Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Elections as hiring decisions

People tend to think of elections for high office as sui generis rather than as what they are: hiring decisions, for a particularly onerous but important job.

Once we see elections for high office as hiring decisions, some things become a bit puzzling.

  1. It is often seen as important that a candidate for high office have a strong and sincere personal commitment to a platform. But why? Suppose I hire a lawyer to represent my interests. It might be nice if the lawyer had a strong and sincere personal commitment to the things I want the lawyer to represent me in respect of, but it is not at all necessary. What is needed is that the lawyer further my interests, and do so along rough lines that I may sketch, in a professional and effective way. The lawyer does not need to think that it would be better for the world if I get what I want—she may simply think that it is good to have in place a legal system where almost everyone gets able legal representation for the furtherance of their interests, and that what I want isn’t so bad as to make it immoral for her to represent me. One can even imagine a lawyer who specializes in representing a particular kind of interest without actually sharing that interest, but holding that nonetheless it is important that an interest of that sort should be represented.

  2. There is an interest in the personal life of candidates that would be seen as creepy and likely illegal in most other hiring decisions.

Of course, these kinds of things might be appropriate in light of the specific features of high political office. But they shouldn’t be taken for granted.

2 comments:

SMatthewStolte said...

You do require that a lawyer have a sincere commitment to furthering your interests, even if it isn’t a commitment to believing that your interests are more important than other interests. We find something similar when we support a politician that has a commitment to the division of powers, just because that commitment means that our policy preferences are more likely to win out.

But in any hiring decision, we ought to care about the reason that the hired person has for promoting your interests. Imagine that, when your lawyer attempted to explain why she would defend you in a criminal case, she parroted off a reason that she hardly seemed to understand, as if it were a matter of filling out the right bubble in a multiple choice exam. Or suppose she said that she didn’t very much care about maintaining the criminal justice system but she was worried about her reputation, and she thought that the best way to maintain that was to win your case. (In the latter case, you might still hire this lawyer, but only if you thought her concern for her own reputation was going to be a consistent incentive working in your favor.)

Is it really different for voters and politicians? I imagine that a man who cared only about enriching himself would be happy to vote for a politician that could effectively make him richer, even if the politician did so on a sincere belief that the policies would benefit everyone.

If politicians have different reasons for supporting X than we do, they’re liable to disagree with us about a lot of other things not currently under consideration. People who hold high offices will make a lot of decisions that most of us never hear about, even though we would be liable to care about them if we had time to pay attention. This is also true of many other kinds of employees. Stevenson took two weeks to complete the project he was assigned. Was it done in an efficient manner? We are better off if we can trust that Stevenson had a strong and sincerely held commitment to doing his job well, even when he isn’t being watched, and this means his reasons for this commitment have to be intelligible to us.

• The interest we take in the personal lives of politicians is creepy, and it ought to be seen as such. (Though making it illegal would cause problems of its own.)

Mr. Green said...

SMatthewStolte: If politicians have different reasons for supporting X than we do, they’re liable to disagree with us about a lot of other things not currently under consideration.

This is a good point. Politicians are supposed to represent our views, even when we don't necessarily know in advance what those views will be. A lawyer presumably has a fairly well-defined and narrow goal in representing your interests in a specific case; we want the politician to share some underlying worldview, so we can rely on him to represent what our interests would be in particular cases that arise.

Dr. Pruss: There is an interest in the personal life of candidates that would be seen as creepy and likely illegal in most other hiring decisions.

The tabloid-journalism aspect is creepy, but wanting to know about somebody's character is reasonable. It is possible to abuse that, of course, which is why we have laws about it; but there is no small amount of political correctness at play. Not so long ago, it was common to expect someone's personal character to be taken into account, especially the more responsible his position. (Whether political correctness in the opposite direction is a reasonable trade-off for pragmatic reasons is another question.)