Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Political Dynasties and Competition

Copyright, The New York Times Company

Senator Edward M. Kennedy’s death last week may mark the passing of one of America’s great political dynasties — and an occasion to examine what such dynasties reveal about the state of competition in the electoral marketplace.

Aside from Senator Kennedy and his brothers (and their offspring who have also held office), the dynasties have included the Bushes (a senator, two presidents and a governor over three generations), the Clintons (a president and a near-presidential nominee) and the Daleys of Chicago (two longtime mayors and a Cabinet secretary).

It is difficult to attain high political offices, so it is no surprise that those offices are held by special people with unique talents. But generational inheritance is not so strong that the genes and life experiences that put, say, George H.W. Bush in the Oval Office ahead of millions of other qualified people would be replicated closely enough by his son that he too would finish first in the same political race.

From an economic point of view, political dynasties suggest that the competition for public office is less than perfect.

Might there be obstacles and barriers that prevent the success of superior candidates?

One test that economists use when addressing this question in the private sector — that is, determining whether a large producer maintains its market dominance by blocking competition rather than enticing the consumer — is a test for excess profits. If a large producer both faces little competition and earns profits that seem to exceed a market return to its effort and unique assets (broadly defined), then it may be blocking competition.

In the electoral realm, one indicator of imperfect competition might be the victory of a candidate who has relative little in terms of personal qualifications or attributes, yet wields the influence conferred by a family name in a political dynasty. In Edward Kennedy’s first run for the Senate, a primary challenger declared, “The office of United States senator should be merited, and not inherited.” (Mr. Kennedy won by more than 2 to 1.)

Another may be the ability of such a dynasty to survive scandals — Mayor Richard M. Daley has been surrounded by them — and perpetuate its dominance, even as some argue that it is above the law.

But President Obama’s victory last year suggests that political dynasties still have to compete with talented newcomers.

1 comment:

Tino said...

There are currently 21 members of the house whose fathers were also members.

There have been 700 families with 2 or more members serving in Congress.

The Udalls currently have 2 members in the Senate. Others include, Gores, Romneys (father senator), Pryors, Dodds, probly soon Bidens.

Part of it is bequests, but how much bequests do people tolerate?
While political participation is largely genetic,

party membership is only mildly genetic, but overwhelming the families are the same party, so genes can’t be it.

There should be a bunch of skill transmission growing up in these families. But the most likely story is information costs and brand-name. People vote for these mediocre people because they liked John and Robert Kennedy so much. Also they know what they get with the Kennedy name (catholic liberals). That’s also why Jeb Bush has weak prospects.

Would be interesting to see if the effect is weaker if the family name is not the same (for example for girls from political families who marry).