Old, Old News

Glenn Reynolds quotes Roger Simon who notes that �People like Reid, Hastert, Pelosi are complete mediocrities� and that �something is fundamentally wrong� that such people are in the upper reaches of government. Reynolds concludes that �Politics is not attracting our best people.�

This has been an accurate complaint since immediately after the Founding generation. But, still, the whole thing worked anyway, and always has.

Lord Bryce, in his classic American Commonwealth (1888), had a famous chapter entitled Why the Best Men do not Go into Politics. Some of the details of his analysis are outdated, but the general reasoning is still sound. I cannot do justice to it, so go read it, but a very rough sketch goes as follows. The fact is that being in Congress is not a very good career. It was not then and it is not now. It is precarious, and Americans are rarely so wealthy that they can withstand having their career obliterated without suffering a great personal loss. Service in Congress removes the member from his own district where his future business contacts would have to be. It incapacitates the member for other work during and after his term of service. And there is the mundane and dreary nature of the day-to-day work of congresssmen. There is little opportunity for politicians to engage in very exciting activity, thankfully, very often, which would call for heroic or even truly creative effort. What we would call opportunity costs � the far superior chances for great material success, at lower risk, in the private economy lead to the same outcome in 2006 as they did in 1888.

Bryce expressly rules out any idea that the tough treatment politicians get is any reason why American politicians are so noticeably bad:

It may however be alleged that I have omitted one significant ground for the distaste of �the best people� for public life, viz., the bad company they would have to keep, the general vulgarity of tone in politics, the exposure to invective or ribaldry by hostile speakers and a reckless press.
I omit this ground because it seems insignificant. In every country a politician has to associate with men whom he despises and distrusts, and those whom he most despises and distrusts are sometimes those whose so-called social rank is highest�the sons or nephews of great nobles. In every country he is exposed to misrepresentation and abuse, and the most galling misrepresentations are not the coarse and incredible ones, but those which have a semblance of probability, which delicately discolour his motives and ingeniously pervert his words. A statesman must soon learn, even in decorous England or punctilious France or polished Italy, to disregard all this, and rely upon his conscience for his peace of mind, and upon his conduct for the respect of his countrymen. If he can do so in England or France or Italy, he may do so in America also.

It has always been an ugly game, in a country where the other games are more appealing, and the people who go into it are rarely going to be our �best� people by any reasonable criterion.

I strongly advise you to read the whole Bryce chapter. It is not long.

Having mediocre politicians is a consequence of our having a superb private economy. We are, actually, fortunate that we have some relatively competent and public-spirited people in public life at all.

This is not a problem with a solution, but a permanent, structural condition.

Nor is it one that needs to concern us much.

We do not rely for the success of our public institutions that they be staffed by geniuses or the shining lights of the age. To the contrary, as Walter Bagehot noted, we rely on our legislatures to act in the aggregate, to be wiser and abler collectively, or at least able to discern and respond to the public mood and public interest, than the mere sum of its parts, to capture the “wisdom of crowds”. The process seems to work. Despite all its defects, our Congress, in much this form, has legislated for the country throughout its rise from a strip along the Eastern Seaboard to global power. The system works despite the apparent, even manifest, deficiencies of its components, as it it was designed to do.

27 thoughts on “Old, Old News”

  1. Is it a bug? Or a feature? Or at least a sign that we can get by without being serious?

    Is it the mediocrity of these men & women or their near-sightedness?

    The Founders might not have been better men as much as they were serious – they knew they were building for the future. I often am filled with gratitude & wonder at those messy, imperfect & wonderful founders who really were farseeing.

    But was that because we were lucky? Because that era with its combination of Puritanism & Deism, Enlightenment & Reformation formed men & forced compromises that were wise? Because the situation called forth the heroic that might be latent in more of us? Or, if it was just, well, providential?

    I would like to think that if Hastert & Pelosi were forced to take their responsibilities seriously, they would be better. They can get by with being what they are because, well, America is big & powerful. Pelosi can take potshots at a war-time president; Hastert doesn’t need to rally the troops the way he would if we weren’t the sole superpower.

