[Fill in Name of Government Program] Would Have Worked Had the Right Person Been Running It

I have disputed the meme in the post's title on many occasions.  For example:

  • No person running any government agency has access to the same information that millions of individuals might have in making decisions for themselves
  • No person running any government agency can create an optimal solution, because millions of citizens all have different values and make different tradeoffs, so an optimum for one is not going to be an optimum for many others
  • No person running any government agency has the right incentives to make good decisions.  They will always optimize for increasing the size and scope of their organization and signaling virtue over actually being virtuous.

But researchers have found yet another reason:  power causes brain damage

A spate of recent articles corroborate what I already suspected, that holding elected office is the neurological equivalent of getting kicked in the head by a donkey.

"Subjects under the influence of power," Dacher Keltner, a professor atUniversity of California, Berkeleyfound, "acted as if they had suffered a traumatic brain injury—becoming more impulsive, less risk-aware, and, crucially, less adept at seeing things from other people's point of view."

In other words, power turns people into sociopaths.

This isn't a huge surprise to the vast majority of us who rant about power on election day and every day afterward. Republicans and Democrats want power and scramble for it, like a football. Classical liberals see power more like Frodo's ring—a corrupting influence better chucked into a volcano. In light of recent studies we ought to consider it a bit more like a concussion.

Keltner, brought into the public spotlight through a recent piece in The Atlantic, likens the accruing of power to actual brain trauma: "My own research has found that people with power tend to behave like patients who have damaged their brain's orbitofrontal lobes (the region of the frontal lobes right behind the eye sockets), a condition that seems to cause overly impulsive and insensitive behavior. Thus the experience of power might be thought of as having someone open up your skull and take out that part of your brain so critical to empathy and socially-appropriate behavior."


  1. kidmugsy:

    I think Acton beat them to it. And, I'd guess, various ancient Greeks.

  2. jimc5499:

    What's new? The military has known that for centuries. When an officer or senior enlisted reaches a certain level, it has been joked about their getting their mandatory lobotomy. Maybe is isn't a joke.

  3. ErikTheRed:

    Or as Nassim Nicholas Taleb puts it, they act as if they don't have skin in the game. Because they don't.

  4. The_Big_W:

    But democrat politicians really caaarrreeeee. /sarc

  5. irandom419:

    Incentive is to get a bigger budget, so demonstrate they don't have a enough by bad service. Rinse and repeat until levy passes. The wonders of not having a residual claimant like Warren.

  6. james:

    Unfair comparison. I've never seen a donkey kick another donkey in the head.
    Mules might.

  7. ErikTheRed:

    Well, I was referring to skin not associated with malincentives....

  8. jdgalt:

    You're forgetting Jerry Pournelle's Iron Law of Bureaucracy: "In any institution, there are two groups of people: those who want the institution to do what it was formed to do, and those who see the institution's most important job as preserving its existence (and thus their own jobs and prestige). Inevitably, the second group will take control of the institution and purge it of the first group."

  9. morganovich:

    i think this goes beyond just public choice theory. all those issues are real and valid, but they are compounded by these mental effects that literally appear to occur at the neurological level.

    not only are the incentives perverse, but the people facing them are, by virtue of their position, made overconfident, unable to see risk, less able to empathize, partisan, and overly impulsive. this implies that even if you could devise a system with good incentives to minimize the effects of the public choice issues, you'd still get inferior outcomes because the mere act of granting such power makes people into idiots.

  10. Bistro:

    I tend to agree but for a different reason. It is almost impossible to fire civil servants who screw up by the numbers. Look at the VA. I think things would be vastly improved if the director of an agency could fire anybody and everybody at will. There is no right to lifetime employment working in government bureaucracies and if some good ones are tossed with the bad ones, so be it.

