Alberto Mingardi  

Citizen statesmen no more

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I watched the Republican debate and followed it on Twitter, as I'm sure many of you did. As somebody who cannot possibly vote in this race, I found it in many ways surprising. Particularly given the fact the debate was hosted by CNN, I was surprised by the extent to which a demand for toughness dominated the debate. David Henderson pointed that out in a tweet. From time to time, it seemed that the mood was "You're a great leader if you're willing to kill hundreds of innocent children".

I thought, instinctively, that a campaign which still sees Donald Trump as its (pardon the pun) towering figure, should see interviewers, and particularly interviewers from the left-side of the political spectrum, voicing a demand for competence. Well, that didn't happen and this is certainly revealing of what seem to be the priorities of the American electorate.

I was also quite struck by a comment from Ben Carson, which I only now realise was one of the recurring themes of his campaign. Carson said that "our government was set up for citizen statesmen, not for career politicians." I think he nailed a very important fact.

Representative institutions were conceived for much smaller government. Political dilettantes, that is: people that had another career and, yes, cared for the res publica at the same time, were supposed to be elected by reasonably informed voters. Now we know that it is not case - and I don't need to remind you of the excellent works by Bryan Caplan and Ilya Somin.

The fact that today's government enjoys such a vast scope is one of the reasons why bureaucratic apparatuses appear to be always growing. Bureaucratic technocracy is supposed to compensate for the inevitable lack of knowledge of both the elected and the electors. But that creates the impression that the citizen statesman is, at best, the puppet statesman of stronger forces.

Should career politicians be better equipped to balance the power of the bureaucracy? Well, there aren't many examples of this actually happening, are there?
Government is like the biggest business in town, with the governance procedures of a country club. That seems to be a call for disfunctionality. Perhaps in the next few years we will see a growing divide between those that want government to be a well-functioning country club, with a budget of the size of a country club's; and those who want "professionals" to be in charge. It seems to me "professionals" naturally push to increase the importance of their operations.


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nl7 writes:

The first 8 US presidents had extensive public careers prior to being elected, and 5 of them served as Secretary of State first. The first 5 all served in the Continental Congress, before the American Revolution ended. The first president was commander in chief prosecuting the revolution, and the second and third presidents were on the 3-man committee that authored the declaration that announced the revolution.

These men were citizens and not aristocrats or monarchs. But they were also drawn from the economic, social and political elite of the day. They were the premier politicians of their time. Citizen statesmen were not unknown novices. Carson is pretending that citizen means neophyte, rather than non-aristocrat.

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