The Problem With Specialization

In a piece at RealClearPolicy Andy Smerick makes a very prudent observation:

There’s no doubt that academics, journalists, and pundits have a great deal to offer the national political conversation. But if they have not been shaped by the actual experience of holding governing authority, their perspectives will be incomplete. That absence will affect how they assess events, the advice they offer, and how they engage in the debate. Legendary Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn was on to something when he remarked, after being told about the brilliance and education of President Kennedy’s staff, “I’d feel a whole lot better about them if just one of them had run for sheriff once.”

I agree but I don’t think he goes far enough. I’d feel a whole lot better about our politicians if they’d done something, anything other than run for public office, held political jobs, or been academics. They don’t realize how cloistered those environments are. They are structured in ways that working in what blithely used to be called “the real world” is not. It’s a lot more like continuing in school than being a trucker or salesman is.

If you look at the careers of Supreme Court Justices, Congressional representatives, or senators, an astonishing number of them have been career politicians. They know nothing else. It separates them from us ordinary mortals in basic ways.

Whatever happened to the idea of public service being the culmination of a career rather than a career? Or, worse, a springboard to a lucrative job in lobbying or finance, trading on the contact you’d cultivated in public office? I think there is a problem with this sort of specialization and G. K. Chesterton understood it well:

We tend to have trained soldiers because they fight better, trained singers because they sing better, trained dancers because they dance better, specially instructed laughers because they laugh better, and so on and so on. The principle has been applied to law and politics by innumerable modern writers. Many Fabians have insisted that a greater part of our political work should be performed by experts. Many legalists have declared that the untrained jury should be altogether supplanted by the trained Judge.


The Fabian argument of the expert, that the man who is trained should be the man who is trusted, would be absolutely unanswerable if it were really true that a man who studied a thing and practiced it every day went on seeing more and more of its significance. But he does not. He goes on seeing less and less of its significance. In the same way, alas! we all go on every day, unless we are continually goading ourselves into gratitude and humility, seeing less and less of the significance of the sky or the stones.

Now, it is a terrible business to mark a man out for the vengeance of men. But it is a thing to which a man can grow accustomed, as he can to other terrible things; he can even grow accustomed to the sun. And the horrible thing about all legal officials, even the best, about all judges, magistrates, barristers, detectives, and policemen, is not that they are wicked (some of them are good), not that they are stupid (several of them are quite intelligent), it is simply that they have got used to it.

Strictly they do not see the prisoner in the dock; all they see is the usual man in the usual place.

I think that we should return to that former sensibility but I don’t know that we can. There is just too much money and power in being a professional elected official.

13 comments… add one
  • Gray Shambler Link

    I believe I’ve said before, the only fix I can think of is to allow congressmen to live AND vote in their home districts. Get them out of the bubble, and make the job of lobbyists harder. But? Oh well.

  • Roy Lofquist Link

    Be careful what you wish for. You don’t actually want more Trump, do you?

  • steve Link

    Query- At the national level, Senators, Congressmen, Judges, etc., do you really see any difference in behaviors between those who are long time politicians and those who are not? Who would you point to as good examples? I can think of politicians who have had careers in the private sector and who are just as bad or worse than everyone else, but can’t think of anyone who would be a shining example on th tother side.


  • Both Illinois senators are either career politicians (Durbin) or have always worked for the government (Duckworth). My representative (Mike Quigley) is a career politician. Those are the national politicians with whom I’m most familiar.

    It is not merely true of Democratic senators and Congressmen. It’s true of Republicans, too. Just go down the roster and you’ll quickly see how many know nothing but government.

    IMO it’s a basic problem. Having senators and Congressmen being a class apart.

  • Steve Link

    That is not what I am asking. Do you have an example of some people who are not career politicians who are superior to those who are? In principle I agree with you but when I stop and think about it I don’t think it will make any difference. Party allegiance and ideological purity Trump’s everything.


  • Gray Shambler Link

    Steve: And seniority.

  • Steve Link

    Gray- My instinct is to say that our 30 year Senators and Congresspeople are a big problem, but I can’t think of any new people who are an improvement. If there are any, they must be pretty rare. Maybe if more got a chance we might see something, but count me pretty skeptical right now.


  • That is not what I am asking. Do you have an example of some people who are not career politicians who are superior to those who are? In principle I agree with you but when I stop and think about it I don’t think it will make any difference. Party allegiance and ideological purity Trump’s everything.

    And my point is that I don’t follow every Congressman and senator in the country. I pay the most attention to my own and my own are perfect examples of what I have a problem with. I speculate they are not alone. Just off the top of my head Mitch McConnell, John Cornyn, Chuck Schumer, Dick Durbin, Paul Ryan, Kevin McCarthy, Nancy Pelosi, and Steny Hoyer all fit that model. That’s the entire Congressional senior leadership.

    I could go down to the next tier but I believe it would tell the same story. So, for example, John McCain and Lindsey Graham have never had any employer but the federal government.

    I can’t very well cite a difference that experience outside the government might make with so few examples of national political figures who have any experience outside the government. I think the circumstances you refer to where “Party allegiance and ideological purity Trump’s everything” is an artifact of that reality.

  • Guarneri Link

    Still looking for Mr Smith are we?

  • Nah. I’m just trying to get rid of Sen. Paine. And Jim Taylor. Every Sen. Paine always has a Jim Taylor.

  • Andy Link

    In reference to Steve’s inquiry I’d nominate current Colorado governor John Hickenlooper.

    I do think there are few examples however. And I agree with Dave’s larger point – the incentives are such that politics attracts lifers.

  • Judging by his bio at Wikipedia, he’s a good example.

  • steve Link

    I thought of him, but he is not a Congressperson or Senator. Our PA governor is not a career politician either, and far as I can tell is not really an extremist.


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