In Korea, where I lived until this past August, it's an election year. In the United States, where I now reside, it's an election year. Indeed, one could be forgiven for thinking that 2012 is an election year in every last nation on earth, from France to Kiribati and all points in between because, well, it mostly is. For someone like myself, who views politics and politicians of all stripes with a special sort of contempt, this has made for a long year.
Every election cycle, we're bombarded with noble assertions by each candidate and his/her supporters which run, more or less, as follows: "The only reason for our troubles is that my opponent is an ignoramus. If we could just elect smarter, more virtuous individuals - i.e. me - to public office, everything would be hunky-dory."
Such claims are usually accompanied by high-minded journalists pleading for a kinder, gentler, cleaner brand of politics. Take, for instance, this recent op-ed in The Korea Times by Lee Chang-sup, in which the author laments the cronyism that has tainted every Korean president in recent memory:
...President Lee has wasted much of his presidency on naming his cronies and former classmates to key public posts. Like his predecessors, including Chun Doo-hwan, Roh Tae-woo, Kim Young-sam, Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun, the president was victimized by cronyism and nepotism. Their corrupt ties have made former presidents’ postretirement life unhappy and inglorious, having disillusioned the public, fanned regional antagonism and deepened the feud between conservatives and liberals. Likewise, President Lee may also face a tough postretirement life for his thoughtless abuse of cronyism in running the government.
The author then goes on to make the usual milquetoast demands for improved transparency, meritocracy, more fairness, and better behavior in general from the political class. He concludes:
Cronyism and nepotism breed kleptocracy and crony capitalism. The current presidential candidates should ponder about how he or she can best break this pattern and serve the five-year term with dignity intact. His or her first job as the new president would be ending the pervasive cronyism and introducing meritocracy. Winning the presidency should no longer be a trophy for power-hungry cronies and old-boy networks.
First, a correction: it is statism which breeds cronyism, nepotism, and kleptocracy, and crony capitalism. Limit the power of government to arbitrarily intervene in the lives of citizens, to pick winners and losers, and to dispense favors, and you also limit the corruption that has become so much a part of politics. After all, why bother lobbying the government for goodies if the government has no goodies to hand out?
On the author's concluding sentence, however, I share his sentiments: the presidency should not be a prize for the most power-hungry contestant. Having said that, what should be doesn't much matter in reality. Politics attracts power-hungry people because the essence of desiring political office is believing that one is qualified to order other folks around. This has led P.J. O'Rourke to quip that politicians, as a group, ought to be diagnosed with Narcissistic Personality Disorder. The symptoms:
- Has a grandiose sense of self-importance (e.g., exaggerates achievements and talents, expects to be recognized as superior without commensurate achievements)
- Is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love
- Believes that he or she is "special" and unique and can only be understood by, or should associate with, other special or high-status people (or institutions)
- Requires excessive admiration
- Has a very strong sense of entitlement, e.g., unreasonable expectations of especially favorable treatment or automatic compliance with his or her expectations
- Is exploitative of others, e.g., takes advantage of others to achieve his or her own ends
- Lacks empathy, e.g., is unwilling to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others
- Is often envious of others or believes that others are envious of him or her
- Regularly shows arrogant, haughty behaviors or attitudes
Not surprisingly, a government with plenty of power to wield attracts the sort of person who enjoys wielding that power over others and using it to benefit those whom he/she favors. As Lawrence Reed wrote, summarizing F.A. Hayek's discussion of "Why the Worst Get on Top" in The Road to Serfdom:
Give government lots of power and silly people who have little tolerance for the lives and views of others will line up to get government jobs. Those who respect others, who leave other people alone, and who want to be left alone themselves, apply elsewhere—namely, for productive jobs in the private sector. The bigger government gets, the more the worst get to the top of it...
Or as Douglas Adams once put it: "anyone capable of getting himself elected president should by no means be allowed to do the job."
With the three main Korean presidential candidates (as well as Messrs. Obama and Romney in the USA) arguing not over whether but by how much to expand the size and scope of government, I hope Mr. Lee over at The Korea Times will brace himself for more of the cronyism that he bemoans. Such corruption goes hand-in-hand with unchecked government power.