by Jon Roland
A political or management system can be characterized by the kind of people it elevates to positions of authority. A number of terms have been proposed by cynics, such as plutocracy, rule by the rich, kleptocracy, rule by thieves, or kakistocracy, rule by the worst. But from this writer’s experience with the most influential legislators, bureaucrats, judges, and corporate executives, the finding is that what attribute is most important to the success of most of them is the ability to sell and make connections with other people. In Greek a salesman is a πωλητής, or poletes. This suggests a word, poletecracy.
In a few cases technical skills help enable someone to rise to power, but most people in high positions are not experts in anything but campaigning and dealmaking. Most are politicians (πολιτικοί) first and foremost. If they acquire any expertise, it is usually after being on a job for a while, not while they are climbing. Their personal assets are favors earned and paid, and being able to have other influential people take their phone calls.
Robert G. Kaiser, a reporter for the Washington Post, has a new book reporting the inside story of how the Dodd-Frank Act came to be. Kaiser’s “Act of Congress: How America’s Essential Institution Works, and How it Doesn’t”, uses the long battle over the act and his access to Christopher Dodd, Barney Frank, and their staffs to show how modern congressional legislating really works. He has identified three main things wrong with Congress as it presently operates, and one of the most important of these is the lack of real policy expertise on the part of members. They are only generalists, depending on the expertise of staffers, lobbyists, and agencies, and often not understanding issues well enough to know who, if anyone, the experts are. It is this dependence on the expertise of others that makes staffers, lobbyists, and agencies more powerful than they should be for Congress to operate as the Framers intended.
Because it takes more time than one term provides to learn enough about how to be effective, and to build the connections they need to get anything done, they are almost compelled to spend much or most of their working hours raising funds for re-election, to protect the investment already made in preparing to be effective, both on the part of the members and of their staffs and contacts.
The problems are more complicated and difficult for Congress and the federal government, as it is for large, multinational business organizations, than it is for local government. States and large cities fall in between. But as the systems to be managed become larger and more complicated, they also become increasingly unmanageable.
The problem was discussed in a 1970 paper by Jay Forrester, “The Counterintuitive Behavior of Social Systems“, in which the author used computer simulation models to demonstrate that most people, even experts, are not very good at predicting how any given intervention in a complex system will play out. That leads to the observation that “if a solution is simple, obvious, and appealing, it is probably wrong.” Computer models may not work, either, but without them the policy proposals most people will come up with are more likely than not to be ineffective or counterproductive.
One innovative proposal to remedy this problem is sortition, or random selection of decisionmakers, similar to the system used by the ancient Athenians. That doesn’t mean a one-step process of random drawing of names from the rolls of registered voters. The most successful system that used sortition, that of Venice from 1268 to 1797, combined random stages alternating with screening for talent and wisdom. Properly structured and conducted, it might select legislators who both have personal expertise from the day they start work, and who, because they can’t be re-elected, don’t have to spend any time or resources getting re-elected. The Greek word for such randomly selected legislators is nomothetai (νομοθέται). If a merit-weighted sortition process were extended to their staffs, and to the agencies for which they legislate, then we might expect better performance than we are currently getting.