In Praise of Professional Politicians

One of the Tea Party articles of faith holds that all politicians, but at least legislators, should hold their positions only as part time jobs, meet as few times as possible, and otherwise live normal lives, and hold normal jobs, so they understand the pressures of ordinary Americans and avoid falling prey to “Washington” sensibilities. But even though the idea’s gained some traction in California and elsewhere, it’s a theory endorsed by precisely zero good-government groups, and opposed by sensible libertarians. Why?

The notion of the legislator as a small-scale Cincinnatus, taking up the reins of power as needed but retiring thereafter to his farm, is an ideal realized by Texas, where it’s ingrained in the constitution, but approximated by many other states. (Only ten states have true, full-time legislatures, though at least in New York, the most effective legislators treat their positions as full-time.) And especially in Texas, it’s proved an unmitigated disaster. Ordinary men and women simply cannot be expected to both manage independent lives, and keep up with the realities of governing large-scale polities in the increasingly complex modern era.

Just so, it’s impractical to expect the legislator’s function to be discharged competently by laymen. That’s the theory of a recent lawsuit against the state of Colorado’s process of budgeting-by-referendum, where, plaintiffs contend, taxpayers seem unwilling to either vote the legislature the money it needs to do its job, or allow cutbacks on state obligations (like the PTA in that Simpsons episode). To no-one’s surprise, the motivating goal of modern Republicanism — to “starve the beast” — just doesn’t work, at least in Colorado.

These distinct problems are bound together by a common solution: better ethics rules, and renewed respect for the work of diligent, professional, educated politicians. Government corruption, and the disproportionate influence of lobbyists, are both true threats to American democracy. But ending the profession of civil service, or trading representative for direct government, are both extreme overreactions, akin to killing a patient to cure their cancer. I’ve had the pleasure to work for several politicians who modeled the values of true civil service, working twenty hour days, eschewing high-dollar contributions, and rigorously enforcing a true separation between the work of government and the work of politics. We need to encourage these kinds of servants, and put them in positions of power where they can make a difference, rather than relegating them to the role of the insurgent reformer.

That process starts with reversing Citizens United‘s narrow view of corruption — where only payments directly to the politician, rather than through intermediaries, evidence regulable misconduct — continues with genuine ethics reform, and ends with an electorate that recognizes and values talent in its elected officials, rather than condemning it as “elitism.”

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One comment

  1. I agree, but I do want my politicians to be professionals in something more than just politicking. It partly comes down to what the professional qualifications for politician ideally are. One must truly understand how government and the rule of law work, of course, and be skilled in balancing constituents v the country, majority v minority, and citizens’ wants v needs. But I also think some elements of technocracy are desirable; politicians should bring diverse skill sets to government, and their expertise should be acknowledged accordingly. As with teaching, there is skill in being a politician that is separate from the subject matter, but subject matter knowledge is desirable as I believe there is little value in a teacher who knows only pedagogy.

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