We have some evidence that elections as "disciplinary" institutions really do produce better performance from political leaders, at least in purely economic terms: politicians who are in danger of losing their jobs unless they deliver results that are satisfactory to a large number of people tend to deliver policies that are at the very least not very bad (see, for starters, here and here, though the literature, both theoretical and empirical, is vast, and there are some circumstances under which elections appear to worsen economic performance). Indeed, the literature on the comparative economic performance of democracies and non-democracies typically shows that democracies are at least no worse, and often better, than non-democracies in this respect, contrary to some popular beliefs (as Dani Rodrik notes). I like to show the students in my dictatorships and revolutions class this density plot to illustrate the point:
Polity project; we take democratic years for a given country as those where the country scores more than zero in the Polity autocracy+democracy measure, which is only barely democratic, given the coding criteria, but indicates real electoral competition. The data on growth come from the Penn World Tables. The period covered is 1950-2007, with data for most countries with population over 500,000 people. Basically, the plot says that "autocratic" countries with less political competition tended to have a smaller median growth rate but a higher variance in that rate over this period – more miraculous years but also more disastrous years).
Yet politicians as a class are not typically held in high esteem: most people in democracies do not seem to think that politicians are people of good moral character when considered as a group. The complaint about the need for "better" leaders, and the disappointment over actual leaders, seem nearly universal (and go back a long way, to Plato: typically, the praise of the political class always applies to the past, to the ancestors who were better, as in Cicero). I admit, the evidence I have for this proposition is fragmentary, but consider for example this Gallup poll question on how US residents evaluate the "honesty and ethical standards" of different professions:
Though the low ranking of senators and members of congress in this figure is presumably driven in part by bad economic news in late 2009, I do not think it is very atypical. Other polling data also tends to show voters in the US being much more dissatisfied with Congress as a whole than with their own congressman or senator (who tend to be re-elected at an astonishing rate), which suggests that they have a low opinion of the political class as a whole even though they may have a good opinion of their own representative. And the pattern in other countries seems similar: in Italy, politicians are routinely referred to as a "caste" who enjoy immense and undeserved privileges, even as some of them (including, inexplicably, Berlusconi) remain relatively popular; complaints about the quality of the political class in India (where many members of the Lok Sabha have criminal convictions) are extremely common; and distrust of politicians in Venezuela (my native country) seems to be quite general, even if some politicians (like Chavez) are very popular. (I should look up NZ data, but I'm too lazy for that right now). I am sure most people have heard or expressed views about how most politicians are "crooks," and not only the politicians of the "other side" (whatever side one does not support) but also those of one's own side – how they are spineless, too concerned with their electoral fortunes and their image, hypocrites, quarrel too much, etc. When was the last time you heard people praise the overall character of politicians?
Yet this is somewhat puzzling. Voters presumably prefer higher-quality characters among politicians: so why are "virtuous" politicians not being elected, or, if they are being elected, why is this fact not being recognized among the electorate? (Assuming, of course, that the evidence of voter discontent with the political class noted above holds more generally, and reflects a more or less accurate judgment of the character of politicians; it could also be that voters are simply mistaken about the character of politicians as a whole, though that fact would itself demand explanation). Moreover, it's not as if politicians are a low-status group of people; buildings are named after them, resources are expended on ceremonies for them, we address them with honorific titles, and so on, but this makes the disparagement of their character as a class even more puzzling, since their high status presumably biases many judgments of their character upwards rather than downwards, especially for those politicians who are commonly thought to be successful. Politicians are both the occasional subjects of hagiographies and yet are held to have bad moral character when considered as a group.
More precisely stated, the puzzle is that given an implicit preference for high-quality politicians (in terms of character), and a competitive electoral system, voters do not elect more politicians they think actually have high-quality characters, i.e., "virtuous" politicians (for some plausible conception of virtue). What could account for this?
I suspect that there are two basic answers to this question, though they are not necessarily incompatible. The first, and most obvious, blames supply problems. Perhaps there are extremely few virtuous politicians out there, and they do not want to rule (though they occasionally rule; hence the hagiographies). This is the Socratic argument in the Republic; hence philosopher kings must be forced to rule, since they would not naturally want to. Stated differently, perhaps the rewards of political office are more appealing to the non-virtuous than to the virtuous (given some plausible definition of virtue), leading to a pool of candidates heavily weighted towards the non-virtuous (though wouldn't one expect that the virtuous, who would want to help their fellows, would also disproportionately run for office?). Or perhaps the typical political environment of modern democracies disadvantages the virtuous vis à vis the non-virtuous. This is the Machiavellian position, suitably adapted to the 21st century: if those campaigners capable of using virtuous and vicious tactics (e.g., dishonest lying, duplicity, etc.) are more successful than those who are only capable of using virtuous tactics, then the former will tend to be elected more often than the latter. This answer leads to a different sort of position, however, which attributes the problem less to the actual supply of virtuous politicians than to the epistemic constraints on voters who must distinguish between virtuous and non-virtuous politicians.