  2. Okay, but when Lord Bryce wrote in the 1880s, America’s mediocre politicians weren’t attempting to implement a complex, ambitious, and dangerous foreign policy. Chester Arthur didn’t invade Iraq.

  3. Arthur may not have invaded Iraq, but James Polk had conquered a large chunk of the continent from Mexico, and mediocre 19th century American politicians were consistently engaged in the efforts to occupy and assimilate the rest of the continent in opposition to the desires of our native friends.

    18 years later William McKinley would open up a can of whup-ass on Spain that would result in a number of long-term occupations and counter-insurgencies from the Caribbean to East Asia.

    Complex, ambitious, and dangerous foreign policies are nothing new in American history. In fact, the mediocre politicians of yore seemed downright fond of them. Still, the system somehow survived…

  4. Ginny: Feature. But they are serious. They reflect the disparate interests and concerns of hundreds of millions of citizens and reach tolerable compromises that keep the country from falling apart. This means that they have to be responsive to the demands of their constituents and paper over all kinds of differences. This calls for aptitudes which are not usually celebrated. We like people who “take a stand” and “fight for their principles”. We have no admiration for people who are malleable, even serpentine, who can be chameleons who make various inconsistent interests all only a little bit miserable, who are good at making a million little oompromises and deals to get part of what they want, all the while keeping the whole thing on the rails. The process is unheroic, reactive, unprincipled (in the strict sense). The result is political stability, a good we take too easily for granted. So they are serious. Just not serious in a way that is obvious, or even visible, or in a way that will ever excite anyone’s admiration.

    Steve, I agree with the Captain. The national government in the 19th Century had large problems to tackle and did so decently well with much smaller financial means and much less formal power. The USA in the late 19th Century was a growing power which had to accomodate its more powerful creditors without coming into conflict with them. It is never easy being a relatively weak, relatively wealthy country. The Presidents between Grant and Teddy Roosevelt got the USA out of the mess following the Civil War to the foremost economic power in the world while keeping the peace with everybody except the Indians and Spain, whom we pounced on and stripped of its assets in rather ruthless and efficient fashion. The process was working then much as it works now, pretty well.

    Captain, word.

  5. How easy and safe to sit back as a tenured law prof and badmouth the inadequacies of our political figures (esp Dems!)…challenge: if you believe you can do better,then give it a try!

    Were I bright, reasonably wealthy, fixed in a nice job or business, why would I give it up in order to run for a term and then face the prospect of being voted out of my job?

    I believe Glenn fancies himself a libertarian, that is, someone who works at a university that gets lots of federal tax money but has the leisure of being scornful of this or that party or govt in general, except to post time after time that Bush is on the right track in Iraq!

    We have had the same sort of officez holders for a heck of a long time but somehow the republic manages to survive. And better than in lots of other counries.

  6. Let me say that for the first time, I think, I agree with Mr. Zuckerman, with the caveats that (1) Glenn Reynolds was equally hard on both parties, as he has been doing a lot of lately, (2) he has been a little more balanced on Iraq than Mr. Z suggests.

    Milton Friedman once gave a talk at the U of C. Someone mentioned free speech. He laughed, pointed at himself, and said “I am a tenured professor at a private university. *I* have freedom of speech.” Exactly.

    It is relatively easy to talk, type and teach. It is harder to get elected, keep your constituents happy, and accomplish anything as one of 435 congressmen. My main point, however, is that Pelosi and Hastert, though I don’t like either of them, are not way below the historical average, and they have the unenviable job of trying to get their share of those 435 congressmen to work together from time to time, and to keep their respective contingents and parties from a trainwreck while they are at it. Not a set of tasks that calls for heroic skills, but not something just anyone can do, either. Everyone in the blogosphere is absolutely sure what these politicians should be doing, just as everyone listening to sports radio believes the manager is an imbecile and they could have done better, and many armchair strategists are sure that the military decisions that have been made in the Iraq War, or on the Western Front in World War One, were boneheaded. In each case: Maybe so, maybe not. In each case, on closer focus, questions arise: What did this person know that we do not? What weaknesses in his position were not apparent to us, but acutely known to him? What constraints did he imagine he faced, and how real were those constraints? What information is reaching him? What advice is he getting? What logrolling deal was in the works that led to this or that apparently anomalous decision?

