Zelophehad’s Daughters

Should Politicians Take Licensing Exams?

Posted by Kiskilili

Lawyers have to demonstrate their competency. So do doctors, psychologists, and a whole range of skilled professionals. You can’t so much as become a transcriptionist earning minimum wage without taking a typing and spelling test; why should you be able to become leader of the free world without meeting any criteria whatsoever other than providing evidence you were born at least 35 years ago in the United States? (Well, that and the hard part: getting yourself voted into office. Which probably involves, most importantly, beaming a photogenic and charming persona into TV sets everywhere and convincing viewers your opponent was deposited on the planet by a bat out of hell.) We don’t grant health care professionals power over our lives unless they’ve demonstrated expertise in their field, for the same reason we don’t get onto planes flown by untrained pilots, however good their intentions; why should we grant politicians power over all of our lives on much more slender bases?

The arguments in favor of licensing exams seem overwhelming to me (setting aside the practical obstacle of how such a policy would be implemented, considering that the legislators who would have to approve it would be the very people it would affect most directly). For the highest levels of government I think such an exam should at least entail sections on economics, political science, some American history thrown in for good measure, and international affairs, to be supplemented by topics deemed relevant depending on the most pressing issues of the time, such as Islam or environmental science. Obviously a president’s cabinet members exist to provide additional expertise on a range of subjects, but ideally I think their expertise should complement the president’s own solid foundation.

Certainly a written exam could never serve as an ideal assessment of who is most qualified for office. And a number of practical considerations–such as creating a board of examiners to write and assess the exam–would have to be thought through. In addition to an abstract academic level of expertise, optimal candidates should probably be natural leaders, personable and effective negotiators, and honest individuals. And concrete experience in government, in addition to merely abstract experience of the issues, is certainly helpful–although the latter should surely be a minimum requirement. But the exam would only serve as a gateway to candidacy, not as a final determinant for who landed the job.

You might argue that an exam caters to academic sensibilities and is fundamentally elitist. I guess I don’t see why we wouldn’t want elites to run our country. I personally would like to have a president who is smarter and more informed than I am.  If they’re serious about filling the office, why not take the time to acquire and demonstrate knowledge relevant to the job? Such a test wouldn’t require that they earn advanced degrees from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government (although that might be nice). But it would probably require that they at least walk into a public library or get on Amazon.com, institutions that even the underprivileged but scintillatingly brilliant Abe Lincolns out there in their log cabins should be able to access. If they’re not able or willing to master the intricacies of the economy, I would suggest that it’s no more unfair to disqualify them for candidacy than it is unfair to expel from medical school students unable or unwilling to study the functions of the nervous system. 

In a sense this is perhaps a dangerous and anti-democratic sentiment: to some degree I would be deferring my judgment as a voter to a board of examiners. Such a proposal is predicated on the assumption that a team of experts would be more qualified to assess political competence than the general public, and what’s to prevent corruption among the examiners? Such issues would certainly have to be taken into consideration. But we already believe in checks on democracy, the most prominent of which when it comes to the presidential election–the electoral college–fails entirely to fulfill its designated function (preventing idiots from voting idiots into office). 

Once political hopefuls had qualified for candidacy, nothing would necessarily stop us from continuing to run our elections like protracted national pageants designed to find new anchors for Access Hollywood, or circuslike sporting events complete with gladiatorial debates, boxing-ring interviews, and commentators providing play-by-play reports and holding forth on the most savvy way for candidates to score political touchdowns.  But who knows? Perhaps, given this additional (albeit crude) data on candidates’ qualifications, we’d spend more time wondering why Senator Greasysmile was unable to locate Iran on a map (assuming he wasn’t eliminated in round 1 as a result of this failure) and less time contemplating why his great-grandmother thrice removed put a jewel in her navel and bowed down to bronze idols of werewolves by the light of the full moon. Because, in the end, while the latter is certainly more titillating, the less entertaining, less easily grasped issues probably make more of a difference in how President Greasysmile, once elected, will fulfill his responsibilities.

17 Responses to “Should Politicians Take Licensing Exams?”

  1. 1.

    This post is unconstitutional. An enemy hath done this.

  2. 2.

    From Plato:

    Political power seemed to attract persons who lacked the prerequisite qualities of leadership: intelligence, integrity and selfless concern for the welfare of the governed. Intelligence is central to the Platonic view of leadership. Qualification for the wielding of political power must be based on the possession of superior intelligence, not superior physical force. From intelligence springs a knowledge of moral truths and a correct vision of the function of political power as serving the interests of the governed.

