Harry Kalaba says political leaders who do not lose sleep over citizens’ entrenched poverty are ill-placed to seek election.
“In politics, money should not even be anywhere near your motivation because you end up in jail. As Harry Kalaba, that’s why I told myself [that] I’m not going to be a supplier, I’m not going to tender for any project because I realised that the job I was given was not for me to have a lot of dollars in my account; no!” says Harry. “We can’t be politicians who are only busy following the most expensive cars, the most expensive houses; building houses left, right and centre, as if that’s what defines us. For as long as we continue with the propensity, the insatiable greed for money and material things, Zambia will remain the way it is.”
Indeed, it’s important to fully understand why some of these people want to be our political leaders.
The great majority of these politicians are not there to serve but to take care of themselves – they are nothing but shameless opportunists.
And we know that politicians’ incentives to behave opportunistically increase with their financial benefits and with polarisation of policy preferences.
Moreover, politicians may have stronger incentives to behave opportunistically if others are more likely to behave so. A political culture may therefore be self-reinforcing and multiple equilibria may arise. The mere probability that politicians care about the public interest enables opportunistic politicians to damage the reputation of their competitors. Consequently, efficient policies may be reversed.
When our politicians talk about their motives for pursuing a political career, they rarely mention their narrow private interests such as desire for power, prestige, and remuneration. Instead, they refer to their devotion to the people, their commitment to the nation’s interests, and a strong sense of mission and responsibility. However, history has taught us that we should not always
take these words for granted. Indeed, sceptics claim that our politicians care about nothing but their narrow self-interest.
The importance of politicians’ motivation for the quality of government decision making is self-evident. Since moral hazard and adverse selection problems in political decision making abound, politicians’ motivation matters for policy choices. This also becomes clear from observing electoral competition: in many settings, policy choices depend on whether politicians care about the private rents from office – opportunism – or represent the interest of a particular group of voters – partisanship.
It’s clear that opportunistic behaviour may breed opportunistic behaviour. A political culture may therefore be self-reinforcing and multiple equilibria may arise.
Opportunistic politicians may oppose efficient policies so as to damage the reputation of their competitors in the elections.
As holding office becomes more rewarding, a larger range of politicians are willing to compromise on voters’ welfare so as to increase their chance of reelection. Likewise, politicians’ incentive to behave opportunistically is stronger in more polarised political environments, that is, in environments where politicians differ more in their perception of the public interest. The reason is that in more polarised political environments, staying in office is more rewarding as it keeps politicians with sharply different policy preferences out of power.
Politicians have stronger incentives to behave opportunistically if they believe other politicians are more likely to behave
opportunistically. The reason is that a given reputational loss has less of an effect on a politician’s electoral prospects in an environment where other politicians are more likely to put at risk their reputation as well, than in an environment where politicians hardly ever admit policy failures. Moreover, the effects of higher politicians’ pay and polarisation on politicians’ behaviour are magnified by the strategic complementarity in politicians’ opportunism.
Opportunistic politicians may engage in reputation-bashing activities, implying that efficient policies may be reversed. When
politicians have the opportunity to collect information about the effects of policies, politicians who care sufficiently about the public interest collect information about all policies that have been implemented, including those by other politicians, and make sure that inefficient policies are reversed. Politicians who care little about the public interest do not search for information.
However, the fact that highly motivated politicians do lends some credibility to a politician’s claim that his competitor’s policy is a failure. As a result, efficient policies may be reversed.
Politicians do not only differ in competence and policy preferences, but also differ in their intrinsic motivation to improve upon the well-being of citizens.