The Economic Problem of Choosing the Best Leader
Pramudya A Oktavinanda
We all know the familiar phrase “may the best candidate win” in an election process. Obviously, we really hope that we can get the best leader through such process. Yet in reality, we often fall into a situation where the entire candidates suck and we are forced to vote for the best among the worst, which is still bad.
Have you ever wondered why most of the time, getting the best from the bests as our leader is very difficult? Is it actually possible for us to use a meritocratic system where leaders are chosen solely based on their capabilities? The answer might be disappointing.
The main problem? We tend to forget that in the modern world, leadership is neither simply a right nor a privilege; it is a job with certain responsibilities. There are costs and benefits involved. Thus, the law of supply and demand will govern the process.
Those who want to be leaders do not necessarily have the needed capabilities. Most of them, if not all, are people who believe that the overall benefits of being a leader are higher than the total costs.
Of course, the hopeful leaders might have been wrong in projecting their victory. We’ve seen cases where unelected officials went berserk due to the stress caused by their failure. But that does not matter.
The most important thing is that when they chose the path of leadership in the first place, they were convinced that it would be good for them. Whether it would also be good for other people is a bonus. It would only matter when there is a strong connection between the leader’s performance and his future electability or the security of his current position.
This is the primary cause for our difficulties in finding the best leaders. We can’t simply assume that these leaders would be purely motivated by altruism or that they will serve the people just for the sake of being a good leader.
Even worse, the problem would be amplified when the requirements of getting as many votes as possible are significantly different with the requirements for becoming a leader itself. The differences may vary around the world but they do exist.
That would mean that each candidate will need two different set of skills: the skills to be elected and the skills to lead. In practice, these two set of skills are different. Thus, we see people who become politicians and those who become technocrats.
Not everyone, unfortunately, is blessed with both skills. There are many situations which may affect the possibility of a candidate to become a leader and give one set of skills a better advantage over the other.
Track record of leadership is one example. No one knows exactly how a person can be an effective leader without first knowing his track record of past performances. However, in a situation where the track record is unclear or hard to know, the skills for attracting voters would be more important than the skills to lead.
In countries where information about candidates is not widely distributed – unless you have a lot of money – the costs for candidates with good leadership skills but less vote gaining skills would be too high.
In case these people – who are actually fit to be the best leaders- believe that joining the election race does not worth their time because they don’t have enough skills to be elected, we are doomed.
With less good people, the market of leaders will be oversupplied with bad candidates who know how to attract votes. While at first people might vote for them, sooner or later people will know their leaders true quality.
The problem is, if these bad leaders create a cartel to maintain their position – since they are in power anyway – the chances of having new good candidates would decrease. This will trigger more apathy from rational voters to participate in the election and we will end up in a vicious circle until God knows when.
Of course, I do not want to write an entirely gloomy article. A single tiebreaker can actually end the above vicious circle. The case of the latest regional election in Jakarta might be a great example.
I believe that the existence of independent candidates who have some vote attracting skills – though have no chances of winning – opened the possibilities for Jakarta politicians to break up their cartel and pursue a chance to win the election for themselves, which give opportunities to the citizens to choose other candidates.
At this stage, I do not know whether the election result would be beneficial for the citizens, but I am happy to see that there is a practical solution to break the vicious circle without having to conduct a revolution.