Eternal truths about those who are attracted to politics

Lynne Kiesling

Over the past week there’s been an interesting online conversation with the participants discussing one of the eternal tautological conundrums: why does politics attract power-hungry narcissists?

Matt Yglesias kicked it off with what I think is a pretty naive query about the degree of cynicism and immorality in politics. Such cynicism and immorality is neither new nor confined solely to republican democracies, but we certainly do seem to be swirling in it now, don’t we? And while I characterize as naive his asking about what I see as almost a tautology (power attracts those who like power and have a heightened sense of self importance), it is a valid and valuable question when probed more deeply, and as such has provoked interesting response and discussion.

For example, our erstwhile Free Exchange blogger states the problem as

I think that this dynamic can be easily oversold, but it’s definitely one of the main reasons we have the legislators we have; powerful positions attract people who are interested in getting and maintaining power.

Arnold Kling points out that

… the growth in concentrated political power in this country leads to a system that selects for leaders with exaggerated senses of self-importance and a remarkable lack of perspective on their own foibles (think of Elliot Spitzer or Mark Sanford or John Edwards). One of the problems with large-scale politics and large-scale capitalism is that there is this tendency to select the most overconfident, driven, and aggressive men for leadership positions.

While I think he’s correct to say “men”, that’s as a central tendency, not as a description of the whole politician population — we have our Nancy Pelosis and Barbara Boxers too. And, to be fair, Arnold is generalizing the point to encompass CEOs, not just politicians, which I think has some justification.

Ilya Somin at Volokh posits a selection-based hypothesis, which in part is a formal way of restating my tautological form above:

The key explanation is selection effects. A politician willing to do anything to take and hold on to power will have a crucial edge over an opponent who imperils his chances of getting elected in order to advance the public interest. The former type is likely to prevail over the latter far more often than not. This is especially true in a political environment where most voters are often ignorant and irrational about government and public policy. Candidates have strong incentives to pander to this ignorance and exploit it in order to win elections.

As Ilya notes in his post, the scenario here is one in which the short-term interests of a constituency and the long-term “public interest” are not aligned, but this long-term “public interest” is in keeping with the representative’s stated principles, and the cynicism of the craven politician induces him/her to vote according to the desires of his/her constituency instead of voting for the “public interest”. There are a lot of issues with this scenario — isn’t the representative doing what s/he was elected to do by voting the constituency’s interest? Is there really such a thing as a monolithic “public interest”? Even if s/he wants to “do good”, the only way to do so is longevity in office, so how do we untangle motives from tactics that are needed to satisfy those motives?

One reason this discussion caught my eye is that I have despaired about this eternal truth — political processes as attractors for power-hungry narcissists — for most of my intellectual life; in fact, it’s one of the first consciously small-l-liberal thoughts I can remember having as a child. If the other tautology is true — that democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others — then is there a way to cultivate representatives who are not power-hungry narcissists? I continue to come up empty with respect to that question.

One might hope that public choice economics, by treating politicians as rational agents and analyzing political economy processes such as lobbying and rent-seeking, could yield some insights. But Will Wilkinson’s foray into this discussion is not particularly sanguine; in fact, he contends that by treating politicians as rational agents, public choice economics is too generous to politicians:

By insisting that politicians are motivated by considerations no different than businessmen or anybody else, public choice economists have helped slay the pernicious myth that politicians are generally warmly other-regarding public servants. But the economist’s assumption of motivational uniformity fails to capture that politicians do in fact seem to be really odd people who don’t seem to be primarily motivated by the same considerations that motivate most of us most of the time. The incentives of the political process create a kind of filter that selects for individuals extraordinarily fixated on power and status and extraordinarily motivated to keep it. If this is right (anyone know of personality studies of politicans?), then the problem with standard public choice is that it gives too much credit to politicians by assuming they’re like everyone else and therefore it fails to capture just how exceptionally prone politicians are to narcissism, motivated cognition, self-deception, and brazen lying.

I think Will’s got it about right, and that his remark starts us down the road of developing a behavioral public choice model of politician decision-making, kind of an analogue to Bryan Caplan’s behavioral public choice model of voter decision-making. Will’s insight is also consistent with Ilya’s selection effects hypothesis, and is succinctly summed up by one of the commenters on Ilya’s post:

The most conservative senator and the most liberal senator have more in common with each other than they have in common with either you or me.

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2 thoughts on “Eternal truths about those who are attracted to politics

  1. Plenty of political rulers neither particularly desired power not had a particularly over-developed sense of self-importance. Certain Roman Emperors were even commonly believed to have accepted the princeps-ship largely to avoid being murdered by their rivals. (One might intelligently suspect that this was not the only thing attractive about being First Citizen, however.) Various monarchs carried out their political duties in no small part because they believed it to be their civic duty.

    Democratic elections usually select for those who seek power, since it’s difficult to win an election if you don’t really want to. At the local level some politicians might have a desire to “make a difference”, but when you’re looking at a multi-year cross-country non-stop campaign for higher office it’s relatively easy to assume somebody else will fix the problems, unless you really, really, really want the job.

    It would be interesting to see a statistical comparison of the degree to which self-important power-hungry men have been elected to political office, and the percentage of the voting electorate which is female. Not sure how you would measure that, but human biology as well as observation of other primate species might lead us to suspect a correlation.

  2. Hi, you state “then is there a way to cultivate representatives who are not power-hungry narcissists? I continue to come up empty with respect to that question.”

    If the positions (elected office) offered very little power, or less power, it seems that would help “cultivate” those who are not “power-hungry narcissists.” Unfortunately, we continue to move authority away from local control and away from citizens, toward not only government, but especially Federal government. Seems to me we should expect our future leaders to be even more power-hungry. Oops, sorry for being such a downer on a Monday morning.

    Thanks for writing your blog. I’m a fan.

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