    The older I get, the less I see idiocy and the more I see simply the limitations of people, no matter how smart or well-intentioned, and of institutions, no matter how basically sound, to cope well with the hard decisions and hard challenges the world puts up. Major offices in the military or government (to a lesser extent in law or business) grind people up because they are very demanding and a bad decision at some point is an inevitablilty.

  7. The older I get, the less I see idiocy and the more I see simply the limitations of people, no matter how smart or well-intentioned, and of institutions, no matter how basically sound, to cope well with the hard decisions and hard challenges the world puts up. Major offices in the military or government (to a lesser extent in law or business) grind people up because they are very demanding and a bad decision at some point is an inevitablilty.


  8. Complex, ambitious, and dangerous foreign policies are nothing new in American history. In fact, the mediocre politicians of yore seemed downright fond of them.

    Thanks you, Cpt. Mojo. If one would like to know about the complexities, ambitiousness, and dangers of American foreign policy through our history one need look no farther than the work of Franklin, Adams, and Jefferson during our birth. Or read any number of books such as A Wilderness So Immense or The Pirate Coast to name just two that leap to mind. Read any reasonably in-depth biography of any of the founders (or most any president for that matter) to learn about the complex, ambitious, and dangerous as well as the mediocrity that always surrounded them and sometimes befell them.

    The short list of founders we have raised to Olympus were all great men (I challenge any of us to select one of the top 6 or 8 of our founding icons who was not indespensible) but none were infallible nor were they saints. And they walked few paths strewn with rose petals and palm fronds.

    Read Frederick Jackson Turner’s collection of essays, The Frontier In American History for a taste of the shifting powers and fears and ambitions of the nation as we aged to a hundred years and a hundred million. How were we to survive the new challenges with this fragile and imperfect form of government?

    BTW, thank you, Lex. An excellent topic and a very good post. This notion that some golden past with perfect people managing our America’s Cup Sloop of State is frustrating at best and infuriatingly ignorant at worst.

  9. BTW, one of the things I love best about the Turner essays (which are, IMHO, quite good and enlightening in several ways) is the underlying gnashing of teeth about the future. Natural resources all but used up, population outstripping the food supply, capital in the hands of just a few, distances too vast and regional differences too fractious for democracy to manage…

    Well, another 100 years and another 200 million people down the road and we’re still muddling through in the face of enormous complexities, ambitions, and dangers.

  10. Hayek comments on this phenomenon – “why the worst get on top.” I believe there is an entire chapter devoted to exploring why this happens in his book Road to Serfdom

  11. Before getting too complacent, you all should take a look at the Congressional Quarterly reporter’s op-ed in the NYT today about how few of the power players in DC that he interviews know the difference between the Sunnis and Shi’ites:


    Historically, 1898 is a good example of how a few smart government employees (TR, Adm. Mahon, etc.) bullied mediocrities like McKinley into an imperialist policy of dubious long term benefit to America, a policy opposed by most of the best men of the era (Twain, Carnegie, William James, Gompers, etc.).

    America’s advantage is being a continental power surrounded by two oceans. Thus our foreign policy mistakes have been less than fatal. If America was located in the middle of Europe, an incompetent like George W. Bush could be as disastrous as, say, the Kaiser Wilhelm II’s reign in Germany.

  12. Can’t agree that McKinley was a mediocrity or that he was bullied (he knew what he was doing) or that the people who opposed him were “better” than the ones who supported the war.

    As to how dubiously it was in our long term interest, any policy is dubious at the outset since its consequences haven’t happened yet. The arguments for the war with Spain were sufficiently compelling that the war was popular. That is about all you can ask for in a democracy.

