The problem with professional politicians

Isabel Hardman asks what’s so bad about professional politicians. She concludes that it’s basically a euphemism for “selfish politicians who are out for themselves and will mow down anyone in their way”. I’d offer a different (and perhaps slightly more contrived) answer: the problem with professional politicians is the same as the problem with professional footballers and professional bankers – they have become too good at their jobs.

This is a problem because all three groups are employed to do something that is not quite the same as the purpose that they serve in society. They operate within a set of rules and structures that are supposed to ensure that by striving to do one thing (the direct aim of their job) they also achieve another.

Take footballers for starters. A footballer, or a football manager, is paid to win matches. If they’re good at it, riches and fame are theirs, if not, they end up on the losing side away at Exeter on a rainy Saturday in February. But the purpose of professional footballers is to provide people with entertainment. Usually, the spectacle of two highly-skilled teams putting everything on the line to win is entertaining. But footballers have worked out at least two ways to improve their chances of winning that aren’t.

The first is diving. It is in the interest of footballers to fall over whenever they are touched by an opposition player, especially in the penalty area. It’s very difficult for referees to know whether a person fell over too easily or not, and winning a penalty or getting an opposing player sent off can win you the game. But diving detracts from our entertainment when, rather than try to win by playing good football, Diego Costa or Ashley Young simply flings himself to the ground to try to con the referee. We see a similar thing when Jose Mourinho, a man who knows more than most about winning football matches, parks the bus when playing away against strong opposition. This clearly works, but it is not great to watch.

Investment bankers are employed to make as much money as possible. But their social purpose – and the reason that they are allowed to occupy such privileged positions within our economic system, with such huge potential for rent extraction – is to distribute financial investment efficiently throughout the economy. In principle, the joint disciplines of market forces and financial regulation should ensure that in trying to maximise profit they achieve this aim. But in recent years, bankers have come up with a range of ways to make stacks of money that avoid or even undermine this aim, such as packaging up mortgage debt in securities so complicated that the buyer fails to see the inherent risks. The results of this are plain to see: a massive global financial crisis that is still being felt more than half a decade later.

So what about politicians? The job of a politician is to win elections, but the purpose of politicians as a whole is to effectively manage the public affairs of a country in such a way as to improve the welfare of its citizens. Our democratic system, political institutions and free press are supposed to ensure that in order to win (or at least retain) power, politicians have to run the country fairly competently. But the last two decades have seen this diminish in importance relative to spin and soundbites.

This has reached its zenith with George Osborne, a chancellor whose primary occupation seems to be not running the economy, but trying to make the Labour Party look stupid. This doesn’t make much of a contribution to the welfare of British citizens, but it does seem to work. The Chancellor has managed to convince most voters that he is the one with the reliable economic plan, despite presiding over an economic disaster. George Osborne appears to be very good as his job, but very bad at fulfilling his purpose.

The public is at least loosely aware of this problem and this is part of the reason for Jeremy Corbyn’s popularity among Labour Party members. Here is a politician who seems to be focusing on fulfilling what he sees as the purpose of politics: to deliver his vision of better country. But this is no use if – as many in the Labour Party fear – in doing so he will fail to do his job, which is likely soon to be getting elected as Prime Minister.

If you’re a footballer and someone else wins more penalties than you, you could be stuck on the bench and unable to do anything to make the game more entertaining. If you’re an investment banker who refuses to make a profit at the expense of the rest of society, you might lose your job and become powerless to improve the morality of investment banking. And if Corbyn can’t compromise his ideals to win popularity with the press and the public, he may never be able to act on those ideals as Prime Minister.

In short, it’s not possible for one footballer, banker or politician to unilaterally reject this type of behaviour while the system rewards it. If we want to see changes, we need to fix the systems and incentives under which they operate. It is tempting to say that the answer is better rules and better enforcement, but there are reasons to be pessimistic that this will happen.

Video technology and retrospective bans for diving could make a huge difference in football. But unfortunately world football is run by a bunch of crooks and Mafioso who do little to improve the game and much to enrich themselves.

Breaking up the big banks so that they can be allowed to fail and the risk is not borne by the rest of society could change the behaviour of bankers, or at least ensure that they feel (to some degree) its consequences. But if a massive global financial crisis isn’t sufficient incentive for governments to do this, then what is?

The issue of politicians is perhaps more difficult, as there is no regulator that has power above that of Parliament. The role of keeping politicians in check and ensuring that they can’t get away with flimsy or misleading statements falls mostly to the press. But, either through partisan cheerleading or a preference for scare stories and embarrassing photos over policy and substance, it does not always do a good job of this.

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