Is Your Congressman Certified?

by Benjamin Studebaker

One of the biggest problems with our politics at present is the tendency for our politicians to be better glad-handers and fundraisers than they are statesmen. They know more about winning votes than they do about crafting good laws, and the former skill does not sufficiently track the latter. So what can we do to ensure our leaders have the knowledge and skills necessary to do their jobs well? I have offered a comprehensive solution in the past, one that requires a full reorientation of the structure of our political system, but today I’d like to consider something that, while more modest, would be much easier to do right away–certify our statesmen.

Most professions that require some kind of advanced, specialized skill require certification. In some cases, it is even illegal to practice a profession without it (e.g. doctors and lawyers). But even in the absence of that legal constraint, most of us would be more than a little apprehensive about trusting our futures to uncertified individuals in fields in which certification is commonplace. Yet never in recorded history has any democratic state introduced a method of certifying potential political leaders. Why is this?

Throughout American history, the trend has been toward a relaxation of political requirements, toward an extension of the suffrage and of eligibility for office. We moved in this direction because historical political requirements and restrictions were invariably racist, classist, sexist, or in some other way discriminatory on a basis we later deemed arbitrary. However, as a result of this legacy, Americans have retained some skepticism about the motives of those who would introduce any kind of limit on the vote or on who is eligible for office. The consequence is that our politics has become an epistemic free for all. Turn on C-SPAN and you will hear a spectacular number of fallacies, both logical and factual. Politicians are ignorant of everything from how to construct a good argument to the basics of economics. While Tea Party nuts presently have the highest profile, the left has its own share of raw sentimentalists who have not thought through their own positions either.

If we continue to allow just anyone to exercise state power, the quality of not merely our political discourse, but our policies and laws, will continue to fall. The ignorance of our politicians is a reflection of voter ignorance, but voters are, at present, too apprehensive about the potentially tyrannical consequences of surrendering their votes, even under the kind of highly regulated, safeguarded conditions I have outlined in the past. However, voters might be more amenable to a much less extreme solution–certifying qualified statesmen.

Imagine we created a certification board for statesmen not unlike the boards that exist for all the various other kinds of professionals. This board would award certification on the basis of some group of standards. For the sake of example, let’s suppose certification required some combination of the following:

  1. Receiving a graduate degree in a board-accredited program.
  2. Passing an examination designed by the board to test basic knowledge of the major facts, issues, and debates in fields closely related to statecraft (e.g. political science, philosophy, public policy, law, etc.).
  3. Publishing some number of papers in board-accredited publications.
  4. Supervision of one’s work for a set period by a certified statesman.

There’s plenty of room for debating the details of what certification ought to entail. This is a conversation we absolutely should have as a society–we need to think seriously about what kind of skills we think our leaders should have beyond the mere capacity to gather funds, friends, and votes.

In my view, the one thing that is most critical is for this certification to be non-partisan. What facts an exam would test for would have to be generally agreeable to all political factions. Testing on knowledge of the issues and relevant debates would not test potential statesmen to see if they hold some position on these issues deemed “correct”, but would instead measure whether or not they were adequately familiar with the spectra of arguments and could articulate logically coherent arguments of their own. To do otherwise would call the epistemic value of certification into question, and that would defeat the purpose of the endeavor. Very quickly, the left and right would set up competing certification systems, and each would only serve to reinforce what is peculiar on each side rather than encourage a comprehensive understanding of the variety of views held.

At least initially, we would need no hard legal requirement that only board-certified statesmen be allowed to run for office. Certification would be optional, as it was initially in all of the fields that now presently demand it. Historically, optional certification is a powerful tool for improving the quality of the professionals in a field. Once consumers have the option of choosing a certified professional over an uncertified one about whom they know little, they have historically been overwhelmingly more likely to choose the former, provided that the organization doing the certifying has not given them a reason to mistrust it. Certification becomes a self-substantiating standard. Up and coming professionals quickly realize that being certified improves their business, so they go to the extra effort of meeting those standards. Within a generation, enough individuals have become certified such that to go without certification is to put oneself at a grave disadvantage. Even in the absence of a controversial legal requirement, certification can become the expected norm.

It is in this way that I suspect certification in politics would proceed. Voters would be allowed in theory to vote for anyone, but in practice they would eventually come to vote only for those who could meet the trusted standard of certification. While this would not in and of itself be a panacea, because voters of highly variant voting talents would still be the final arbiters of who takes office, it would improve the quality of the pool of candidates from which those voters choose, making it harder for voters to embrace truly ignorant or altogether incompetent options.

Most notably, this easily translates to the experiences we all have in dealing with business professionals on a day to day basis. We expect the professionals we deal with to be qualified and we expect them to be competent. The people are entitled to expect their politicians to meet an equivalent standard to the one met by trusted professionals in the private sphere. There is nothing inherently undemocratic about having a system of qualification for politicians, particularly when that system is non-binding upon voters. Indeed, such a system serves to make our government more similar to the highly meritocratic private enterprises and professional circles in which the general public tends to place higher levels of trust. If we would restore trust in our governments, our laws, and in our politics more broadly, the way to do it is to give the people a good reason to believe that they can choose leaders who know what they are doing.

Optional certification of this kind does not require state sanction. Private NGOs could devise systems of this kind right now and begin building public trust in them straightaway, with the most successful likely ultimately becoming the normative standard. Every person has an interest in the creation of such a system and there is no reason we should not begin doing this immediately.