Published May 13, 2011
In 1952, Israel’s premier, David Ben-Gurion, offered the new country’s presidency to Albert Einstein. Einstein, being a rather bright fellow, politely declined, noting that while he liked studying the physical world, “I have neither the natural ability nor the experience to deal with human beings.” Unfortunately, Iceland’s political class is not filled with Einsteins. Instead, in Iceland the top-level political offices are routinely given to political hacks with no particular experience or expertise in the field of endeavour of which they are placed in charge.
I have often heard managers say that a good manager can manage any enterprise, but practices in other nations and events in Iceland’s recent past make it clear that an advanced level of knowledge in the substantive area in question is essential to proper decision-making at the top levels of government. When the person in charge is unable to understand the opinions of his or her professional staff, how can he or she effectively advocate the staff’s recommendations to the cabinet? How can he or she ensure that differences of opinion among staff are resolved correctly? How can he or she detect bureaucratic incompetence or corruption? (See, e.g., Minister of Finance Árni Mathiesen, circa 2007, a veterinarian by profession, yet he failed to sniff out the incompetent greedy pigs that ran Iceland’s economy and banking system into the ground).
In assembling his cabinet, an American president usually bases his selection on—well, of course, that‘s the name of the game—politics, but also on (this will sound strange and unusual to Icelanders) qualifications! So, the Secretary of Education will likely be someone who’s spent a lot of time in that field; the current one, Arne Duncan, was CEO of Chicago Public Schools for seven years. Robert Gates spent over quarter of a century in the CIA and National Security Council before becoming Secretary of Defence.
Icelanders don’t bother with this experience nonsense. All you have to do to become a cabinet minister is be an obedient member of the Fourparty (Iceland has four major political parties, but since it makes no difference which one of them is in power—they all share the same hindquarters—this title simplifies things). The rest will take care of itself, and one day a Ministry—some ministry, any ministry—will be yours. It’s a political entitlement; qualifications have nothing to do with it.
Take for example the Icelandic Ministry of Health (or ‘Welfare’ as it is now called, since the Ministry of Social Affairs and the Ministry of Health were merged into one). Its minister since 2010 is a teacher. His bio lists 18 or 19 committee posts; of those only one had anything to do with health. The previous Minister of Health—who held the job less than a year—was a journalist by profession. Her career included managing a salmon farm and numerous committee jobs. She also “taught biology while studying at MR and MH” (colleges in Reykjavík), which I suppose could be stretched into a health-field-related qualification…
Our Minister of Finance and Commerce, Árni Páll Árnason, is a young-ish handsome hunk of a guy and a lawyer by profession. His resume contains impressive descriptions of various jobs that are available to well connected Icelandic, preferably male, products of the University of Iceland’s law department, but only one position, an Icelandic bank board membership (by definition a dubious honour) could qualify as being finance-related. Before becoming Finance Minister last year, he was Minister of—…and the Musical Chair is… Social Services!—from 2009–2010.
You will have noticed that these ministers’ tenures are strangely brief. This also is the Icelandic norm and one of the characteristics of a system that exists to serve the politicians who created it, not the lowly masses that pay for it.
You may be wondering—vow! maybe these people are so smart that they can be Minister of Anything anytime!? Health today, Education tomorrow, Agriculture next week? It depends on whom you ask, of course. But no, they are not.
The ultimate cause of Iceland’s rampant bureaucratic incompetence is the parliamentary system created in the country’s constitution. By requiring that cabinet ministers be members of Alþingi, it narrows the field of possible candidates to an absurdly small number of individuals, all of whom have dedicated their professional careers to their political parties. The U.S. Constitution opens the field to the entire population, and permits the President to select the best candidates, regardless of their political affiliation (e.g., Obama’s Secretary of Defence was also Bush’s Secretary of Defence).
We must come up with a better system for selecting the top government advisors. Humility is not Icelanders’ strong suit, but I do wish that our politicians would take Dirty Harry’s advice: “A man’s got to know his limitations.”