Sunday, January 30, 2011

Anonymous Politicians

Don Boudreaux has an entertaining and interesting thought experiment about politics. Here's his conclusion:

My proposal, if adopted, would screen for truly public-spirited people to serve in elected office. When, say, 8ANJf9, proclaims his or her (we’ll not know the person’s sex) devotion to the greater good and the public weal, that proclamation will be believable.

Of course, adoption of my proposal is not without its downsides – but yet another hallmark of the economic way of thinking is to recognize the ubiquity of trade-offs.

All the tawdry ‘glory’ of elected office will be stripped away, so that such offices are no longer sought by fame-seeking megalomaniacs.

What is most interesting about his "proposal" of an alternative system of politics is subtle. It is an absurd proposal to make politics anonymous -- too absurd for most to take seriously -- but if we take the idea to its extreme, the thought experiment demonstrates how important fame, ego and establishing a legacy are to politicians as we know them.

On reading the post, I got to thinking about the role that ego and glory in politics plays if politicians care about leaving a legacy. From this perspective, ego can have an important positive role in political incentives. A politician concerned about how he'll be remembered wants to be remembered for doing good. On the flip side, enacting a lot of long-lasting bad policy has a larger cost to the politician if he cares about legacy. Both of these effects of ego-via-legacy will tend to push a politician toward better policy.

This is to say that assigning names to politicians' actions might be a good thing to the extent that good policy improves the politician's legacy (and it is even better if the politician cares a lot about that legacy). Of course, all this assumes that we eventually find out what policies the politician is responsible for enacting (and what are their effects). Politicians who can anonymously enact some policies, yet lay claim to others for legacy's sake, aren't ideal either.

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