Can we attract good political leaders? Hint – yes

Can a democracy attract competent leaders, while attaining broad representation? Economic models suggest that free-riding incentives and lower opportunity costs give the less competent a comparative advantage at entering political life. Moreover, if elites have more human capital, selecting on competence may lead to uneven representation. This paper examines patterns of political selection among the universe of municipal politicians and national legislators in Sweden, using extraordinarily rich data on competence traits and social background for the entire population. We document four new facts that together characterize an “inclusive meritocracy.” First, politicians are on average significantly smarter and better leaders than the population they represent. Second, this positive selection is present even when conditioning on family (and hence social) background, suggesting that individual competence is key for selection. Third, the representation of social background, whether measured by parental earnings or occupational social class, is remarkably even. Fourth, there is at best a weak tradeoff in selection between competence and social representation, mainly due to strong positive selection of politicians of low (parental) socioeconomic status. A broad implication of these facts is that it is possible for democracy to generate competent and socially-representative leadership.

By: Ernesto Dal Bó ; Frederico Finan ; Olle Folke ; Torsten Persson ; Johanna Rickne. URL:

This entry was posted in Political theory, Politics - international, Politics - national. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Can we attract good political leaders? Hint – yes

  1. conrad says:

    That clearly has no parallel in Australia, where the vast majority of Liberal politicians have gone to very expensive private schools, and to a lesser extent so have the Labor ones, although a few of them went to places like Melbourne High instead.

  2. Lorikeet says:

    We are not living in a democracy, so the answer is “no”. We have an electoral system that is deliberately rigged against anyone other than the Woolworths and Coles of politics and anyone who isn’t a billionaire.

    • David Walker says:

      Lorikeet, forgive my rudeness, but I get sick of people wandering in and dishing up this sort of crapulence.

      • Most political systems, including Australia’s, feature a large left-wing party and a large right-wing party, for reasons that are well understood and do not amount to “rigging”. Our system nevertheless allows a strong representation of minority viewpoints in the Senate. It may not be perfect, but it doesn’t mean we’re not a democracy.

      • You might get a small edge in a tight seat with money of your own to spend, but if money was all it took, Clive Palmer would still be an MP.

      • On recent history, it seems more important to have been a Rhodes Scholar than a millionaire if you want a crack at running the country. But you can also be Barnaby Joyce and still do alright.

      On the bright side, stuff like this makes me remember all the merits of the system we have.

  3. Moz of Yarramulla says:

    That made me interested in how Sweden differs from Australia politically. It looks as though they have more freedom of information

    The Freedom of the Press Act sets out the principle of public access to official documents in order to guarantee an open society with access to information about the work of the Riksdag, the Government and public agencies. This law allows people to study official documents whenever they wish. Another principle in the Freedom of the Press Act is the freedom to communicate information. Under this principle, everyone in Sweden is entitled to give information to the media that they consider important and that they feel should be made public. The publisher of the material is not entitled to reveal the source if the individual in question wishes to remain anonymous.

    Not quite the same approach as Australia, where I’d like to say more but then it could be an imprisonable offense for you to speculate on where I went, and you’d never know until the white van arrived (said only partly in jest).

    They also use proportional representation, albeit with a 4% threshold, with three levels of government plus the EU – 20 counties plus 290 councils. With only 10M people that’s half a million per county on average but I suspect the million people in Stockholm a one county. Australia would struggle there since half the population live in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisvegas.

    They’re politically neutral as an official stance, which I suspect reflects their desire to stay out of the conflict between the UK/US axis to their left, and the USSR axis to their right. Australia seems content to be a buttplug in the US alliance (you never see it, but it gets a lot of shit). Quite different. They also appear to be opposed to global warming, where Australia very strongly supports it. I suspect that opposition is similar on other important questions.

  4. Jim says:

    I think we probably have a lot more outliers in the population of Australian politicians than in Sweden, so the model and findings don’t transfer well.

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