Macron.

Once at the Elysée, Mr. Macron took a long time to form his new government and choose a prime minister: with few competitors to join the presidential team, he had to settle for loyal and available resources. Elizabeth Bourne was not the first choice of Emmanuel Macron, but there was no better one for such a delicate position.

Who wants to be involved in politics today?

The author gives two rather classic explanations of this personnel crisis.

The first is based on the gap in the salary scale between public service and private careers with equivalent skills.

The second is about the public exposure of people’s elected representatives: “The press kept the secrets of John F. Kennedy and Francois Mitterrand. Even if she were so inclined today, a citizen with a camera phone and a Twitter account doesn’t need to. »

By offering more modest, better-paying careers, the private sector attracts the most capable people and quietly erodes the institutions that keep the capitalist system functioning, Ganesh argues: “Perhaps liberalism simply lacks great men and women. » It is possible, but what alternative can you offer?

The issue of political talent drain is not new, as Hayek already complained that democracy attracts the mediocre, but the situation has worsened in recent decades. Adding that the shortage is acutely felt at a particularly turbulent time, between the return of inflation, the war in Ukraine and climate anxiety.

In order to respond to this real crisis of political proposal, it is necessary to explore three ways of reflection: the first is social-democratic, the second is socialist, and the third is liberal.

Three possible political tracks

The first direction is to align salaries and careers in politics with salaries in the private sector.

This implies a substantial increase in the cost of democracy to divert some individuals who are likely to work in the private sector to the public sector. Not only will the cost of the policy explode as it seems difficult to match the biggest companies or the biggest consulting firms these days, but this in no way guarantees an improvement in its core representation and redistribution functions. On the contrary, the gap between the people and their political elites would widen, and the capture of resources by the state and its clientele would only intensify.

A second way would be to set limits on private salaries to prevent the most capable from taking more lucrative positions than those offered by the state.

In fact, it would be about spreading the politicization of society beyond the boundaries of representative government and about career planning to create it not according to the market, but according to the interests of the state itself.

In addition to the costs and political dirigisme, which are also present to a lesser extent in the social democratic solution, the classic problem of poor allocation of resources will reappear in a system where signals, i.e. prices set by the meeting of supply and demand, will be off the table. The best performers in their field would be forced into careers where their talents are not fully utilized, or would go and offer them elsewhere in the world.

The third direction would be a rather liberal solution to the problem of liberalism: limiting the influence of political majorities on the lives of individuals by forming democracies with stricter economic constitutions, along the lines of James Buchanan and Gordon Tulloch. Certain institutions necessary for the proper functioning of democratic capitalism should be protected from democratic negotiation.

Roughly speaking, by limiting the supply of certain goods and services in the political market, the ability of mediocre politicians to do harm can be reduced. The protection of property and justice by means of a law outside of “legislation” would put on the back burner the problems associated with the professionalization of democratic political life. Maybe our politicians wouldn’t be much better off, but our lives would be better protected from their mistakes and stupidity.

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