For the Aspiring Politician: What to Study

March 25, 2009 by  

Today, I received a letter that asked me for some advice. The young man, who had chosen to leave university after two years of bad education in a university, asked what he should study as an aspiring politician. I gave him the following advice:

“When I was in high school, I asked a local politician what I should study in order to be a politician. He said: “Study whatever you want”. At the time, I thought he was just being rude; just saying “get out of the way kid, you’re bothering me”. However, I now know that he was right, at least in the sense that he would have defined “politician”.

If you merely want to get elected, it really doesn’t matter what you study. Electoral politics is 99% who you know, and 1% what you know (which is why everything is so screwed up). However, if you want to be a Prime Minister/Premier, history suggests that parties elect lawyers to be party leaders such that, when the party wins the greatest number of seats, the party leader (in our system) becomes the Prime Minister/Premier. A law degree would certainly be an asset: not because of what you learn in law school (you can learn all of that by just reading law texts), but because a degree tells others that an institution trusted by many (i.e., a university) thinks you know a fair bit about the law.

Indeed, all university degrees are just that: credentials. Credentials are just pieces of paper issued by trusted people or institutions that vouch for you in terms of what you allegedly know. What you, in reality, know, may be something very different (something less or something more; something better or something worse). Apart from a law degree, I cannot think of any credentials that are any better than any others for the purposes of getting elected.

Now, if you want to actually achieve something good once elected, that has nothing to do with universities or degrees. It has only to do with what you actually know. And, by far, the most important topic of study, if you want to do something good while in office, is philosophy…in particular, Ayn Rand’s philosophy (Objectivism), but you should learn the tricks used by other philosophies to ‘sound’ rational and ‘feel’ good. You should learn those other philosophies so that you can soundly defeat the arguments of those whose claims or decisions are implicitly or explicitly guided by those other, irrational, philosophies.

Of secondary importance, for a politician who wants to do good while in office, is law. A legislator is a law maker. When I buy a house, I want it to be assembled by carpenters, bricklayers, electricians etc. I do not want a house built by a lawyer who has no house-building skills. One would think – I think rightly – that to know what one is doing when drafting or supporting a piece of legislation, it is indispensable to have a firm grasp of the law (starting with constitutional law and the common law of contracts and torts). The laws of a jurisdiction are like the parts in a watch: filing a tooth off of one sprocket (or what have you), or changing a gear ratio here or there may cause the entire watch to tell time wrongly or not to tell time at all. Every change – if made responsibly – requires the legislator to keep in mind the full context of the law and the effect on that body of law of the one change he/she is making.

I hesitate to add one more: economics. Libertarians (Objectivists are not libertarians) implicitly or explicitly go around quoting economists in support of individualism. This is like using land surveyors as an authority for whether an area of land should slope downward. Surveyors describe, they do not justify, and so it is with economists. Economics describes how things do work (or how things would work, were the facts different), but it is not ethics. Ethics, not economics, deals with the issue of what ought to be…it even plays the key role in answering the question “Should that area of land slope down?”.

More importantly, capitalism – the only social system compatible with man’s nature – is the separation of economics and government. Therefore, President Bill Clinton’s famous desktop sign “It’s the economy stupid” is 100% wrong. If you’re a law maker or governor, it’s NEVER the economy, stupid. Government ensures that no person obtains values from others without the consent of those from whom the values are obtained. Government – not a gang, but a government – never involves itself in “stimulating” the economy, or bailing out failing businesses, etc.. It is an asset to know what you are talking about when it comes to economics but – as a politician – only so that you can (a) identify and end current interventions by government, and (b) be sure that the laws and decisions you impose are not ones that intervene in the economy.

Finally, if you are going to read about economics, start with Ludwig von Mises…not Hayek, not Friedman, nor any of the host of other “libertarian” economists. And, if you are reading Mises, ignore his ethics: stick to the economics in his works.

I hope that helps.




2 Responses to “For the Aspiring Politician: What to Study”

  1. ralf on March 25th, 2009 4:02 pm

    In fact last summer I read Friedmans capitalism and freedom. I found it rather boring and I felt disturbed by the inconsistencies. Especially his support for the federal reserve annoyed me.
    Prefer yaron Brooks point of view to just get rid of them .

  2. Chris on June 16th, 2009 1:06 am

    Just wanted to add that, in the Von Mises vein, George Reisman has an excellent treatise on economics that integrates Austrian and Classical theories with Objectivism, and makes the best case for LFC since Ayn Rand.

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