Sunday, June 21, 2020

In defence of (good) politicians

Foxes know many little things and hedgehogs know one big thing. Hedgehogs are more famous but foxes are more effective at making predictions and solving complex problems. Politicians, in general, are the ultimate foxes.
Their task is covered by a very incomplete contract. The objective is not very well defined, the effort is multidimesnional, and there are quality issues that are very difficult to measure. Their intrinsic motivation is key when explicit incentives play basically no role beyond (perhaps and not in all cases) reelection.
As I have spent most of my young and adult life between politics and academia (although being a professional politician only for 4 years between 1991 and 1995), I have learned that politics is a difficult and badly paid job.
Some academics and business people become very bad politicians, and very few of those who try become good ones. But politicians are absolutely necessary given the well-known limits of voter and expert wisdom. Of course, politicians need controls, checks and balances, and scrutiny, but the provision of high quality politicians is a public good that has no substitute.
I should probably write a companion post "in defence of academics", but these are very good at defending and promoting themselves (especially economists).
Of course, as we can see these days very well, especially watching what happens in the US, there is a big difference between good and bad politicians. What a difference it makes to have one president or another. But the president that today is embarrassing many Americans promoted himself on the basis of not being a traditional politician, but an outsider. Hopefully next time voters will think twice before believing that outsiders can do a better job than traditional politicians with judgment, patience and personality.
Politics is tough, and if we keep conveying the idea that politics is hopeless, talented kids will not want to run for office and one day become politicians, as they should.
A good politician is not an academic with a good PhD becoming a politician. It is very easy to give examples, throughout history until today, of politicians that are very qualified academics but that embrace fanatic movements or worse. When I was doing my PhD in Florence, in my second or third year I gave a seminar paper and was assigned as a discussant another student that gave the most masochistic of discussions. He was a very brilliant student. Today he seems (as I have been told and after doing some Internet research) to be as masochistic and as brilliant, and has become famous being a controversial parlamentarian in one of the so-called "frugal" European countries, earning his "reputation" among other things by leading the campaign against the perception of European funds by the countries that have been worst hit by the Covid-19 pandemic.
Imperfect knowledge and radical uncertainty (likelihoods unknown, outcomes difficult to define) are pervasive in political life. Those that keep calm and wise in these circumstances are good politicians.

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