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December 28, 2011

Why Are Today’s Politicians So Incompetent?

You may know older people who talk about a more pleasant time, when there was more bi-partisan compromise and Congress actually got things done. Their nostalgia is for the period between the end of World War II and Watergate, approximately 1946-1973. But were the politicians of that time really better?

Frankly, I tend to think the entire era is overrated. After all, much of the world was undeveloped, or in ruins because of the war. This made things in the U.S. seem better by comparison. Plus, many federal creations of the period, such as the National Security State and Medicare, are bankrupting us today. Nevertheless . . .

Congress probably did function better then. Budget deficits were more under control. The two parties probably fought less. Many Senators from that time are fondly remembered for their intelligence and statesmanship. I might even have enjoyed the company of some of them, whereas today’s Senators strike me as narcissistic, ignorant, and loathsome.

So I’m inclined to agree that the quality of our politicians has gotten worse. The same holds true for our Presidential candidates. In my post-Watergate youth there were few candidates who frightened me, but in recent cycles most of the candidates have been people I wouldn’t hire for ANY job, let alone the position of President.

So why have our politicians become worse? One possible reason occurred to me while reading David R. Henderson’s review of Robert Frank’s “The Darwin Economy.” Consider . . .

There have been legal limits on campaign donations since 1974 — the precise period when things got worse. This change altered the incentives involved in running for office, and may have attracted a different kind of candidate. Today’s candidates have to be better at fundraising in comparison to the past. For instance, Henderson points out that in 1968, Senator Eugene McCarthy’s Presidential campaign was largely funded by just six people. One donor’s $200,000 gift would be the equivalent of $1.3 million today.

Back then candidates for federal office could raise a lot of money from a few people, instead of struggling to raise small amounts from a large number of donors. The old system favored candidates who were good with ideas and policy-making, whereas the new system favors candidates who are good at fundraising. The skills needed for fundraising aren’t necessarily the same as for legislating. The fundraiser has to make appeals that confirm the prejudices of voters and that demonize opponents.

Hence, the “dumbed-down” political rhetoric.

Hence, a more poisonous partisan divide.

Obviously, the problems facing the nation aren’t entirely attributable to the campaign finance laws, but those laws MUST be an important factor, because they changed the incentives so dramatically. They discourage capable people from running for office, because of the fundraising grind. Meanwhile, Congress has also become more corrupt, NOT less. So bring back the good old days — repeal the campaign finance laws.

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