Who Becomes a Politician?

61 Pages Posted: 7 Feb 2017 Last revised: 4 Sep 2021

See all articles by Ernesto Dal Bo

Ernesto Dal Bo

University of California, Berkeley - Haas School of Business - Business and Public Policy

Frederico Finan

University of California, Berkeley - Department of Economics; IZA Institute of Labor Economics

Olle Folke

Uppsala University - Department of Government

Torsten Persson

Stockholm University - Institute for International Economic Studies (IIES); London School of Economics & Political Science (LSE); National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER); Centre for Economic Policy Research (CEPR)

Johanna Karin Rickne

Stockholm University - Swedish Institute for Social Research (SOFI)

Date Written: February 2017

Abstract

Can a democracy attract competent leaders, while attaining broad representation? Economic models suggest that free-riding incentives and lower opportunity costs give the less competent a comparative advantage at entering political life. Moreover, if elites have more human capital, selecting on competence may lead to uneven representation. This paper examines patterns of political selection among the universe of municipal politicians and national legislators in Sweden, using extraordinarily rich data on competence traits and social background for the entire population. We document four new facts that together characterize an “inclusive meritocracy.” First, politicians are on average significantly smarter and better leaders than the population they represent. Second, this positive selection is present even when conditioning on family (and hence social) background, suggesting that individual competence is key for selection. Third, the representation of social background, whether measured by parental earnings or occupational social class, is remarkably even. Fourth, there is at best a weak tradeoff in selection between competence and social representation, mainly due to strong positive selection of politicians of low (parental) socioeconomic status. A broad implication of these facts is that it is possible for democracy to generate competent and socially-representative leadership.

Suggested Citation

Dal Bo, Ernesto and Finan, Frederico and Folke, Olle and Persson, Torsten and Rickne, Johanna Karin, Who Becomes a Politician? (February 2017). NBER Working Paper No. w23120, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2912093

Ernesto Dal Bo (Contact Author)

University of California, Berkeley - Haas School of Business - Business and Public Policy ( email )

Berkeley, CA 94720
United States

Frederico Finan

University of California, Berkeley - Department of Economics ( email )

310 Barrows Hall
Berkeley, CA 94720
United States

IZA Institute of Labor Economics

P.O. Box 7240
Bonn, D-53072
Germany

Olle Folke

Uppsala University - Department of Government ( email )

Scheelevägen 15 D
SE-223 70
Lund
Sweden

Torsten Persson

Stockholm University - Institute for International Economic Studies (IIES) ( email )

Stockholm, SE-10691
Sweden
+46 8 163066 (Phone)
+46 8 164177 (Fax)

London School of Economics & Political Science (LSE)

Houghton Street
London, WC2A 2AE
United Kingdom

National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER)

1050 Massachusetts Avenue
Cambridge, MA 02138
United States

Centre for Economic Policy Research (CEPR)

London
United Kingdom

Johanna Karin Rickne

Stockholm University - Swedish Institute for Social Research (SOFI) ( email )

Kyrkgatan 43B
SE-106 91 Stockholm
Sweden

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