People keep saying government should be run like a business.
If you are one of them, consider this option. If your company needed a new president, which would you prefer: an outsider with demonstrable management skills but no knowledge of your product, service or customer base; or the best candidate from within the company, one with a proven track record in every department?
I’ve been around enough poorly run companies to know it really isn’t, but the answer should be obvious. If you can’t promote from within, you’ve been doing something wrong.
I ask the question because I realize I’ve been part of the “throw the bums out” movement for most of my journalistic career. I could probably find scores of editorials and columns in which I’ve written along the lines of “the problem with career politicians” and “the evils of politics as a profession” and “we need to drain the swamp.”
There is a lot of truth in this point of view. There is a swamp (or, rather, are swamps; there are federal, state and local varieties). Government at all levels is overburdened with people who have made running for office their whole lives, people with no knowledge of and little love for the private sector.
But by focusing too much on that perspective, we’ve helped create a bizarre situation in which the people seeking elective office must profess a deep animosity for the very thing they are engaged in. Elect me – I’m an outsider, and I’ll get in there and break things. I hate politicians as much as you do, so please, please make me your favorite politician.
How odd. It’s like looking for an atheist to seek the papacy or asking a high school dropout to be your college president.
And an important consideration is being overlooked.
This nation was founded by career politicians.
James Madison, father of the Constitution, first won a seat in the Virginia legislature at 25. John Adams began his political career in 1774. John Jay spent 27 years in public service. Alexander Hamilton got involved in politics almost as soon as he arrived in this country.
Thomas Jefferson, the genius behind the Declaration of Independence, was elected to the Virginia House of Burgesses in 1769 and worked in politics for the next 40 years. Even George Washington, the so-called non-politician of the bunch, won a seat in the Virginia legislature in 1758 at 26 and served there until the Revolution.
“Each of these men,” notes Georgia writer Chet Martin, “made public service the purpose of their lives.” He quotes Madison’s observation from Federalist 62 that wise and just systems require “some stable institution in the government.”
Of course, there is one major difference between those career politicians and the ones who walk the halls of power today, a difference the Indiana General Assembly made me think about with its most audacious action in the recently ended session.
In the middle of the night, with no public notice and no discussion, our legislators sneaked through a series of breathtaking raises for the governor and other top elected state officials. The next governor will enjoy a raise of 48%, becoming the fifth-highest-paid state chief executive in the nation instead of the 34th. The lieutenant governor gets a whopping 60% bump, the attorney general 45%, and auditor, treasurer and secretary of state 39% each.
Whew. Lawmakers did it the way they did it for a reason. Employees who pilfer from the company’s petty cash do not do it in the middle of the day, carrying the loot out for all to see.
My first instinct about the raises was, “Well, there goes the swamp, taking care of its own.” But the longer I thought about it, the more I realized it wasn’t just the career-politician angle that bothered me. Which brings us back to the business analogy.
We’ve all heard stories about innovative startup companies and moribund Big Business corporations. Startups are energized by entrepreneurs with bold ideas and the courage to take risks. Big Businesses are so focused on the bottom line that any change to the status quo frightens them. It’s why a company like Apple can come along and eat IBM’s lunch in the personal computer market. (Until, of course, the point at which Apple becomes another IBM).
The Founders were like a startup. Though career politicians, they were able to look beyond the system they were in and realize it was lacking. They were bold enough to risk scrapping the Articles of Confederation for the Constitution, and wise enough to consult the great thinkers for ideas – a little Hobbes, a little Montesquieu, a lot of Locke, even a smattering of the misguided Rosseau (much less than the French, thank goodness).
Today’s careerists are more like the Big Business functionaries. They can’t see beyond the way things are being done to please the customer base. They’re afraid of asking hard questions about the status quo, adamantly opposed to thinking boldly and taking risks. They’re not even CEO material. They are mediocre middle managers.
So, the problem isn’t that we’re rewarding career politicians. It’s that we are encouraging the wrong kind of career politicians. If we identified and nurtured more of the good ones, we wouldn’t feel such a great need for outsiders to come in and start throwing bombs.
Yes, I know, they’re few and far between. But that has always been the case. How very lucky we were that one time.
Leo Morris, columnist for The Indiana Policy Review, is winner of the Hoosier Press Association’s award for Best Editorial Writer. Morris, as opinion editor of the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel, was named a finalist in editorial writing by the Pulitzer Prize committee. Contact him at [email protected].