Arnold Kling  

Status, Greed, and Power

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Matt Yglesias wonders why politicians are not more strongly motivated by higher ideals.


Selling the public good down the river to bolster your re-election chances isn't like stealing a loaf of bread to feed your starving children. The welfare rolls are hardly stocked with the names of former members of congress. Indeed, it's not even clear that voting "the wrong way" poses particularly serious threats to one's re-election. But even if it did, one might assume that people who bother to dedicating their lives to securing vast political power did so because they actually wanted to accomplish something and get in the history books, perhaps, as one of the big heroes of their era.

Tyler Cowen comments,

Many people -- especially those who become politicians -- really do want fame and power and it is amazing what they will talk themselves into to get there and to stay there. They don't even want fame in the sense of being recognized, in the longer run, for having done the right thing. They want more personal influence and power now.

I would add that I would explain excessive risk-taking and high pay for CEO's on similar lines. Just substitute "CEO's" for "politicians" in Tyler's paragraph.

Both the corporate world and the political world are high-stakes status games, and we would expect the successful players to be the ones that are most highly skilled and motivated to play. As far as motivation is concerned, I think that the extremes tend to be in the male gender. The desire to dominate, to be the alpha male, has to be very powerful if you are going to get to the top in business or politics, because those are very popular status games. If you are willing to play a different status game--trying to be the best tiddly-winks player in your area or the leading expert on tribal customs on Bora-Bora--you don't have to be quite so driven and ruthless about it.

One of the points that I make in my forthcoming Unchecked and Unbalanced is that the growth in concentrated political power in this country leads to a system that selects for leaders with exaggerated senses of self-importance and a remarkable lack of perspective on their own foibles (think of Elliot Spitzer or Mark Sanford or John Edwards). One of the problems with large-scale politics and large-scale capitalism is that there is this tendency to select the most overconfident, driven, and aggressive men for leadership positions.



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The author at The Volokh Conspiracy in a related article titled Why Most Politicians Put Self-Interest Ahead of the Public Good : writes:

    Prominent Blogger Matthew Yglesias recently expressed surprise that most politicians are willing to sacrifice the public good in order to ...

    [Tracked on August 24, 2009 11:19 AM]
COMMENTS (7 to date)
Dave writes:

Good post. Exactly the reason I believe the salaries for representatives should be much lower.

Paul Zrimsek writes:

Favorite line from Yglesias: "My personal feeling, the longer I spend in DC and working in the political domain, is that I get better and better at understanding other people’s ideologies." His spiritual forebears of two centuries ago had similarly complacent views regarding the natives.

John Cisternino writes:

I'm sympathetic to the distrust of aggregated power you point to in this post. And the connection between CEOs and politicians seems very apt - both private and public concentrations of power are dangerous to liberty. So it's important to discover ways of enabling the people to make policy in ways that keep power well distributed, and that let those who aren't driven primarily by greed to have a voice.

This chapter by Yochai Benkler from the recent publication "New Perspectives on Regulation" has some interesting and provocative ideas on these issues: http://www.tobinproject.org/twobooks/pdf/New_Perspectives_Ch3_Benkler.pdf

E. Barandiaran writes:

Arnold,
I'm not sure your argument in the last two paragraphs is consistent with your argument on your post about "Elite self-perpetuation". Also, I'm not sure to understand what you mean by large-scale politics and large-scale capitalism in the last sentence because I've seen that tendency in many contexts that hardly qualify as "large". I'd appreciate it if you can elaborate further these two points.

Cliff Styles writes:

I think the the more state power over the economy, then the more dominant become the types that Yglesias frets over. Yet Yglesias and others like him work energetically and tirelessly to expand the domain of those very people. The truth is closer to this: the ground that grows morally cretinous power aggrandizers is plowed and fertilized by the likes of Yglesias.

VangelV writes:

The commentary makes a great deal of sense because people cannot help being human beings. The fact that Matt Yglesias expects something else shows that he does not understand reality very well.

George writes:

Stanford's Robert Sapolsky documented a case where a troop of baboons came across a human dump, and the alpha males hogged all the food. Unfortunately for them, it was contaminated, and killed them all. The social dynamics of the troop changed markedly, and permanently: nobody put up with alpha-male crap anymore, and males who joined the troop were socialized not to act like alpha males.

I'm not advocating a huge banquet for CEOs and Congressmen at which the meat (or maybe the booze) is poisoned, but it's a thought.

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