Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Politicians Need More Procedural Freedom

David Plotz yesterday had an excellent column defending the general principle behind Chris Christie's underhanded tactics in the bridge scandal:
"But excessive hygiene is rampant in Washington. The controlling conservative wing of the Republican Party is addicted to principle. If politics is the art of compromise, we have a huge number of elected officials who are not politicians at all but rather zealots animated by ideology. This consistency, so admirable in a campaign ad, makes governing and legislation nearly impossible."
What he's really getting at is how our modern forms of intensive political journalism emphasize process over outcomes. The shift in political incentives away from deliberation has direct consequences for government effectiveness. Politics isn't merely the process of adding up the static policy preferences of lawmakers. Deliberation, strategy, logrolling, etc. all help to enable compromise legislation.

Another worrisome effect of process journalism punishing lawmakers for bad procedure instead of bad policy concerns the talent pool. In other electoral systems (and previously in the US) politicians were mostly judged on election day for their accomplishments. These days, however, politicians are evaluated constantly, and any tiny deviation from party orthodoxy is identified and punished. This may lead to a selection effect where most of our politicians are those who happen to have identities and policy preferences best fit to the current popular demands, instead of possessing intrinsic characteristics beneficial for governing. A snapshot analysis might suggest that super-responsive politicians are great (that's democracy, right?), but in a deeper, longer-term way these types might be less effective.

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