Making politics professional?

What qualifies you best to be a politician? The American political system seems to have made its choice, and accordingly the role is self-selecting: “out of the 535 members of the U.S. Congress, only 22 have science or engineering backgrounds, and of these only two might be considered experienced scientists or engineers.” [Source] Western democracies elsewhere have followed suit, and Ireland is no different. I ask this because Fencingwithkierkegaard rightly poses the question as to why politics is not regulated as a profession, with the following points for discussion:

The first idea that comes to mind would be to create mandatory MAs and/or PhDs in being a politician (let’s call it “practical politics”), with a mandated course of studies, which one must complete in order to run in an election. To make it more egalitarian, the republic could then underwrite the fees for all who wanted. But this idea comes riddled with practical demons: 1) who decides the courses, their contents, their markings? Considering the difficulty of cabinet appointments, one can only imagine the rancor around faculty appointments to this course; 2) the cost would be enormous; 3) it would still hamper the lower classes from participation, and it would discourage anyone with “life experience” from running after having another career.

The question “Is there a better way to run democratic republics” needs to be asked in Ireland more than ever (France is on their fifth republic, but Ireland still only on number one?), yet there is little engagement. The point I make above about lawyers connects to point 1), specifically the matter of content of a course of study. The notion of politics being a job only lawyers can attend to calls for serious reconsideration. My issue with this is that politics should have an element of aspiration to it, a question of social improvement, of certain goals for which a country as constituted by its citizens might aim. It seems for most Irish that their nationality is only of relevance in terms of free-ish travel through the E.U., and international sport. There is no ideal of Ireland for which we aim. Social democracy after the Norwegian model is difficult for us, not because they have billions in their national sovereign wealth funds (even after “dip“) due to natural resources being properly managed and taxed, but because there is no ideal for which we as citizens aspire. I think here of Tommy Tiernan’s line regarding what it means to be Irish: “It means we’re not fucking English.” That is, pathetically, about what it boils down to

How does this relate to lawyers? Well, just that the law is not a repository of hope. Lawyers apply the law. It is decisions that make the law. Accordingly, the law is a beast unto itself. It is essentially an auto-catalytic system, self-propagating, concerned (if we can be forgiven the metaphorical invocation of intent) with sustaining itself. This is the nature of all social systems. The problem with this is that there is an innate conservatism which makes law (specifically common law, and its descendants) inflexible and slow to meet social and technological challenges. This is how we get zombie-legislation such as SOPA.

The law needs people who can apply decisions, who implement laws. There is little room for innovation, because for the precedent structure of the common law innovation is anathema. It is a last resort. Solicitors and barristers, and their lawyering cousins across the water, ought to be workmanlike and dull. This is one of the unspoken necessities for all the professions, the last esoteric commandment they carry out into the world: Thou shalt be dull. I know, this sounds unfair (albeit born out by experience), but just as we don’t want to be operated on by a surgeon who has failed their exams, nor do we want a surgeon who is prone to daydreaming and flights of fantasy.

If there were to be an M.A., M.Phil., Ph.D. programme for politicians, I don’t believe 2) and 3) are serious concerns; cost should not be a factor of exclusion for anybody, and if it is then this is a matter of our lack of understanding of and respect for higher education. There should be a proper grant/loan system in place to deal with this (incidentally, Norway [henceforth to be known as Paradise-on-snowy-oilfields] has such a system).

For me content is the primary issue. It would seem that to be fully informed, our potential pols would ideally need to be versed in many sides of different arguments. For example, if there were to be a module on politics, wouldn’t we want them to study the Austrian school as well as Keynes and Smith, as well as various other political possibilities? Wouldn’t we want them to have an awareness of more than the basic details of the important debates in the history of ideas? I don’t think, realistically this is possible any more. We could demand that  A Terrible Beauty be a set text to be devoured and digested before entering the Dáil, or Parliament, or Alþingi. Realistically, we cannot, which is why we rely upon a kind of people free-market. We live in the hope that expertise is self-selecting.

Though we are confronted by the trogodytic howlings of a Healy-Rae, the exploitative cynicism of a Lowry, or the almost cosmic craveness of a Flynn/Cooper-Flynn, is that all there is? I do not believe so. I think of people such as Senator Norris, our current President, Michael D. Higgins (a personal friend of Slavoj Žižek, as I take great pleasure in telling people), or further back a heroic figure such as Dr. Noël Browne. All these figures outside the role of politician as hack, or functionary, or apparatchik. All with aspirations, all of considerable intelligence, all of great independence of mind. Our body politic needs outliers, and the professionalization of politics would endanger this. It would close things down, introducing more sclerotic bureaucracy just where we don’t need it. The best thing for us is to maintain politics as an open system, but expertise is not an impediment to this. Inflexibility, bureacratization, and secrecy are the true dangers for any democracy. Ireland is a democratic republic, but I believe that by focusing on openness and a readiness to respond to rapidly changing circumstances, we can come to put the emphasis on the democratic rather than the republican. If we are to have a goal, let that be greater openness, engagement, accountability.

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2 thoughts on “Making politics professional?

  1. My initial fears with content of a course was the power issue: of whoever controlled the syllabus skewing towards their particular party/ideology rather than the difficulty of instituting a properly liberal arts arrangement. Minimally history of western thought (philosophy and politics) and ethics courses would be necessary. Ideally, economics and sociology, too.

    I agree that overwhelming numbers with backgrounds in law is undesirable, not because lawyers are dull, but because law by its nature encourages obsession with technicalities and loopholes instead of purpose and vision (what theologians are wont to call the letter instead of the spirit of the law). Instead of viewing something like workers rights in terms of what must be done for them as (minimally) mandated by law, workers should be viewed as people with individual lives.

    Without changing the kinds of people who run a country, how can a nation foster greater openness, engagement, and accountability in politics?

  2. What I meant by the content I hope would include the matter of ideological difficulties. I can’t really see a way to reasonably expect a change in our politicians unless they share the same reservoir of experiences as those for whom issues such as workers’ rights are important. Requiring them to work a minimum wage job isn’t going to cut it, but some form of mandatory national but non-military service might; if you have spent some time working in a deprived community, or a hospital, or a care home, the importance of the dignity of all citizens is brought home. Openness and accountability seems to be more a concern of the other professions, such as journalists, academics, sociologists. We might also include those institutions which act as conduits between state and citizens (the professional organizations etc.). The matter of engagement with politics seems to be being addressed, if we consider the recent presidential election, and the year on year increase in youth voting. Ireland may be reaching a level of maturity as a nation, whereby cute-hoor-ism is no longer good enough. We’ve lost all our illusions regarding Church, civil war politics, and what was once regarded as the benign gentle had of Europe. Is Ireland about to become post-post-colonial? It would be nice if that were true.

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