Political Leadership Disproved

Why we cannot judge politicians based on the quality of their policy choices

Do you agree that the most important task of politics is to

put the best people in place to make the best decisions for all of us?

If you do, you’re likely in the overwhelming majority.

At first glance, it’s easy to overlook the fact that this idea is in sharp contrast with democratic representation where the job of politicians is to make policy according to what we, the people, want.

In a Trustee system, once in power, leaders make policy they think is best even if it goes against the public will. Your policy views don’t matter and your only job is to select policymakers or vote them out of office if they underperform.

In this article I’ll investigate if this is, in fact, possible.

Can we, constituents, tell whether our leaders have been making the best policy choices?

Can we elect the leaders (red boat) that will steer us in the right direction? Photo by Miguel Á. Padriñán from Pexels

To answer this crucially important question for this system of democracy, we need a way to identify the ‘best policy choices’. Let’s start with a seemingly simple and non-controversial definition: best policy is what benefits most people the most.

Cui bono? — Impact is a tricky beast

Sounds good, right? But let’s investigate this goal a little more closely using abortion, the only issue for which we have our tools ready.

In the series were I developed these tools I dedicated two articles to the people affected by abortion, starting with the child and the mother and ending with no fewer than six other groups. This leads directly to the first of my three major points regarding impact.

1. Every policy has an impact on many groups of stakeholders.

Moreover, this group inevitably includes every member of the community. For abortion specifically, we saw three ways it may affect you along with every member of your state or country: the relationship between abortion and crime; the policy’s economic impact; and population dynamics.

2. Interests are complicated and hard to judge.

I know it’s an old reference but I’m not aware of a plainer representation of conflicting interests than The Distinguished Gentleman’s most memorable scene.

"Where are you on sugar price supports?"
"Where should I be, Tommy?"
"Shit -- makes no difference to me. If you're for 'em, I got money for you from my sugar producers in Louisiana and Hawaii. If you're against 'em, I got money for you from the candy manufacturers."
(...)
"How about putting limits on malpractice awards?"
"You tell me."
"Well, if you’re for ’em, I got money from the doctors and insurance companies. If you’re against ’em, I got money from the trial lawyers."

There’s certainly some lasting truth to these words, at least as long as financial interests are concerned. In abortion’s case, one such natural conflict is between abortion clinics (including those run by Planned Parenthood) and contraception manufacturers.

When we take all stakeholders into account, however, the picture becomes a lot more complicated. As I showed in this article, it’s already hard to disentangle what really is in the mother’s and the child’s best interests. Despite the apparent conflict espoused among others by Justice Byron White, one of the two dissenters in Roe v. Wade, in most cases their interests actually align.

Add to that all the other stakeholders and you can see the problem. When we carefully study what’s in whose best interest, we find a complex web of interactions instead of clear lines.

3. Impact depends on circumstances and solutions.

Policy is not one thing. It’s a package of solutions that regulate different circumstances. Consequently, its impact on various people depends heavily on these solutions and circumstances.

Take the hypothetical example of Sally. She’s 38 with three children, living off welfare with a drug addict husband and no other support to rely on. She used contraception that failed and is now 6 weeks pregnant with an unwanted child. Should she be able to abort her fetus at a clinic or at a hospital? Should your state pay for it from public funds? Should she undergo mandatory counseling and a 48-hour waiting period before her procedure?

It’s these types of questions abortion policy must answer. And the specific answers drive the impact on Sally, her fetus, other children, and your tax money, to name only a few.

To sum up, in order to accurately judge a policy’s impact on people, we need to use all four components of a comprehensive view of the policy at hand. In abortion’s case this entails deep knowledge of 62 specific points.

Before we see the implications of this observation, let’s continue with (almost) two exceptions to this rule.

1.5 exceptions — Corruption and self-interest

There is one case we don’t need a comprehensive understanding to judge: when the policy maker or people close to them directly and financially benefit from a decision.