  3. 3.

    Yes, I am passionate about politics, and you are so right on the money here.
    However, from my Econ 110 days, I remember learning that entrance and licensing exams were not necessarily to make sure that the best people were cutting hair or people, but used as a barrier to entry.
    Perhaps we don’t want a barrier to entry in politics? (beyond looks, obviously)
    I’m looking forward to a good discussion here.

  4. 4.

    That was my thought as well, jessawhy, that licensing is typically designed to serve the interests of those already in a profession, who get a pass from the exam with a grandfather clause. That’s what I remember from reading pop economics books rather than an actual class, though, so I didn’t want to be the first one to say it. :) And in the case of politicians, I’m sure the ones in office would be more than happy to create super-nasty tests that nobody could pass so that they would have to stay in office forever.

    I tend to agree with you, Kiskilili, that I’d just as soon have political leaders who I felt like were better informed than I was. I think one argument people might make against this preference is that they don’t want people who are too knowledgeable because then they’re overconfident in what they think they know and they’re more willing to make risky decisions that they don’t see as being risky and they botch things up. On the other hand, I think that President Bush provides a pretty good example of someone who isn’t all that smart, and who is nonetheless completely convinced of the rightness of everything he does. So overconfidence isn’t limited to the elites.

  5. 5.

    I keep thinking about how it’s really the aides, the support staff, the Chief of Staff who really make some of the hard decisions (memories of West Wing spinning in my head)
    Perhaps we should have licensing exams for them as well.
    Or, better yet, they should be selected by someone other than the candidate. But, I can’t think of who or what group. .

  6. 6.

    I doubt we could create a test (to which I would consent ) that would eliminate the current choice of idiots.

    Even if you could, I’m not sure I would want a professional cadre running all the branches of government. Right now we have professional bureaucrats, lobbyists, and judges. The legislative and executive can still be filled by just about anyone. I could add the media to the list of professionals, but I don’t think they have an exam they have to take.

    That didn’t sound too cynical did it?

  7. 7.

    Yeah, Jessawhy, as long as we’re introducing exams, may as well give them to all key members of the staff! (And I’m honored you liked the post, since I’m sure you know more about political science than I do. :) )

    Great quote, Ryan.

    You could be right, Ziff, that if such a policy were introduced the politicians currently in office would be motivated to make the tests as difficult as possible as a way of protecting their power. On the other hand, it seems like that could easily be spun to make them look bad. If absolutely nobody passed the exam that they didn’t have to take, we might start to wonder what makes them think they’re qualified to do what they would essentially be claiming absolutely no one else was qualified to do without ever having demonstrated their expertise concretely. But unless the board of examiners was thoroughly corrupt, chances are somebody would pass. And if they did pass an extremely difficult exam, it seems like they could handily brandish that dazzling credential against the incumbent in a campaign.

    The overconfidence issue as a potential objection is one that hadn’t occurred to me. But you’re right that President Bush is a good counterexample. What is the relationship between confidence and competence? Maybe it’s unfair to pick on Sarah Palin’s recent interview, because even if politicians have brilliantly intricate policies planned, the press has no trouble spinning out sound bites that we can readily digest. But I think her statement about not blinking when making important decisions is profoundly troubling. If my leaders are going to make snap decisions without even thinking them through at the time, I would prefer they be extraordinarily well informed people, having thought through whole assortments of possible contingencies and consequences in advance.

    Sometimes it feels like there’s a lot more confidence than competence floating around Washington. And maybe that makes sense given our electoral process, because it’s exuding such qualities in profusion through our TV screens that got these people into office. But if we have to be lacking in one or the other, I personally would far prefer the converse.

  8. 8.

    Kiskilili, I have some fundamental quibbles with your assumptions here, and with your indulgence, I’ll explain why.

    Our history over the past hundred years shows that government by egghead doesn’t work very well. Probably our two smartest presidents were Wilson and Hoover, and one of them got us into WWI while the other one got us into the depression. Every miserable place in the world with 500% inflation has a finance minister with a PhD in Econ from Oxford. Conversely, three of our most successful presidents were FDR, Truman, and Reagan. None of those three will ever be mistaken for a member of Mensa, and each was derided by detractors as being incompetent and unprepared. FDR didn’t know his Malta from his Yalta, but he led our country successfully through some pretty dark days. The smart people behind Dewey excoriated Truman as a hick and shirt salesman from Missouri and mocked his bourgeois-ness right up until the day he handed them their heads on a platter. Clark Clifford, white shoe lawyer, ambassador and cabinet member for 40 years described Reagan as an amiable dunce, and elicited knowing chuckles from the clever set. And yet, while RR was busy winning the Cold War, CC was busy corrupting BCCI and running American Bancshares into the ground.

