Arnold Kling  

Lawyers in Government

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'Cactus' of Angry Bear writes,


Why is it OK to have an attorney making decisions about nuclear power, or how to combat mad cow disease or scrapie, or whatever else, regardless of the attorney’s level of ignorance on the subject at hand, but not OK to have, say a physicist with no legal training on the Supreme Court or a biologist with no legal training as Attorney General?

Here is a question with an obvious answer. Why does this rant apply to government, and not to the private sector?


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CATEGORIES: Political Economy



COMMENTS (11 to date)

Government is itself a legal field.

Consider a highly technical question, such as stem cell research. It could be argued that decisions about stem cell research should be made by a cellular biologist.

But a cellular biologist does not and indeed cannot take into account what impact those decisions will make in the larger scheme of things. Technical specialists are by nature myopic and self-serving, not because they are flawed or inferior, but because these qualities are not flaws in a specialised technical discipline.

Currently, law is the only field in which we consistently and deliberately train people to consider the full history of a scenario and the full future ramifications of that scenario before making a decision.

Economics trains people in similar skills, but in a much smaller subset of those skills which produces decisions as a matter of inevitability... from which one can conclude that one should also find economists to be over-represented in government. Maybe I'll check on that later.

Which is why some 90% of the blogs I read are written by lawyers and economists: nobody else gets the big picture.

John writes:

Based on the above response, it seems that attorneys read the posts here...

Of course, this is a great question. There are any number of "educated professionals" who would make better policy decisions in their area of expertise than the "lawyer class". The lack of "common sense" in many legal ruling is "proof" that attorneys are no better at making decisions. For example, look at the large number of stupid legal decisions (i.e. spill coffee, sue, win millions...).

nelziq writes:

It is okay for lawyers to make decisions about microbiology not because they know about microbiology but because they know about making decisions. Whatever political skills they had that enabled them to gain office are the same type of skills that allow them to perform the political calculus to balance competing interests. The politicians job is not to make the right decisions but to gain and hold office. Most of them are good at that job, considering how often incumbants are reelected.

John, you're forgetting something.

The lawyer does not choose his decision. His CLIENT chooses the decision, and the lawyer must do whatever the law allows to lead a judge to agree. The judge, in turn, is required to do what the law says.

What is *right* doesn't come into it. The skill in question is the ability to trace a proposed state of affairs both to its probable origins and to its likely conclusions. That skill makes one better able to discern the hidden factors in a decision.

It does not make you more likely to steer those factors in the direction that people would consider "right", but neither does anything else.

Dr. T writes:

The previous commenters need to read Angry Bear's entire post. He was not referring to lawyers representing clients, he was referring to lawyers becoming Secretary of Defense or Secretary of Energy or other important government positions that in the private sector usually would be held by an expert in the field, not by a corporate lawyer. He also referred to lawyer-judges who made decisions on complex scientific or technical issues while having no expertise at all.

Much of this nonsense can be traced back to the 1960s and Robert Macnamara. Macnamara, former head of Ford who later became Kennedy's Secretary of Defense, promulgated the belief that a good CEO could run any company or government agency. This later got transformed into a belief that a good lawyer-bureaucrat could run any government agency. This leads to such absurdities as having the Veteran's Health Administration run by a non-veteran with no health care background or an federal investigative agency being headed by someone with no law enforcement, investigative, or criminal justice experience.

Dr. T, you're taking my second post out of context. My *first* addresses the point that a lawyer can often run a government agency better than a subject matter expert, because he has skills the SME doesn't. The second addresses the point that lawyers champion stupid ideas in court, which is not really the lawyer's decision.

The point here is not so much to have someone in charge who can answer the tough questions, but to have someone who knows what the REAL questions are.

John writes:

I second Dr. T's post.

My previous comments are not leveled at lawyers representing their clients. My point is that the legal system (designed by lawyers!) allows for obviously stupid lawsuits, outcomes, etc. The same lack of common sense leads to policy and leadership failures.

To somehow say that attorneys are better trained to make "decisions", etc. is an insult to other educated professionals. Cellular biologists are just as capable of understanding the full impact of a decision about stem cell research as lawyers. (probably better...) They are no more myopic than attorneys (or other professionals).

It is the lack of concern about "right and wrong" that leads me to believe that lawyers are not the best individuals to be in leadership or decision making positions. This may be a good belief system for representing clients, but it is not a good system for policy formation. Policy should be about doing what is *right*, by people who understand the issues.

Science is not immune to stupid decisions. No lawyer ever blamed global warming on cow farts.

And I am not saying that a lawyer is better trained to make decisions, PERIOD. I am saying that a lawyer is better trained to make decisions which rest on thousands of prior decisions and will be used over time to support thousands more.

This is what every legal decision is at its core. It is *not* the situation faced in any other discipline.

One might also ask, exactly how many classes in ethics did we require that biologist to take? State bar associations generally require several hours of annual training in legal ethics to remain licensed.

Absent significantly abnormal factors, between a scientist and a lawyer of identical professional experience, the lawyer has had far more training in ethics than the scientist - who in many cases has NO formal ethical training - and in government, an understanding of science is not terribly useful. An understanding of ethics, however, is critical.

dearieme writes:

"but not OK to have, say a physicist with no legal training on the Supreme Court or a biologist with no legal training as Attorney General?" I'd make a distinction here. When the Supreme Court is opining on the Constution, it would be better to have non-lawyers opining - the whole point of a constitution is surely that it should be comprehensible by everyman. For technical legal stuff, I'd prefer lawyers. There is also a second order effect: I'd prefer not to have a physicist on Scotus: they notoriously tend to be arrogant; but a biologist, engineer, chemist, accountant..., sure.

dearieme makes an interesting point that we've not really opened on this issue: the placement of a lawyer or scientist in a position does not preclude the consultation of other professionals. I'd argue that the lawyer is more likely to consult a scientist about the technical matters, whereas the scientist will often not be aware that there are legal matters on which he should be consulting a lawyer.

It's easy to see that you don't understand the science behind stem cells, but it's a lot more difficult to notice that you don't understand how a position on stem cell research might cascade into other decisions.

TGGP writes:

If a person hasn't studied physics, they will make faulty predictions on matters of physics and be screened out from top-notch physics jobs. If a lawyer does not study ethics, what screens them out? Or are we just supposed to trust that all people who have gone through the mandatory ethics training are now ethical?

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