    As to how many people know what a Sunni or a Shiite I am not sure how important it really is to most people in government. I know, and I know it has no impact on anything I do. The article was written in the usual smug NYTimes fashion. I notice he did not ask any Democrats. Ha.

  13. YOU WROTE: “Having mediocre politicians is a consequence of our having a superb private economy. We are, actually, fortunate that we have some relatively competent and public-spirited people in public life at all.

    This is not a problem with a solution, but a permanent, structural condition.

    Nor is it one that needs to concern us much.”

    I agree with the conclusion but not your argument.

    I think that there are MANY fine and very intelligent people in poliitics and in high office.

    I think lieberman & feingold and kyl and cronyn, and rice & rumsfeld & wolfowitz and brzeshinski [SIC?] & vance & harold bown were ALL extremely intelligent. and all had very different ideologies an d successes. [ASIDE:i am a dem hawk who supports bush & co, and is ASHAMED of the dems/doves i have listed, and whom I praise as intelliegnt.]

    by definition – or by “bell curve” – the MOST intelligent people are always the most rare, and they are just not going to dominate any field in which a variety of skills – and being well-rounded – is necessary.

    in fields which demand intelligence and no “people skills”, very intelligent and specialized nerds will dominate.

    our REPRESENTATIVES should be REPRESENTATIVE and not an elite, and they should have well-rounded lives which keep them in touch with the electorate, in literal and figurative terms.

    that the 600 prominent politicians – both elected and confirmed for high office – are represntative of American “humanity”, such as it is, (and therfore contian creeps, pedophiles crooks, liars, and dupes) should come as no surprise and as no indiocator of anyithing except that our democracy works, and its checks and balances work, too.

    and – as you note – collectively we benefit from the wisdom of crowds, so-to-speak.

    the key to our success is two-fold: the check and balance between the branches and the the states and the federal governments – IOW: power is checked and divided.

  14. If we need only the herd like concensus out of Congress wouldn’t we be more likely to get it, if we were to expand the membership base? How about 3 senators from each state, and a maximum district population of 100,000 for the house. The House would be about 3000. If we term limted them, they would remain quite anonymous.

  15. Lord Bryce was just restarting “Government of the Democracy in America” by Alexis de Tocqueville from 50 years earlier. De Tocqueville said:
    The consequence is that in tranquil times public functions offer but few lures to ambition. In the United States those who engage in the perplexities of political life are persons of very moderate pretensions. The pursuit of wealth generally diverts men of great talents and strong passions from the pursuit of power; and it frequently happens that a man does not undertake to direct the fortunes of the state until he has shown himself incompetent to conduct his own. Government of the Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville.

  16. A mediocrity might be able to do one or two things reasonably well, not outstanding but ok. It is when you load task upon responsibility, upon duty that mediocrities make their most spectacular failures. The talented can scale much better than the mediocrities and thus, the same level of political (in)competence leads to different results when you have a small government as in the 19th century or a big government as it is today.

  17. No, Gary. He was describing conditions as they were two generations later. Of course he knew Tocqueville. Everybody did in his day as we all do now in 2006. His observations were similar, because the conditions were similar. Much as they are now. Bryce’s book is much more on the mechanics of government than Tocqueville’s book. Really a very different book, not quite as good as Tocqueville, but the parts I have read are very good nonetheless.

    Robert, I could speculate about a 30,000 person legislature, which might get us microdistricts more like what we had at the time of the founding. The bottom line is we’d have to amend the Constitution to do anything like what you are proposing and that is not going to happen because no one has an interest in making such a change and lots of people have an interest in keeping things as they are.

  18. “…a small government as in the 19th century or a big government as it is today.”

    I don’t think the quality of governance was a lot better back then than it is now. Probably a little worse in Bryce’s time, at least as far as baldfaced corruption goes.

    I don’t think it is a question of scale.

    The same basic dynamic is in place. As Bagehot said in the piece I linked to, a legislature is much more than the sum of its parts due to the collective decision making process. That is the genius of a representative legislature, and the reason it can withstand a fair amount of mediocrity, or apparent mediocrity, in its leading people.