    If the need is for additional brainpower, brainpower can be acquired by the boxcar lot. It seems to me that the necessary skills for successful work in governing can be enumerated as follows:

    1. A certain shrewdness that allows the individual to size up a person or situation quickly.
    2. The ability to correctly assess risks and potential benefits.
    3. The ability to enlist cooperation and build coalitions.
    4. The ability to modify one’s approach as changes warrant.

    The nimbleness of mind that book-learning seeks to instill can help with all those points, but it isn’t a sure thing. It could be argued that the poker table is a more reliable venue for preparation than the library.

    There is another sense in which I think government by an enlightened elite could be harmful to us. It would further erode our idea of self-government, and it would inflict damage on our sense of inter-connectedness. When the president speaks to us on TV from the oval office, he solemnly addresses us as “My fellow Americans”. (Aside: my first memory of any kind of political awareness was when I watched the grainy, black and white image of Lyndon B. Johnson say that phrase. It was memorable because, from his mouth, it sounded like “Ma feller Amurkins.”) A conscious move to make governing something ordinary people don’t do might cause further disconnect between the governing and the governed.

  9. 9.

    Here is something worth a good laugh: Why isn’t our politicianz edukated?


  10. 10.

    Mark Brown (#8) I see your point. One of the “smartest” presidents we ever had was Jimmy Carter. Good moral character too. But as a president he was a dismal failure. He didn’t understand that some people are just plain evil, until it was too late. And some of the things he said were good financial advice (turn down your thermostat and wear a sweater), but just caused more financial panic. Regan never made that mistake.

  11. 11.

    Having been involved in writing internal “qualifying” exams for a couple of companies (to gauge the technical merit of one’s staff), I have found that no one ever likes the exam, unless you wrote it yourself…

  12. 12.

    Fabulous, Mark! Thanks for gracing my hastily composed ramble with a thoughtful and compelling counterargument. The points you make are good ones, and I’m inclined to think you’re on to something. As I said in my post, I’m sure a whole lot of what is entailed by political savvy simply could not be acquired through book learning or demonstrated on a written exam. And you raise yet a further good objection to an exam I hadn’t really considered: the potential erosion of the sense that these people are our civil servants, our next-door neighbors who left successful barbershops and picket-fenced homes to temporarily serve the greater good. (I like this image, although I think it’s probably long since eroded anyway–our leaders are already elites of one sort or another, whether it’s education, or, more than likely, class.)

    It’s abundantly clear that licensing exams for psychologists, for example, do NOT by any means succeed in ridding the profession of quacks (and clinical psychology is a comparable field in the sense that a lot of what’s important in a good therapist would not show up on a scantron sheet). Do they serve any purpose other than allowing current practitioners to hold onto their power? I have no hard data, but I’d like to think they at least screen out some of the lower levels–people who just aren’t serious about it at all. Similarly, with politicians, I can’t imagine that whole gaggles of quacks wouldn’t nevertheless push through the screen, into our TV sets, and onto Capitol Hill–not to mention brilliant political students who would nevertheless be ineffective at governing. But perhaps it would filter out the least serious candidates. If these candidates were unable to pass such an exam but would nevertheless make ideal leaders on the basis of their shrewdness and negotiating skills, my question is, what would prevent them, brimming with ambition the way they are, from stepping into a library and learning a little about the world so they could pass the test?

    So maybe a better way of phrasing my question would be like this: (a) does sheer information and an ability to manipulate that information play any role whatever in the formation “good” or “successful” politicians (and bear in mind I’m thinking about relevant areas of expertise–a brilliant quantum mechanics professor would surely not thereby be equipped to run the country!); and, if so, (b) would the cost in assessing familiarity with such information (both literal cost in assembling a board of examiners to write, administer, and grade an exam as well as cost to our concept of democracy) be commensurate with the significance of the role such information would play?

