Chris Blattman

All the Presidents lawyers

From the Economist, an unusally in-depth study of politicians and their professions.

Countries often have marked peculiarities. Egypt likes academics; South Korea, civil servants; Brazil, doctors. Some emerging-market countries are bedevilled by large numbers of criminals, even if this doesn’t usually show up in their “Who’s Who” records.

In democracies, lawyers dominate. This is not surprising. The law deals with the same sort of questions as politics: what makes a just society; the balance between liberty and security, and so on. Lawyerly skills—marshalling evidence, appealing to juries, command of procedure—transfer well to the political stage. So, sadly, does an obsession with process and a tendency to see things in partisan terms—us or them, guilty or not guilty—albeit in a spirit of loyalty to a system to which all defer. In common-law countries, the battleground of the court is of a piece with the adversarial, yet rule-bound, spirit of politics. Even in places with a Napoleonic code, lawyers abound. In Germany, a third of the Bundestag’s members are lawyers. In France, nine of Nicolas Sarkozy’s first cabinet of 16 were lawyers or law graduates, including the president, the prime minister and the finance minister, an ex-chairman of Baker & McKenzie, an American law firm.

In China, the influence of engineers is partly explained by history and ideology. In a country where education was buffeted by the tempests of Maoism, engineering was a safer field of study than most. In fact, communist regimes of all stripes have long had a weakness for grandiose engineering projects. The Soviet Union, which also produced plenty of engineer-politicians (including Boris Yeltsin), wanted to reverse the northward flow of some great Russian rivers, for example.

The presence of so many engineer-politicians in China goes hand in hand with a certain way of thinking. An engineer’s job, at least in theory, is to ensure things work, that the bridge stays up or the dam holds. The process by which projects get built is usually secondary. That also seems true of Chinese politics, in which government often rides roughshod over critics. Engineers are supposed to focus on the long term; buildings have no merit if they will collapse after a few years. So it is understandable that an authoritarian country like China, where development is the priority and spending on infrastructure is colossal, should push engineers to the top.

2 Responses

  1. Much of this will reflect demand side from voters.

    But is there a supply side coefficient? Say, are the difference between politician wages and engineering wages higher in engineer-heavy countries? Or because those countries have many engineers? Figure out the relative shares of these professions in different countries, and then some probability of transition into politician–does that look like the observed data?

    Seems like there could be a good paper here. Though, again, the demand side is tricky.

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