Our political system lends itself to low-calibre leadership


ECONOMICS:HOW CAN the political system be reformed so that the State becomes a source of economic security for citizens, rather than one of insecurity?

Last week this column discussed the failings of the political system in managing the public finances. The extent of the reaction suggests that the issue is worth delving into again. There are many things that could be done to improve matters, including changing the way the executive branch of government is formed, separating meaningfully the executive and legislature and putting in place a better system to provide advice for ministers.

As this column focuses on economics, insights from that discipline offer a guide to how an institution that has been crying out for reform for decades – the electoral system – can be changed for the better. That system needs changing because of the low calibre of elected representative it produces.

Permit me a personal insight on the matter. As Europe editor of the Economist Intelligence Unit for a dozen years before joining The Irish Times I came into contact with many elected representatives from many countries in interviews, at seminars and conferences and at social events. As one might reasonably expect, those who devote themselves to politics tend to know a great deal about the business of government and the affairs of the world.

While there are impressive people in Irish politics, in my experience there is nowhere else in Europe where there are so many elected representatives of a calibre that does not mark them out for national leadership.

Given limitations of space I will give just two examples, although there are many more. While speaking at a conference, a Minister handed over to his adviser halfway through his presentation so that the adviser could cover the more detailed aspects of the issues. Although his candour was admirable – he could have simply read a script prepared by officials – I have never seen or even heard of a minister elsewhere not feeling competent to speak on his brief.

On another occasion I interviewed an Opposition frontbench spokesman. Within minutes it became clear that he was, frankly, clueless. That he agreed to the interview suggested he was blissfully unaware of the extent of his own ignorance. From the reading material in his office, it did not appear that he intended informing himself. It was the least informative interview with a politician I have ever had anywhere.

In a country with a highly educated population, lots of high-calibre people and good levels of civic-mindedness, why do we harm ourselves by giving those of limited capacities so much control over our destiny?

The concept of “choice architecture”, as developed by behavioural economists, offers answers. Consider the relationship between the layout of self-service restaurants and how healthily people eat. Trials show that diners are more likely to choose the food they encounter first as they walk through a self-service area. If the burgers, sausages and chips are the first thing available and the salad bar is located beside the till, people tend to consume more grease and fewer greens.

But change the choice architecture by putting the salads before the fries and more of the former is consumed and less of the latter. Crucially, this happens without anyone having less choice (true freedom must include the freedom to harm oneself).

The choice architecture of the Irish electoral system means that voters tend to opt for candidates who, like a fat-laden burger, offer the most immediate and direct gratification, but who cause harm over the longer term. Representatives deliver for the locality but neglect their duties at the helm of the ship of State, allowing it to drift on to the rocks with depressing regularity.

And the system is even worse than the canteen analogy. Because distribution of public resources is influenced to a considerable extent by TDs directing goodies towards their voters in order to enhance their chances of re-election, a constituency that elects nationally focused representatives will, all other things being equal, lose out.

This reinforces the incentive to vote for those who work only to deliver short-term gains for the locality rather than long-term gains for the nation.

The choice architecture of many continental systems of proportional representation puts the healthy options first. Ours should too.

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