  11. cc:

    Another big problem with government management of the economy or anything else is that progress is almost always the result of trial and error. Hundreds of companies were started to make cars around the world. Most failed or were bought out. There was no way in 1922 that any government could have picked the winners. Not only do things change, but even a "winner" company can miss the boat on change or screw up their delivery of service or cost control. Where is Kodak or Xerox? Wang or Digital Equipment? Thus crony capitalism (protection of existing companies) not only can inhibit innovation, it is bound to end up protecting losers eventually. Should the gov protect JC Penny or Sears?
    As to the topic here, one of the reasons I think for their finding is that agency staff are almost always immune from the consequences of their mistakes. While sociopaths exist within corporations, eventually either someone stops them because they are causing a problem, or that store/division/department/company is closed/fails. Thus there is a mechanism for self-correction. I have heard many tales from friends and seen it where this type of person is destroying an enterprise, but once destroyed the problem is solved. In government it is almost impossible to get punished. You can run the Post Office or Detroit of Chicago or even an entire state into the ground without blame ever being attached to anyone in particular. It is always "bad luck".

  12. DaveK:

    I would ask whether the author has cause and effect backwards. That is, that power tends to accrue to those with sociopathic tendencies. To me it makes more sense, as (in my experience, anyway) the more empathic the leader, the worse the organization tends to fare in the longer term. You can't be "kind" to subordinates or clients when difficult decisions must be made to preserve the function of, and even sometimes to carry out the mission of that organization.

    There is much truth in the statement that "Nice guys finish last."

  13. sean2829:

    NASA is a great example of that law.

  14. Andrew_M_Garland:


    H.L. Mencken: [edited]
    "A professional politician is a professionally dishonorable man. To get anywhere near high office he makes so many compromises and submits to so many humiliations that he becomes indistinguishable from a streetwalker."

    The sort of man who rises to high political office is, uh, the sort of man who we see in high office.

    He hasn't lied, bent, and squirmed just to dismantle the power of his goal. He accepts the concept of "collateral damage". To attempt to make omelettes, one must accept breaking eggs and heads. For Progressives and Communists, the lives of millions may have to be sacrificed to provide utopia to the trillions of beings yet unborn.

    Motto: So what if we don't know what to do? We will do something. If that fails, we will continue to do something until we get a good result. If this extends beyond our lifetime, then our children will carry on the good work. Onward!

  15. sean2829:

    "No person running any government agency has the right incentives to make good decisions. They will always optimize for increasing the size and scope of their organization and signaling virtue over actually being virtuous."
    Perhaps the most frightening thing is not only do government organizations grow, the companies that depend upon the government's largess for their business' revenue will largely follow the same game plan. Look at consolidation in defense contractors and healthcare delivery organizations. Very large firms have higher overhead costs and the government takes this into account when determining an acceptable level of compensation. Hospitals get compensated at 3x the rate as private practice physicians so we see hospitals growing larger and larger while private practice physicians disappear. For the rest of us, that means we'll have to cough up more money for the same service.

  16. cc:

    I would agree with this, particularly in politics. To succeed in politics one must be Machiavellian, always on the lookout for advantage and favors (giving or asking). A balanced person doesn't function that way. It is only slightly less bad in a corp or gov agency. The study mentioned above did not compare before/after and thus can't conclude that power CAUSED brain changes.

  17. johnmoore:

    I doubt that the "science" quoted here is very good. This sort of psychological "research" is usually just result-seeking bogosity.

  18. marque2:

    Government seems very adept at running the Department of Redundancy Departments. I'll give them that!

  19. Zachriel:

    They have something similar in Britain, the Circumlocution Office.

  20. Zachriel:

    [Fill in Name of Government Program] Would Have Worked Had the Right Person Been Running It ... I have disputed the meme in the post's title on many occasions.

    That argument only stands scrutiny when you can explain why government is sometimes the best solution (such as military defence). In fact, modern societies are highly complex structures with power distributed at all levels within the system — including in centralized but limited governments.

  21. marque2:

    Well, leave it to the Brits to have a fancier name for everything :)

  22. TruthisaPeskyThing:

    Public Choice Theory is well aware that there are circumstances were Government is the best solution. Usually these cases involve public goods where there is the free rider problem with infeasible methods to charge users of a product.