Hanna Harrison – a young college student who hopes to spend her “life in public service” (by which she means as a successful seeker of political offices) – sends me a scolding e-mail that reads in part: “Granted some politicians are crooks and in it only for themselves, blanket cynicism of our public servants is extremely uncalled for. Most honestly put others before self to serve the greater good.”
I couldn’t disagree more. But rather than write anything new in reply to Ms. Harrison, I below paste this post from January 2011.
One of the marks of a good economist is to recognize that money is not at all all that matters. Incentives come in lots of different forms – often in monetary forms, but often (perhaps even more often) in non-monetary forms.
The man who diets and goes to the gym regularly might well do so in order to make himself more attractive to potential mates. The benefit isn’t monetary, and the cost isn’t exclusively, or even chiefly, monetary. But there’s nevertheless a real cost-benefit calculation going on in that guy’s mind. Raise the cost (say, he injures a pectoral muscle) or lower the benefits (say, he meets a fetchin’ babe with a fetish for flabby dudes), and he’ll spend less time at the gym. And vice-versa.
Another mark of a good economist is to be skeptical of stated intentions. Talk is cheap. So if Jones professes his great love of humanity, the economist pays little heed. (Old joke: Economist and non-economist are strolling in Manhattan. When they pass Carnegie Hall, the non-economist says wistfully to the economist, “You know, I’ve always wanted to learn to play the piano.” The economist replies “Obviously not.”)
Which brings me to the main point of this post, namely, a proposal to screen for truly public-spirited public servants to seek and hold high elected government office.
We are constantly told that this long-serving senator or that 19th-term representative has devoted his or her life to “public service” – implying that he or she has made genuine sacrifices in order to work for the betterment of society. Politicians are routinely called “public servants.”
But how do we know that they – more than the ordinary mortals who vote them into office – truly put the welfare of strangers above their own welfare? Of course, they say they do so. But talk is cheap.
So here’s my proposal: require that everyone seeking high-level elective government office do so anonymously.
Each candidate for office gets a new, sterile name – something that reads like an abbreviated VIN for a automobile. For example: 8ANJf9. In fact, call it a PIN – “politician identification number.”
Each candidate, successful or no, will for the rest of his or her days and into the future mists of history be known to the public only by his or her PIN. Candidates’ and elected-officials’ faces will never be seen by the public; they will address the public from behind curtains (both real and virtual), and their voices will be electronically modified so that not even their mothers, spouses, or household pets will recognize their voices.
History will know them – the good, the bad, the indifferent – only by their PINs.
They will also be required, during their time in office, to live in spartan government housing, and they will be paid modestly, say, 80 percent of the U.S. median household income.
My proposal, if adopted, would screen for truly public-spirited people to serve in elected office. When, say, 8ANJf9, proclaims his or her (we’ll not know the person’s sex) devotion to the greater good and the public weal, that proclamation will be believable.
Of course, adoption of my proposal is not without its downsides – but yet another hallmark of the economic way of thinking is to recognize the ubiquity of trade-offs.
All the tawdry ‘glory’ of elected office will be stripped away, so that such offices are no longer sought by fame-seeking megalomaniacs.
This proposal stems from a conversation that my buddy Andy Morriss [now Dean of the Texas A&M law school] and I had in July 2000 in the jungle of Tikal, Guatemala. Hearing a tour-guide there refer to ancient Mayan rulers as “King 1,” “King 2,” “King 3,” and so on – personal information on these long-dead Ozymandiases is lost – Andy immediately saw the promise of making genuine public servants anonymous.