From this point of view, there are also a number of possibilities. A Platonic answer is that voters cannot distinguish between virtuous and non-virtuous politicians because they do not know what virtue is; they elect the non-virtuous while believing that they are electing the virtuous, and the non-virtuous do not even have to deceive them about this fact very much. But this answer does not work for us right now, since it implies that voters would be satisfied with the character of politicians they actually elect, but they are not.
Perhaps the problem then is that the epistemic demands of "selection" are higher than those of "discipline." In order to discipline a politician, the voter only needs to know his own situation: if he or she thinks that his life is going well, he can vote for the incumbent, whereas if he does not think so, he can vote against the incumbent (contrast with ancient methods of discipline, which, given term limits, were always quasi-judicial and placed more stringent epistemic demands on citizens). Even if the voter substantially misallocates responsibility for his or her material situation to the political class (perhaps the country's economic performance is substantially affected by factors not under the control of the political class), the incentives created by this sort of behaviour might still induce politicians to, on average and over the long run, provide relatively good policy (or at least operate as a kind of selection filter, so that even if politicians provide policy more or less at random, only relatively successful policies get rewarded).
By contrast, in order to select a politician properly, the voter needs a lot of information that is not readily available, or that is easily subject to falsification or concealment (by the candidates themselves, among others), especially in large-scale societies where voters cannot know their leaders on a personal basis. (Thus Aristotle's distrust of large political communities, where he thinks selection institutions cannot work well because citizens can never really know each other's characters).
More specifically, if the pool of candidates includes more non-virtuous than virtuous candidates, but voters cannot easily distinguish between them, they will tend to select the non-virtuous at a higher rate. Since, moreover, when the voter decides whether to punish the incumbent he or she has to also decide whether to take a risk on the challenger's character being bad, the voter might decide to live with leaders with bad characters but who deliver acceptable performance rather than take a chance on untested candidates who may both have bad character and deliver bad performance, knowing that his or her ability to distinguish between good and bad characters is not very good. From this point of view, disciplinary concerns about performance would normally dominate selection concerns about character, and voters would learn to live with rulers whose character they despise (at least in the aggregate), even though they care about both character and performance. (I think there arguments along these lines, though more technically expressed, in Tim Besley's Principled Agents. I really need to read that book and learn some game theory). However, this seems not to account for the phenomenon "congress is bad but my congressman is great" that we sometimes see in the US.
Two other possibilities that seem to me to be less plausible are the following. One is that character is simply too malleable. So voters elect people of good character, but such people quickly become bad upon gaining political power. Voters are thus constantly disappointed: they think they are selecting the best leaders (and in fact, they do) but these people easily become corrupted. I suspect, however, that we should see more incumbent turnover under this hypothesis than we actually see: people would learn that politicians quickly become corrupt, and hence that the best way of dealing with the problem is to turn the out of office quickly, or to impose term limits (as a kind of paternalistic policy, preventing themselves from being tempted to re-elect corrupt people simply because they provide good performance), though perhaps voters evaluate a tradeoff between competence and corruption potential and decide that good performance is worth a certain amount of corruption, as in the previous argument (except that voters in this model are always able to distinguish the corrupt from the virtuous: the difference is that the virtuous turn corrupt at a high rate).
Finally, I suppose that the puzzle could simply be attributed to partisan biases. On this view, disagreements about policy would be easily translated into attributions of character: only people with bad characters could support the policies the opposition supports! Since even in two party systems around half the population supports positions one does not support, and elects politicians accordingly, this might result in the feeling that most of the political class is worthless. But this theory would seem to imply that politicians would be more despised in multiparty systems than in two-party systems; though I have no data on this question, I suspect this is not the case. Moreover, people often despise politicians even from their own party; they like their policies, but dislike their characters.
Other possibilities? Perhaps the disparagement of the characters of politicians results from human ambivalence about domination? What other ideas are there? (Or perhaps this is a pseudo-puzzle?)