can shape the fortunes of countries. Presidents, in particular, set the tone:
balancing many stakeholder interests, their job is to create a unifying vision
that should guide policymaking. Members of parliament act upon this vision,
designing and implementing policies that affect the lives of millions of
people. One would imagine, then, that those with the best aptitude for leadership
That is the
theory. But in practice politics is a messy business. For many reasons, it is
often not the smartest candidate who gets elected, or the most effective member
who gets selected for higher honours.
economic models even explain why it is not the most capable that move up:
Someone without a proper education (but a charismatic personality) has a much
higher chance to see greater returns in politics than in the private sector.
(In technical terms, lower opportunity costs give the less able a comparative
advantage at entering public life.)
selection effects are compounded by the free-rider problem in politics, where
work effort is not directly correlated to political outcomes. In other words,
according to this model, it is society’s “chancers” who are more likely to end
up in politics – and the hard-working, smart ones will tend to end up in the
in public office is, of course, not the only goal of a parliamentary system.
Representation – having politicians that reflect the demographic and geographic
make-up of society at large – is also a key concern. But competency and
representation, at least theoretically, do not always correlate.
following example: a proportional representation system, like we have in South
Africa, would require members of all districts to be represented. But what if
one region – let’s call it Farmville – has few university-trained citizens,
whereas another region – Science City – has many citizens with university
degrees? A proportional representation system will necessitate some Farmville
politicians also be elected to parliament, even though the Science City
politicians will probably be best qualified for the job. In contrast, in a
plurality rule system – where the candidate with the most votes gets the job –
competency often trumps representation.
National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) working paper – Who Becomes a
Politician? – by five Swedish social scientists, casts doubt on this trade-off.
Using an extraordinarily rich dataset on the social background and competence
levels of Swedish politicians and the general public, they show that an
“inclusive meritocracy” is an achievable goal, i.e. a society where competency
and representation correlate in public office.
that Swedish politicians are, on average, significantly smarter and better
leaders than the population they represent. This, they find, is not because
Swedish politicians are only drawn from the elite of society; in fact, the
representation of politicians in Swedish municipalities, as measured by
parental income or occupational class, is remarkably even. They conclude that
there is at best a weak trade-off between competency and representation, mostly
because there is “strong positive selection of politicians of low (parental)
results are valid for Sweden, of course, which is a country unlike South
Africa. Yet there are lessons that we can learn. First, what seems to matter is
a combination of “well-paid full-time positions and a strong intrinsic
motivation to serve in uncompensated ones”. In other words, a political party
in SA that rewards hard work for those who serve in uncompensated positions is
likely to see the best leaders rise to the top, where they should be rewarded
with market-related salaries. Second, an electoral system which allows parties
to “represent various segments of society”. Political competition is good.
Third, the “availability of talent across social classes”. This, they argue, is
perhaps unique to Sweden, known for its universal high-quality education.
reminded me of our State of the Nation red carpet event, where the cameras
fixated on the gowns and glamour of SA’s political elite. How do the levels of
competency in our Parliament, I wondered, compare to Sweden and other
look at the top of the pyramid. The president of Brazil, Michel Temer,
completed a doctorate in public law in 1974. He has published four major books
in constitutional law. The Chinese president, Xi Jinping, also has a PhD in
law, although his initial field of study was chemical engineering. Narendra
Modi, Prime Minister of India, has a master’s degree in political science.
Former US President Barack Obama graduated magna cum laude with a doctor of
jurisprudence degree from Harvard University. Angela Merkel, Chancellor of
Germany, has a PhD in quantum chemistry. Most of these widely respected leaders
gave up a top job in the private sector or academe to pursue a political career.
messy, but given the right conditions, it can still attract high-quality
leaders. For that to happen, though, aspiring politicians must put in the hard
yards, even if initially uncompensated, supported by a competitive political
party system and broad access to quality education. SA, unfortunately, is still
a long way from meeting these criteria.
Johan Fourie is associate professor in economics at Stellenbosch University.
This article originally appeared in the 9
March edition of finweek. Buy
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