Graph: Most Common Occupation of World Political Leaders

In the United States, law and political administration are deeply intertwined: most politicians, at least at the national level, are lawyers. Many others are career politicians, spending most or all of their professional lives climbing the ranks of civil service; still others are both.

But how does this play out in the global stage? Is the predominance of legal and public service experience among national leaders uniquely American? Does it vary by sociopolitical culture or history? The following daily chart from The Economist sheds some light on this:

Note that this chart only looks at executive positions — presidents and prime ministers. I am curious as to how national legislatures pan out in this regard (I would imagine the picture would be similar, since most political leaders tend to emerge among national representatives). I also wonder how sub-national or local leaders differ from national ones; for example, the U.S. has a lot more ethnic, religious, and occupational diversity among its mayors, state legislatures, and governors when compared to national bodies.

In any case, perhaps it is unsurprising that those with a background in civil service — albeit not exclusively so, since there is often overlap with other careers — make up most national leaders. Some degree of experience in public affairs, whether administrative or legal, is generally expected among those wishing to govern at a higher level. For a similar reason, a knowledge of a nation’s governing laws would be a sensible thing to have as well, whether you are making laws (like legislative members), executing them (executive leaders) or operating in them (everyone, in theory).

The fact that civil service is the overwhelming background of Danish, South Korean, Japanese, and Swiss political leaders is not too surprising either. In all those nations, the state plays a major role in managing public and economic affairs, particularly its bureaucrats (those stereotypically faceless technocrats that execute the day-to-day affairs of various ministries, departments, etc). Indeed, it is no coincidence that these nations tend to have strong values of collectivism and meritocracy, both of which, in theory, underpin good civil service.

Unfortunately, I do not have the time to get into the rest of the results (namely the Netherlands’ uniquely high preponderance of professors, or the prevalence of lawyers among Spain’s national leadership roles). The Economist does provide an interesting tidbit on the matter:

According to a paper by Mark Hallerberg of the Hertie School of Governance in Berlin, and Joachim Wehner of the London School of Economics and Political Science, policymakers with “technical competence” are more likely to hold office during a crisis. The authors found that a banking crisis increases the probability of having an economist as prime minister; a professor is more likely to hold the position during stockmarket crashes or inflation crises. Italy’s Mario Monti and Greece’s Lucas Papademos are recent examples. Unfortunately, voters seem inclined to get rid of them at the earliest opportunity.

Feel free to weigh in with your thoughts, observations, and speculations.

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