September 20, 2005
Ameritocracy: public service and competenceBy Ed Lasky
America was founded by a glorious group of ambitious men, glowing with the self—assurance coming from self—made lives and success based on talent and personal initiative. The Founding Fathers were rebels not just against colonial rule by England, but also were rebelling against an aristocracy that frustrated the ambition of ordinary citizens to fulfill their potential.
Our democracy was and remains based on the idea that individuals, by dint of personal effort, can rise in the world. This principle has been a magnet for immigrants around the world (see Emma Lazarus's poem inscribed on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty), has been enshrined in many of our most illustrious documents and speeches, has been taught to us in our schools, and has lead to the idolization of Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Edison, and other self—made men. Horatio Alger stories figure continue to figure prominently in our iconography, with names like Sam Walton and Bill Gates joining the pantheon. The idea that America can be 'a city on a hill' where people can create their own destiny by virtue of hard—work and well—honed talents is the American credo.
Lyndon Johnson had his crew of close—knit advisers and friends who not only allowed him to pull the levers of power but also embroiled his Presidency in scandal (Bobby Baker and Abe Fortas are the most prominent examples). Jimmy Carter brought Andrew Young and Hamilton Jordan up from Georgia with him. Young kowtowed to Third World dictators and human—rights abusers during his stint at the United Nations. Hamilton Jordan was a bon vivant (to say the least) who often tripped the light fantastic during that era of disco and drugs.
Bill Clinton brought his Arkansas buddies up to Washington and they led to (in no particular order) scandals along the lines of Travelgate, the Lippo Group illegal campaign contributions to the Democratic National Committee, illegal billing by his assistant Attorney General Webster Hubbell. More recently, Democratic New Jersey Governor James McGreevey was forced to resign when he was found to his put his homosexual lover in a well—paid government security post for which he had no qualifications (and this in post 9/11 New Jersey of all places!).
Former Senator Tom Daschle and other politicians across the political spectrum have often had wives, children, siblings and in—laws hired as 'lobbyists' by firms and groups seeking political favors in the halls of Congress. Ever since it has become the norm that both husbands and wives pursue careers, potential abuse of spousal influence has become an ongoing chronic problem at the upper levels of Washington officialdom.
When office holders die, their seats in Congress are often inherited by their widows (sooner or later, a widower will similarly take over a Congressional seat, no doubt). Jean Carnahan was allowed to stand—in and be 'elected' to her husband's Senate seat when he died before the election and there was no time to change the ballot. By voting for a dead man, voters chose his widow. The public seems to accept the idea that a spouse inherits the competence and political views of a deceased office holder. At least until proven otherwise. Senator Jean Carnahan's performance in office apparently did not satisfy her constituents because she lost the next election.
Doris Matsui is now a Representative from California because her husband died while in office. But such assumption of high office is not limited to positions opened by the unfortunate deaths of relatives. Political offices can be handed down in a style reminiscent of aristocracies. When Alaska senator Frank Murkowski was elected governor, he appointed his daughter Lisa to take his vacant senate seat.
Blood ties bring advantages in fund—raising, media visibility, and available networks of political operatives. Al Gore was the son of a legendary Senator. President Bush is the son of a former President and the grandson of a long—serving Senator. His brother is Governor of Florida. "Political dynasty" has become an increasingly common phrase in popular usage.
The Kennedy family is the ne plus ultra of political dynasties. Joseph Kennedy used his money and power to get three sons elected as Senators (and in the case of JFK, to the Presidency). The third generation has similarly benefited by being part of the network (including Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sargent Shriver who both married into it), though the direct lineage itself seems to have experienced some thinning of the political blood.
There are other political dynasties on all levels of government strewn throughout the American political landscape. When this has occurred overseas (Peron's Argentina, dictatorships in the Middle East such as the Assads of Syria, India during the Nehru—Gandhi years) we bemoan this as a sign of political immaturity. How do we describe it when it happens in America?
Can anyone reasonably not assume that political success is often intimately related to whom you know?
One additional reason that may motivate people to hire friends or friends of friends is that they are perceived to be more loyal. The world of politics and government is riven by factions and it is beneficial to have team players to ensure your policies are carried out. Conversely, the media, opposing political parties and activist groups are always eager to find people who are disloyal and are not team players. They can be useful sources of anonymous quotes and classified information which can be used to derail policies which they oppose. John F. Kennedy is supposed to have remarked that the White House is a lousy place to start making friends.
However, certain 'tests' should be mandatory regarding public office or government work. A higher level of scrutiny should be applied to foreclose the likelihood of negative side effects ('externalities') harming innocent victims. Externalities happen when the actions of some people impose costs and harm on others and are a particular risk when the government becomes involved in our lives because we have little recourse, compared to purchasing and employment decisions in the private sector. This seems to have happened in New Orleans.
One of the reasons the military is held in high esteem is because it is seen as an institution that embodies the pristine principle of a meritocracy. Colin Powell has certainly been a beneficiary of this status. But he was also seen as someone who helped defeat Iraq in the Gulf War of 1991. Thus he was a proven success. Brown's replacement in New Orleans is a Coast Guard Admiral, the product of a presumptive meritocracy.
Joshua Muravchik points out that many of the United Nations problems involving internal mismanagement, incompetence and fraud are a result of the absent of a meritocracy there. Kojo Annan used his relationship with Kofi Annan, his father and the Secretary General of the UN, to abuse the Oil—for—Food Program. Benon Sevan flourished as head of the oil—for—food program, despite much—rumored problems with the program within the halls of the UN, because of his friendships with Kofi. Maurice Strong has a close personal friendship with Kofi Annan and is his senior adviser. He, too, seems to be involved in the Oil—for—Food scandal and has been forced from his post . The Volcker report , while incomplete, has held that management problems at the United Nations pervade the institution. Surely this has not been helped by Kofi Annan's friends and family approach towards hiring at the United Nations.
As Irwin Seltzer has pointed out in his article titled "The Quiet Americans", this practice has lead to some less than stellar appointments. Some ambassadors have problems with the local language, are not attuned to foreign sensitivities, and are otherwise not adept at exercising the skills necessary in this day and age to bolster the image of America abroad. Julian Knapp may have provided a real—world example of this phenomena is his Washington Times op—ed which questioned the appointment of William Timken as our Ambassador to Germany. The practice is bipartisan and in a bipartisan manner should be halted.
In a an even more blatant abuse of his powers President Clinton pardoned the notorious international commodity trader Marc Rich who had been barred from entering our country under penalty of imprisonment for Federal crimes involved in oil trading. Marc Rich's ex—wife, Denise, was a charter member of the Friends of Bill club and a huge political donor to his campaign and to the Democratic Party. Clinton's pardoning of Rich was one of the more noxious examples of pandering to friends in the whole history of pardoning. As has been previously reported the freedom that Marc Rich subsequently enjoyed may have given him the flexibility to participate in the oil—for—food scandal.
By its very nature as a monopoly, government service lacks the corrective mechanism of market choices, making violations of meritocratic practices and principles all the more worrisome. Citizens cannot refuse to do business with the IRS or the police, as they can with a vendor or employer in the private sector. But the private sector brings its own set of problems and opportunities. We will consider them in part two of this series later this week.