Rule by lawyers

Almost all the current rulers of the United States have a legal education. David Yin supplies this useful table:

United States (first nine in order of succession, modified Senate pres.)
Barack Obama President law
Joe Biden Vice-President law
Nancy Pelosi Speaker of the House political science
Harry Reid Senate Majority Leader law
Hillary Clinton Secretary of State law
Tim Geithner Secretary of the Treasury economics and East Asian studies
Robert Gates Secretary of Defense history
Eric Holder Attorney General law
Ken Salazar Secretary of Interior law

This is in sharp contrast to the leadership of China, which apparently has one lawyer in the top rank (it’s mostly engineers). Singapore, India, and Germany fall at various points between these two extremes (see David’s post for a fuller breakdown).

Why is this so?

David tells what I think is a slightly misguided story about national character and “core values.”

Americans are, for better or worse, preoccupied with political rights (even for citizens of another country). Sometimes it seems more important for a politician to be Christian and pro-life/choice/guns/privacy than well-educated, competent, and possessed of a clear plan for the future. In college, students are expected to have a liberal arts education–in literature, philosophy, and history, but not necessarily in science, math, and economics. Our core values are in the humanities. It’s no surprise that our leaders reflect our values, and for their legislative and policy decisions to reflect their educational expertise.

There’s a lot of truth in this, but in context it makes it sound like Americans elect lawyers for the same reason they elect Christians — because they like them best. I’m pretty sure Americans don’t like lawyers, though. My view, excerpted from a comment I made, is more institutional:

Lawyers become leaders in countries where power is mediated primarily by law. What sorts of countries are those? Speaking broadly: developed countries; countries with older systems of government; countries with democratic institutions; countries with competitive politics.

In the comment I also briefly discuss the case studies. I think there are two big ideas here: 1) in a rich, developed country, the valuable commercial life is regulated by law; this makes law powerful; 2) in a country with competitive politics, competing powers (e.g. parties) need some form of neutral mediation that allows them to share power; the law serves this purpose; this makes law powerful. When law is a source of power, lawyers will be rulers. Both 1) and 2) apply to the US and Germany; 2) applies to India; 1) applies to Singapore; neither applies to China.

What do you think? Am I overreaching?

Possible further questions: in a country with competitive politics, there may be more than one possible modus vivendi for sharing power. Some may be more legally-oriented than others. Presumably, in a country with competitive politics where power-sharing among factions is mediated by something other than law (access to the emperor? war?), lawyers will not occupy the top ranks. Are there rich, peaceful countries with competitive politics where lawyers don’t feature prominently?

PS I’m calling everyone the “ruler” from now on. It feels funny to talk about “the rulers” of a democracy, right?

Update: interesting follow-up comment back on the original post.

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