Amateur Hour

A while ago, I was driving back to Indiana from the place of my birth and America’s most dysfunctional city, Chicago. As thoughts of Greek-style pensions for public employees, exorbitant property taxes, and sky high murder rates were passing through my consciousness, my car began emitting a strange noise on the expressway. It grew louder, and my stomach sank. It was a flat. The car wobbled onto a nearby exit ramp, and I slowed to the shoulder cursing my lousy luck.

Thankfully I had just renewed my Triple-A membership (after debating to myself whether or not the fee was worth it), so my luck held in the end. The incident led me to ponder the fact that it would not have occurred to me in my distress to try calling a real estate developer, a neurosurgeon, or a former CEO for help. That is to say, anyone lacking a background in auto repair.

This came to mind, of course, because a fair number of Americans now appear to be seriously considering as candidates for the highest public office in the land no fewer than three individuals with no experience in politics or government. To be fair, Americans have a long and rich tradition of disliking and distrusting professional politicians. They’ve been justified. Politics in America’s early days was a dirty business, with intense competition among elites to shape the institutions and future of the nation. Friendships forged during the Revolution were shattered as political ambition and the fruits of political privilege drove former allies like John Adams and Thomas Jefferson into pitched electoral combat for the presidency.

The 19th century was hardly a time of deeply honorable or “decent” politics. State politics, in particular, during this period were typically corrupt and disreputable. Sharp sectional conflicts over slavery, the tariff, and westward expansion hardly gave politics a good reputation among the public at large or the community leaders of the growing United States. The Grant administration’s problems occurred in a string of national embarrassments for the ruling American class.

Writing at the close of that century, Mark Twain, who was a strong backer of President Grant’s, came up with a bon mot that nevertheless rings true: “there is no distinctly native American criminal class save Congress.”

The following century saw much of the same. The Teapot Dome scandal rocked the nation in the 1920s. Political machines dominated local politics in the nation’s growing cities. Tammany Hall ran New York, the Pendergast machine ran Kansas City, later on the Daley machine ran Chicago. All showed favoritism based on the corrupt political practices that solidified their hold on power. While the Progressive movement claimed to be animated by a desire to “clean up” American politics, their innovations only served a different group of interests.  The disastrous policies that led to Vietnam, as well as Watergate and Iran Contra, only seemed to harden public cynicism about politics and sap any residual trust that the successful prosecution of World War II might have yielded.

This checkered history explains much of the political outsider’s appeal. Woodrow Wilson’s career, first as New Jersey’s Governor and later as President, was based on his apparent professional skills and intellect developed outside of the tainted world of politics. (That Newark Democratic Party boss James Smith was key to Wilson’s rise is rarely mentioned.) President Eisenhower was a war hero. But the additional fact that he had never held public office must only have enhanced his attractions for voters tired of political business as usual.

While Donald Trump, Carly Fiorina, Ben Carson, Ross Perot, Ralph Nader, and Herman Cain have been presidential candidates in several different parties and have had distinct career trajectories and diverse agendas, all traded on the fact that they were not of the professional political class. They were therefore clean, they said. The implied contrast is with career politicians like Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton, who left the White House shrouded in scandals.

This raises questions: Is the problem that the people we put in are defective—or that the exercise of the office drags down the character of otherwise reasonably good people? Do we need to be governed by amateur politicians precisely because angels are unavailable, to paraphrase James Madison? Would a successful business person such as Fiorina or Trump be a better politician than someone who came up through the political ranks?

Prior to the great American experiment in self-government, average people did not face these questions. Monarchy did not allow for input from the public at large. Some monarchs were good, many were not. Some stole with impunity from the public coffers while others refrained (at least somewhat). Monarchs were not totally unconstrained; the political power of other elites, institutionalized religion, and the risk of rebellion impinged on them. They also relied on bureaucrats, who in the end retain the most sway over policymaking in all forms of government.

But as market capitalism and democracy have emerged throughout the world in the 20th and 21st centuries, we have seemed to recognize the importance of entrepreneurship and individual values in the creation of wealth and freedom. We have come to respect successful business people, even to the point of believing they might be better as political leaders in managing the economy, or at least, better than professional politicians.

Caution is in order, though. We must recognize, first, that the most consistent way to analyze politics is to notice that while individuals can make a difference at the margins, institutions and the formal political exchanges that occur are more determinative of what the political landscape of any country will look like.

An example from fiction may help. Consider the mythical Frank Underwood, Kevin Spacey’s Machiavellian creature in the Netflix show House of Cards. Spacey and the show’s writers make it seem as if Underwood’s cunning and vast experience make him a “successful” player in the game of Washington politics. He routinely outmaneuvers the “amateur,” a businessman named Raymond Tusk (played by Gerald McRaney), who angles for special treatment from the administration for his investments in China.

But are Underwood’s handy victories over a lobbyist true to life? Nobel prize-winning economist James Buchanan based his career on a novel assumption. He argued that whether people are office-holders, voters, or government bureaucrats, they all act in their self-interest just as people do when they are in markets. Voters vote in their self-interest. Politicians want to win elections. Bureaucrats try to protect their jobs and grow their agencies. Buchanan argued that even people in government who aren’t corrupt or immoral are still constrained in their ability to affect profound reform and change, both by the nature of politics, and by the rules that different political systems enforce.

So what matters is not whether the person gaining the most votes is benevolent or a heel. In order to have good government, we need to align the incentives with how people really act to get real improvements in the nature of governance, and this is true for any system, democratic or otherwise. This was, of course, the same goal James Madison had during the Philadelphia debates over the Constitution.

This brings us to a second question, do the non-professional backgrounds of Mr. Trump, Ms. Fiorina, or Dr. Carson suggest they would be more successful in enacting meaningful policy changes or pursuing and achieving profound reforms in the very nature of the American political system?

Another reason putting in a politically clean CEO is of doubtful value can be found in the work of the great moral philosopher and economist, Adam Smith. The author of The Wealth of Nations knew quite a bit about the workings of markets and exchange, but he was also observant about society and politics. In fact he was deeply concerned about government-granted privileges that came to certain commercial entities in his time (to the East India Company, for example). Like James Buchanan and Madison, he worried that business people were in a strong position to capture the power of government to serve themselves or their friends.

The current candidates are fine Smithian specimens. Mr. Trump has for decades given hundreds of thousands of dollars to candidates of both major parties in order to gain access to political decisions to aid his business. Ms. Fiorina lobbied government to help her company, Hewlett Packard. There is no reason that businesspeople or successful professionals would act remarkably differently than those who have had careers in the public sector.

A real estate developer might provide interesting insights into the empty plot of land you are staring at while you are stranded with a flat tire. But unless that person is willing to dig through your trunk, pull out the jack, and get his hands dirty, she won’t be useful in fixing your tire. That job is probably still one for the professionals.