    Speaking of Bagehot, he has a good discussion comparing the House of Representatives to the House of Commons. He thinks the average members are about the same, but the best rise to the top and are repeatedly trained and tested by the type of debate that is conducted in the Commmons, hence leading to superior leadership in their system. Giving due allowance for Bagehot’s pro-British bias, I think that anyone who watches the Prime Ministers questions on C-Span can agree that he was and is onto something.

  19. I think what it all boils down to is that we’d be smart not to give the government any more power than we have to.

  20. Thank you, Lex. I tried to make this point to Reynolds re the Bush Administration and GOP led Congress, but did not do half so well.

  21. Steve Sailor, the Panama Canal was “of dubious long term benefit to America?” Because we wouldn’t have that canal if the anti-imperialists of their day had held sway.

  22. If anyone has a grasp of military operations and history, one should correctly be awed by the performance of the American military today. Regardless of the uninformed hysterics of the MSM and the anti-American left, the efficiencies and effectiveness being displayed are unmatched in history or for that matter by any other contemporary institution on the planet today. You want to know where a lot of capable, dedicated, motivated, selfless public servants live, they are before your eyes. Notice who stood out as the rock during the Katrina disaster? It wasnt the politicians, it was Lt. Gen. Russel Honore.

    Its good we have such people willing to serve. It is bad for the health of the republic when the one public institution which displays leadership, integrity, competence and high public confidence is your military. Not that it shouldnt, but that in contrast to the main organs of government, it becomes a dangerous temptation after way too much self serving, dirty, petty, power hungry displays by those who parade and maneuver to control our other governmental institutions.

  23. Don, the siuation you describe is exactly the same sit has always been. The Reynolds post suggested things were worse now. I do noit think they are. Look at Washington’s dealings with the Continental Congress. Same thing yiu describe. Like I said, it’s structural.

  24. “The older I get, the less I see idiocy and the more I see simply the limitations of people, no matter how smart or well-intentioned, and of institutions, no matter how basically sound, to cope well with the hard decisions and hard challenges the world puts up. Major offices in the military or government (to a lesser extent in law or business) grind people up because they are very demanding and a bad decision at some point is an inevitablilty.”

    All my years in the military, the legal profession (government and private) and now in big business, leave me able to say only one thing in response…. amen!

  25. I don’t know if this thread has gone cold but I thought I’d mention something I believe made the “corruption” and “mediocrity” of governments past somewhat different and, perhaps, less detrimental.

    It seems to me that it would be nearly indisputable that we’ve never had particularly capable and/or honest people running out governments. As someone above pointed out, the far end of bell curves tends to be sparsely populated with people who have no shortage of options.

    What may have been significantly different (I’ve never seen any sort of study or documentation of this) was the practice of patronage and nepotism. If the post office or the road crews or the trash collection didn’t work there was no question where the blame lay and replacing the padrone effectively replaced the next several layers.

    Now we have career bureaucrats who are, to a large extent, untouchable. How far down do changes reach when we get a new POTUS or mayor, for example. Throwing the bums out has only limited effect on the machine.

  26. Lex – When welfare reform came, 50% of NY City’s caseload disappeared, either because they were people who did not truly exist, or were people who already had jobs while claiming to be out of work and thus couldn’t show up. When did that level of welfare scamming happen in the 19th century?

    The increase of government services has not been matched by increases in oversight powers. We’re just barely starting to put information age tools to the task of keeping an eye on the rascals in Congress. That growing gap causes problems.

  27. TML, take a closer look at the patronage armies that formed in the 19th Century and early 20th Century. The big city machines had lots and lots of people on the public payroll who did not do much. Scamming of one kind or another goes on all the time. In fact, Bryce’s book talks about the patronage practices of the time. Hell, the practically the entire Federal workforce turned over every time there was a change of administration. Why was Jim Farley, FDR’s political boss, somewhat akin to Carl Rove, made the Postmaster General? Because the post office was the Presidents own personal patronage feed bag for his supporters.

    This kind of thing has always gone on wherever this is a government that can raise any revenue.

Comments are closed.