    Here’s how I look at it:

    We as voters have better access to certain facets of our candidates’ qualifications than others: we can easily assess their race, age, sex, and, especially, how good-looking (and magnetic) they are, and we seem to treat these readily accessible characteristics as if they were of paramount importance. Jessawhy mentioned above that looks play a significant role in elections, a point that Neil Postman harps on in Amusing Ourselves to Death (the book’s tone verges on hysterical but some of his arguments are cogent nevertheless). Abraham Lincoln, gawky in build, saturnine in temperament and widely considered strikingly ugly, would almost certainly not be elected in an era of television; nor would a 300-pound William Howard Taft or FDR in his wheelchair. So we’re already eliminating entire swaths of potential candidates that might be shrewd, brilliant, and veteran poker players, simply because (it would seem) straight teeth, clear skin, and winning smiles are essential criteria.

    Other aspects are less readily accessible but exponentially more important: their proposed policies and their practical plans for implementation, for example. And yet other qualities are important but still more difficult to assess: are they shrewd? Do they weigh costs and benefits appropriately?

    Expertise doesn’t trump every other quality by any stretch of the imagination, but at least it can be assessed reasonably well (and acquired by anyone of decent intelligence assiduous enough to put forth effort). If you’re going to run the country you (presumably) will have to be briefed on the intricacies of all sorts of situations; why not get a little of that “briefing” in advance, as a good-faith demonstration of your commitment?

    Would a stellar performance on a licensing exam be enough to assure us that a candidate was an appropriate choice for office? Certainly no more than advanced degrees in law and political science are enough right now, in the absence of such an exam. It would merely be one piece of information in a whole suite of data that we as responsible voters should take into account when choosing a candidate. But maybe having access to that information would help tip the balance a little further from superficialities and a little more toward more substantive immaterials. The danger is, it would perhaps receive undue weight, and that’s a genuine concern. But on the other hand, right now it seems that race, sex, and religious background are receiving enormously undue weight (I tend to think almost any weight of such attributes is undue), and it seems unlikely we’ll stop contemplating our candidates’ TV personas long enough to become genuinely fixated on their levels of expertise, with or without an exam.

    (Wow, that was a monograph, even for me! I need help! The good thing about long comments, though, is that no one will bother reading them, so I needn’t worry about rebuttals. :) )

  13. 13.

    Great post, as always, K. I’ve always admired candidates who have blazed their own trails so to speak instead of following in the footsteps of a family political legacy or inheritance. I liked Mark’s observations, but I think the qualities that make a political leader effective are a robust sense of curiousity, the ability to ask the right questions to the right people, and the power of personality to persuade others to follow your lead.

    One other important quality that most leaders overlook when they govern is the ability to listen to and then to change course when other people tell you (credibly) that even though you’re now the President of the Free World (do people even use that term anymore?) you’re just plain wrong. You’ll always be able to find people to agree with you, but it takes humilty and empathy to listen to the people who don’t.

    Hey, when are we getting together again? I’m in the next town over from you now. :)

  14. 14.

    Here’s an alternative idea: maybe we should give pop quizzes to voters before letting them at the ballot! (But heck, I’m not even sure I’d pass myself . . . )

    Good points, E. Enough humility to listen to additional information, change one’s position when appropriate, and admit to mistaken thinking would be a helpful quality, and is maybe one way in which our apparent appetite for certitude in our leaders is costly. (Of course, I want this attitude in my politicians; I’m not so sure I want to learn how to listen to other people’s perspectives and admit to my own idiocy myself.)

    What!? Where are you living now, and why didn’t I help you move, like a real friend? [hangs head in shame]

  15. 15.

    Thinking about the logistics of this exam, it seems to me that if it was implemented, it wouldn’t change things too much.
    It might be similar to how some candidates release their GPAs from college. Maybe a little more weight, but maybe it wouldn’t make as much of a difference as their appearance, TV ads, debates, gaffs, etc.
    It is a good idea, but I’m not sure I imagine it being a big factor for voters, nor perhaps should it be. (I guess it would depend on if it was the equivalent to the SAT or the bar).

  16. 16.

    You’re probably right–I think (dare I say hope?) what it would do would be eliminate certain people from the ballot entirely until they sat down for several months and did some homework.

  17. 17.

    You’re probably right–I think (dare I say hope?) what it would do would be eliminate certain people from the ballot entirely until they sat down for several months and did some homework.

    By that logic, most presidents in the 20th century (both Republican and Democrat) wouldn’t have been elected. Maybe that’s your point.

    Or was this just a gratuitous Palin slam?

    (I found Bill Clinton’s interview with Larry King fascinating, as he was defending her and drawing parallels to himself.)

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