Why do the worst get on top? An answer from Public Choice


An important component of the argument of F. A. Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom is that those people likely to derive utility from directing and ordering others will come to occupy the positions at the top of a government hierarchy in a centrally planned economy because more tolerant and conciliatory individuals would not be attracted to such work. It is for this reason, Hayek argued, that in a socialist polity ‘the worst get on top’.

The question of who will exercise political power also arises in the context of social democracy. Democratic structures necessarily give power to some over others and how this power is exercised may depend upon who exercises it. As Geoffrey Brennan and James M. Buchanan put the question in their book The Reason of Rules: ‘If institutions are such as to permit a selected number of persons to exercise discretionary powers over others, what sort of persons should be predicted to occupy these positions?’ (p. 64).

Brennan and Buchanan argued that political power may be understood, using an analogy from economic theory, as a monopoly right that is auctioned to the highest bidder. We should expect the person willing to bid the most for that monopoly right to be the person who expects to gain the most from it. That person is likely to be the one prepared to exploit it most ruthlessly: ‘positions of political power will tend to attract those persons who place higher values on the possession of such power. These persons will tend to be the highest bidders in the allocation of political offices’ (p. 64).

In other words, we should expect that the people most willing to work to attain political office will be those who expect to gain the most from holding it. Those who would seek elected office in order to pursue other-regarding ends may not be sufficiently motivated to invest large amounts of time and effort to win political power. Those who desire to wield power over others for personal gain, on the other hand, may only be able to realise this end by personally achieving political power, creating a powerful incentive to devote substantial resources to securing elected office.

It may also be the case that the benefits of political power will be greatest for those whose views or preferences are at most variance with those of the majority of the population. An individual who desires an outcome different from the outcomes that most other people would choose is likely to gain the most from acquiring the monopoly right to exercise political power over others. For this reason Brennan and Buchanan argued that we should expect that ‘political institutions will be populated by individuals whose interests will conflict with those of ordinary citizens’ (p. 64).

This analysis would seem to reinforce David Hume’s dictum that political institutions should be designed as if every person was a knave with no end other than his or her own private interests, even though we know that not all people behave knavishly. To design political institutions on the basis that those who hold political power will always be benevolent is too great a risk. Limits on the power of government, then, are an essential part of political settlements.

Member of the Advisory Council

Dr John Meadowcroft is a member of the Advisory Council at the Institute of Economic Affairs as well as a senior lecturer in the Department of Political Economy at King's College London. John has taught on the Hansard Scholars Programme at the LSE and in the Department of Politics at Queen Mary, University of London.

4 thoughts on “Why do the worst get on top? An answer from Public Choice”

  1. Posted 21/01/2013 at 15:34 | Permalink

    Ah, I have enjoyed that post! Thank you. And I would like to add some further research.
    The conclusion that politicians are opportunistic players looking only for their own benefit (and not afraid of cheating to get it) can also be drawn from Down’s economic theory of democracy, however, with Downs being a proponent of public choice theory that conclusion is not surprising. But, there is another great work done by Robert Michels in the early 20 century (I think was originally published in 1911) called Political Parties – A Sociological Study of the Oligarchical Tendencies of Modern Democracies that does the groundwork to develop the “iron law of oligarchy”, which shows the inevitability for modern democracies to become pray for opportunists and those, who cannot make a living by doing any kind of job that requires competencies and capabilities and knowledge. Quite intriguing if you think about it, its more than 100 years old that book!


  2. Posted 21/01/2013 at 15:49 | Permalink

    Posting a picture of Hayek alongside the title ‘Why do the worst get on top?’ – Perfect!

    More seriously, your post would be more honest if you dropped all instances of the word ‘political’ everywhere in the post. The major failing of libertarianism is its willful blindness to all the non-governmental sources of power that the strong can use to oppress the weak.

  3. Posted 21/01/2013 at 16:13 | Permalink

    Yes, though we should always put the ‘knowledge problem’ next to the ‘incentive problem’. Power should be limited not simply because of the reasons outlined here but because even those with entirely pure intentions lack the necessary knowledge to create beneficial outcomes.
    Ultimately, however, I think the problem has become – or maybe always was – less one of ‘why should government be limited?’ but of ‘how can government be limited?’. There’s nothing new in PCT really – in different ways Classical Liberals have been saying this stuff for at least 300 years (viz. the reference to Hume). Of course, it’s always worth repeating and explaining the message, PCT isn’t that well known about outside academic circles and even where it is known it is simply ignored, much like most other theories of limited government. What we’ve failed to do is implement the findings. I’m not wholly sure why – is it a failure of message/PR? Or are the vested interests simply too powerful and is democracy simply incompatible with capitalism (I don’t mean are we doomed to socialism, but we seem doomed to social democracy!)? Whatever the cause, I still don’t feel that PCT by itself is a sufficient theory – it doesn’t tell us what to limit government to, much less how to limit it.

  4. Posted 21/01/2013 at 17:14 | Permalink

    Oh no Anonymous, not that old canard! It’s so easily refutable – ‘oppression of the strong by the weak’ is only ultimately possible via the exertion of monopoly power, and monopoly power is only feasible via the agency of the law (ie the state) supported by the threat of forcible expropriation of property. Granted, there is a dispute between Classical Liberals and Anarcho-Capitalists as to whether the state should be the upholder of property rights, but either way, it is only through the violation of property rights that such oppression can occur. All other interactions are necessarily voluntary and therefore oppression simply does not exist. What PCT (and its treatment by etatists) tells us that, in fact, the reverse is true – the major failing of etatism is its willful blindness to all the sources of governmental power that the strong (those with access to state power) can and indeed do use to oppress the weak (those without).

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