Political corruption: part III

Thomas Sowell

1/26/2006 12:05:00 AM - Thomas Sowell
Some people fear that term limits for members of Congress or other elected officials will just put more power into the hands of the permanent government bureaucrats and the Congressional staffers.

This overlooks the fact that the powers of bureaucrats are set by elected officials, who can abolish whole bureaucracies if they wish, as the Civil Aeronautics Board was abolished, ending its protection of airline cartels. As for staffers, they are hired and fired by elected officials.

To judge any proposed reform, it should be compared with what currently exists. As things stand today, Congressional staffers are often young people with little or no experience in the real world outside of politics, and often their skills are largely confined to political skills, with their highest priority being to get their bosses re-elected.

The power and the glamour of politics may attract many young people, even at salaries less than those available in the private sector. Yet it is an extreme example of being penny-wise and pound foolish to let people like this influence the destiny of the nation.

That influence can be considerable when members of Congress are too busy with public appearances and other activities designed to promote their political careers to personally read and master the often complex legislation that they have to vote on.

Staffers, like members of Congress, need to be paid salaries that can compete with what seasoned and top-level professionals receive in the private sector. Someone with 20 years of experience in the private sector has far more to contribute to legislation than someone who has barely been in the world 20 years.

Someone who has spent 20 years in the real world seeing bright ideas come and go -- and often end in disaster -- is not likely to be as susceptible to the kinds of bright ideas hatched in academia or in various movements of true believers.

People with years of real world experience are likely to also have real world obligations, like supporting a family, paying off a mortgage, sending children to college, and putting something aside for their own retirement.

You can't hire such people as cheaply as you can hire some hotshot fresh out of college who sees being a Congressional staffer as a golden opportunity to apply the heady notions he picked up on campus. But you are not likely to get more than you pay for.

The costs of government include not only the salaries of government officials and other direct outlays, these costs include the devastating impact of half-baked policies that can stifle economic activity or even lead to national destruction from within or without.

Some people still have Utopian ideals of a government run by ordinary folks. But when making serious decisions in real life, we go to people who know what they are doing -- whether what we want is a transmission fixed or medical treatment.

Nowhere is it more important to have people who know what they are doing than in Washington. And nowhere is it more important that what they are doing is carrying out the duties of the job, not spending their time focussed on getting re-elected.

Many people fear that government has gotten so complex that only the permanent bureaucrats can cope with it, so that turnover among elected officials would make the bureaucracy the real rulers of the country.

But the "expertise" of bureaucrats, like the expertise of Congressional staffers, is largely an expertise in personal political survival.

Do you seriously believe that FEMA has expertise in dealing with natural disasters, despite all their own disasters? Or that the Department of Education has expertise in education, when it has presided over decades of dumbed-down education?

These and other bureaucracies have expertise in political survival amid the cross-currents of special interests. Such "expertise" has caused more problems than it has ever solved.

One of the benefits of attracting a higher caliber of elected officials is that they can curtail or eliminate such counterproductive and corrupting "expertise."