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Why are you not running for president?

by Ricardo Pachon
5 minutes read

In a blog post from last year, Nick Trefethen (who was my supervisor at Oxford) noted that among his Harvard classmates from the class of 1977, there were leaders in all sorts of activities and disciplines, except in politics. He contrasted this with the situation during the American Revolutionary War when political leaders were of the stature of Hamilton, Jefferson, and Madison. His conclusion was that nowadays, politics is not an attractive career for drawing the best talent, and as a result, the United States is paying the price.

Nick is several years my senior, yet even now I can see that the situation in my circle is similar. Among my friends and acquaintances from university, there are brilliant individuals already making their mark in their fields, whether in science, arts, law, business, or medicine. Yet, I can’t find anyone among them who seems inclined to run for election. Sure, several have worked for the government as expert technocrats, and I think one friend was a local council member about twenty years ago. But as for being deeply embedded in politics, standing on a platform with a megaphone, that I have not seen.

I don’t think it’s due to a lack of interest. Ever since my freshman year at university when the Process 8000 scandal broke, I’ve had excellent discussions about politics with family and friends. It has always been clear that the majority are well-informed, interested in what’s happening in the country, and not lacking in good ideas on how to improve things. In fact, I can go further and assert that many of my friends have, not just an interest, but a genuine passion for public affairs.

Nor can it be the lack of economic incentive. For example, congress members in Colombia receive generous salaries of thirty million pesos a month, a sum I’m sure allows anyone to live comfortably. Furthermore, several candidates in these elections have made their tax returns public, and we see that their political involvement has not impaired their ability to amass significant wealth.

It can’t even be due to a lack of opportunity. In Colombia, there are over twenty thousand elected positions (see the list at the end of the text), and while most of them may not be as glamorous as being the president of the republic, there is definitely room to at least try.

I suppose I could speculate for a while why none of my acquaintances has decided to make the jump from the couch to the public square, but I think that would be rather an empty exercise. I am better off explaining why I have never gotten involved in politics and why I possibly never will.

First, there’s the matter of elections. In a previous post, I talked about how elections generate incentives for politicians to seek more and more votes. But elections also act as a strong disincentive for people like me, who recognize their total incapacity to generate enthusiasm and affection among the masses. I have no problem debating all sorts of issues in small groups, and I even believe I could convince a few dozen people about issues I know well. But one thing is enjoying public speaking, and quite another is to gather enough followers to fill Plaza Bolívar and scream with excitement at seeing me. Can anyone who knows me imagine anything more comical than me campaigning, lifting up babies of strangers, taking selfies with fans, and shouting with a vibrato voice, “Dear compatriots, my name is Ricardo Pachón and I want to be your president!”? No, definitely not all of us have the circus skills needed by a good politician on the campaign trail, and it’s a pity that as a society we have decided that the entry filter to the world of politics is a natural inclination for the world of show business.

The second thing that has held me back is the false belief that there exists a caste of people better than me to whom I should hand over power. Politicians, I told myself, come from other disciplines, maybe from Political Science or Law. Surely they are experts in urban planning, tax issues, international affairs. They know better the needs of the people. But of course, all of that is absolutely false and something we should be aware of every time we rant about the incompetence of one or the perfect idiocy of another. Why are they there and we here? Well, it’s not so much because of their credentials but because of their determination to gain power and with which they have so skillfully made us believe that there is something special about them.

A friend expressed his frustration with the selection of candidates we have for these elections. I then asked him who was missing on the ballot that would have made him more excited. He hesitated a bit, timidly mentioned the name of a politician he had always supported but who had never reached the presidency, and told me he would think about it a bit more. He, like me and like the rest of my friends, family, and acquaintances, won’t dare say that the person missing on the ballot is himself.

Can we design a democratic system in which we do not marginalize people who are terrified by the idea of running a political campaign?

Elected Positions in Colombia with the number of seats:

President – Vice President: 2

Congress Members: 268

Governors: 32

Deputies: 418 (across 32 departmental assemblies)

Mayors: 1,099

Ediles: (in 110 municipalities across 29 departments)

Council members (municipal/district): 12,065

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