Don’t Choose a President the Way You’d Choose an Assistant Regional Manager

In a previous post, I argued that it’s a mistake to use the same character-evaluating template for political candidates that you use for people you encounter in everyday life.  Here I’d like to make a related argument regarding the appropriate weight that should be accorded to character (as opposed to more conventional measures of qualification, such as relevant experience) in evaluating a political candidate as compared to evaluating a candidate for an ordinary job.

Suppose you believe that 1% of the population is of extravagantly bad character, in the sense that they would engage in mass bloodshed if they had something to gain from it and could get away with it.  For filling most ordinary jobs, this fact could be more-or-less safely ignored (i.e., nothing would be lost if the hiring criteria consisted almost exclusively of conventional qualifications), because most ordinary jobs offer no outlet for beneficial and consequence-free mass bloodshed anyway.  But political office, especially executive office at the national level, is fundamentally different.  Unlike almost everybody else, political leaders have the power to kill and imprison and torture, and can sometimes benefit, materially or psychicly, from doing so.  If you think that unjustified mass violence is a bad enough thing that it would be worth sacrificing a lot in the way of traditional competence to avoid it, then a key criterion for evaluating a political candidate should be whether or not the candidate is in that 1%.*  This means that, in contrast to the "competence-only" rule that is appropriate for most ordinary jobs, you should put a lot of weight on any information you have about political candidates that bears on their character, and relatively little weight on information that bears on their traditional qualifications.**

*Here I assume that the proportion of political candidates with extravagantly bad character is the same as the proportion in the population at large.  This is a conservative assumption, as the opportunity to wield power will disproportionately attract such people into politics.
**This argument is influenced by something I once heard Eric Alterman say, but I can’t remember where.

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  • g

    Gross incompetence at national executive level can produce enormous dreadful results too. So I wouldn’t downweight competence too much. (They’re likely to be different dreadful results, but they could be almost as bad as those of grossly bad character.)

    Also, competence is probably easier to judge than the particular kind of bad character that’s at question here. (I’d guess that people in your 1% and remotely viable for national office are typically very good at hiding their 1%ness.)

  • burger flipper

    I would also think experience would be vital in exposing the 1%ness. Would they be able to hold that trait in check waiting for the opportunity to become President if they have been governors, senators, etc., where they would have had the opportunity to behave scandalously for gain? Foisting someone untried in to the position (such as a 1-year senator)might be the riskiest roll of the dice, 1%ness-wise.
    But do the voters care?
    Clinton haters can point to Whitewater and say there were signs of corruption from go.
    Likewise, those who hate Bush can point to his business failings for portents of incompetence.
    And of course people did both, before they were elected.

  • J Thomas

    How do you decide which part of the information about the candidates to discount as political spin and sheer lies?

    There’s the error on both sides. Since a large number of voters want a psychopath in office, some evidence that the candidate is in your 1% might be lies intended to influence those voters. A candidate who looks insane might be faking it for votes.

    The people who want to misinform you so the election will go their way are many and well-funded. The people who try to get the truth out are few and relatively poor. How do you find meaningful information you can trust?

  • Caledonian

    And of course there is the greater problem: no one without high levels of sociopathy can make their way through the political system to the point where they become viable candidates anyway.

    The biggest difference between filling a normal position and electing a president is that with a normal position, you have an actual choice between members of a broad and deep pool of potential employees.

  • David J. Balan

    There is no doubt that evaluating political candidates is a hard thing to do, and there is no guarantee of success even if you approach the problem in the best possible way. My point is merely that the optimal approach involves more weight on character than is generally thought. One possible counter-argument is that character, while really important, is also really hard to measure, and so should be downweighted for that reason. But I’m not at all sure that this is right. It seems to me that the people who are most eager to commit mass violence not only don’t try too hard to hide it, but are generally pretty proud of it.

  • Michael Sullivan

    It seems to me that the people who are most eager to commit mass violence not only don’t try too hard to hide it, but are generally pretty proud of it.

    Yes, and we re-elect them anyway.

  • Voters don’t elect politicians based on issues because they don’t know what an “issue” is.