Why corruption is wrong merits no explanation. If a politician or a group of politicians engage in such practices, it’s a no-brainer that they should, at the very least, never be allowed to hold office again. Fortunately, the number of tools helping us gather corruption-related information is growing, as is the body of research on the subject (like this ambitious network science-based European project run by a friend of mine, Silvia Fierascu).

At first glance, it’s equally simple to tell what’s good for us.

If you’re a doctor in a country where your salary is determined by the state, a 50% increase of medical staff wages is a cause for celebration. At the same time, that money has to come from somewhere. What if it’s taken away from the budget on hospital equipment or R&D? Or what if it’s pulled from pension funds, which will be responsible for your livelihood in a few years?

Self-interest is even harder to determine for more complex policies like abortion. Is a part of the policy good for you right now? What if your circumstances change? Or what if it means affects you negatively via its impact on others (e.g. if it puts more people on welfare, which results in higher taxes)?

Obstacles to judgment

Beyond corruption and, to a lesser degree, self-interest, there is only one way to really judge if policymakers made the right decisions. We have to become experts ourselves.

Let’s make this not-shockingly-novel statement more specific in the form of three necessary conditions.

  1. We need a comprehensive view. This doesn’t mean we must have a firm position ourselves, but we have to be familiar with all components (exactly 70 in the case of abortion).
  2. Politicians need to disclose their comprehensive view.
  3. Politicians need to disclose how they put their comprehensive view into action when making decisions in the policy area at hand.

This is obviously not even close to what we observe in reality.

At the same time, it does enable us to come close to putting a number on our ability to judge. Let me provide a quick demonstration using Joe Biden’s abortion policy.

His view on abortion scores 8 out of the total 70, although it’s definitely possible that he has much more sophisticated thoughts he’s never been forced to express. We also have access to his voting record on abortion-related specific bills.

At the same time, we’re not only missing 62 points of his view, but also a key piece of information: the link between his view and actions. A ‘yes’ vote on the prohibition of partial birth abortions from 2003 doesn’t tell us anything about the thought process behind it, nor of his detailed ideas related to the bill.

Consequently, our ability to judge how good a job he’s been doing on this issue is severely limited. At best, we see about 5% of the whole picture. And this is in a case where our own view is sophisticated! If we were only aware of a couple of arguments, we would really be shooting in the dark.

And that is not all.

The social reality policy is supposed to regulate is complex, chaotic and probabilistic. In real life we tend to use hindsight bias or consequences to judge what constitutes ‘good policy’.

Policy makers do not have the benefit of hindsight and have to make decisions on the spot relying on incomplete information. Thus, in order to evaluate decisions, we need a nuanced in-depth contextual understanding that goes far beyond a comprehensive policy view. We must understand a complex web of causality including factors outside the realm of the policy area at hand.

Conclusion

To be clear, none of this is to say there aren’t good and bad decisions.

My main point is that in order to judge politician’s policy decisions at any level beyond superficial, we need significant expertise. Very few of us have that and even those who do likely possess it in only a handful of policy areas. This narrow group is only capable of judgment with any semblance of accuracy if they know politicians’ views and how they used them in action.

What about the rest of us?

The uncomfortable truth is, politicians can likely spin nearly every action and its opposite as the right one. All they need is selectively pick a few selectively picked arguments facts. If they’re trying to play fair. If not, they can make up their own facts.

To answer the original question, for the most part,

We, constituents, cannot tell whether our leaders have been making the best policy choices.

Does this mean we should do away with the illusion of Trustee politics? Is it time to end this form of democracy?

Not so fast.

The statement I started this article with had two components. If the second can’t work, perhaps we should focus on the first. Instead of investigating what they do as policymakers, maybe we should simply put the best people in leadership positions.

In my next article I’ll investigate where that might get us. Stay tuned and let me know what you think of Trustees in the comments.

A political scientist (Ph.D.) and social psychologist (MA) fighting for a better world the only way I know how: on the battlefield of idea(l)s.

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