Sunday, December 16, 2012

On transferable skills

Stephen Gordon is at least moderately panicked about the less-than-surprising news that some Lib operatives tried to recruit Mark Carney to serve as the party's national leader - and there may be worse to come. But I'll argue that there's far less to be concerned about than Gordon, Mike Moffatt and others are suggesting.

At the outset, I presume it's fairly uncontroversial that we have numerous important positions of influence intended to be filled by experts motivated by the public good.

Gordon and Moffatt seem to place the Bank of Canada on a particularly high pedestal, which may be how they'd distinguish Carney's role from others. But to my mind, the difference between Carney's position and the role of independent commissioners, judges, and public servants with decision-making authority is one of degree rather than kind. Would we genuinely be any more comfortable with, say, courts being motivated by outside considerations, rather than maintaining the credibility that comes only from being seen as a fair and neutral body populated by some of the best-informed individuals in a particular subject area?

At the same time, though, political parties have a natural and reasonable incentive to want to recruit the strongest possible candidates. And the skills and expertise which result in an individual being promoted to a prominent position of public service are likely to translate at least somewhat into the political realm - making the individuals in those positions into appealing prospects for any party seeking to develop the strongest possible organization, both for the purpose of pursuing power and for the purpose of governing well.

Based on that fact alone, I consider it preposterous to blame the Lib insiders who tried to recruit Carney into their fold. But what about his response, which indeed seems to have fallen somewhat short of "don't even talk to me, you icky partisan shills"?

Well, there too I'd think Gordon and Moffatt are making an unreasonable value judgment. In effect, their view seems to be that an even an individual with nothing but the best of intentions who occupies a neutral decision-making position based on expertise and experience isn't allowed to compare non-partisan and partisan means to pursue the public good.

That might seem to make sense based on the cynicism so many are working to foster in analyzing our democratic system. But in practice, such a dividing line serves to ensure that some of the individuals most capable of bettering that system are precluded from contributing to it.

As it happens, Carney ultimately chose the view that he could have more influence staying in the realm of independent policy-making. But I hardly think that any willingness to consider whether that was true should be held against him.

To be fair, there is a valid point to be made about transparency within an institution whose role may affect political interests - in effect, that there should be some reporting of the type of political involvement under consideration by people in positions like Carney's so that decisions can be better analyzed. But that reporting would have to be coupled with recognition that it would be highly unusual for anybody in such a position to completely lack political views and connections - such that we shouldn't see some actual or potential partisanship as an obstacle to making fair decisions.

Because ultimately, elected decision-makers are (and should be) the ones to set the broader policy goals which define the roles of independent officers. And the more we accept the claim that an interest in party politics is somehow incompatible with public service or acceptable decision-making, the more we'll have to complain about when it's time to evaluate the people who do work in the political sphere.

Update: Dan Gardner makes much the same point.

[Edit: fixed wording.]


  1. "There has been an expectation that if we just pick the right person at the top, everything is going to be fixed. Because of the history packaged into my name, a lot of people are turning to me in a way that actually, to be blunt, concerns me."
    Justin Trudeau

    For me this whole story simply demonstrates the ongoing 'Messiah' complex that afflicts the Liberal Party of Canada. Carney as their leader/saviour certainly would fit this Liberal mindset. The rest of us?? .... not so much.

    1. Agreed that the Libs' search for a single saviour is misguided - and a Trudeau vs. Carney showdown might well have only cemented that as their mindset. But I do consider that a separate issue from the general desirability of trying to recruit a strong slate of candidates (even if that includes pursuing people who may hold a neutral office for the moment).