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POLITICIANS WITH FAMILY CONNECTIONS NEED LESS EDUCATION TO ADVANCE THEIR CAREERS: Evidence from Italy on political dynasties

  • Published Date: October 2017

Family-based nepotism can lead to the selection of dynastic politicians with relatively lower education levels compared with their political peers, according to new research by Benny Geys, published in the October 2017 issue of the Economic Journal.

Analysing data on more than 540,000 Italian local politicians active during the period 1985-2012, his study shows that when obtaining their political position via the electoral process, those with or without close family connections to previous generations of politicians in the same municipality have similar levels of education.

But when they are appointed as an alderman or vice-mayor by the mayor without having been elected to the local council, dynastic politicians on average have between six and 16 fewer months of education compared with non-dynastic politicians. They are also roughly 20% less likely to hold a university degree.

These findings indicate that family-based nepotism may induce a misallocation of political positions particularly when formal institutions are weak, highlighting the importance of strong institutional checks and balances on processes of political selection.

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Former US president George W. Bush, former South Korean president Park Geun-hye, current Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau and current Japanese prime minister Abe Shinzō have at least one thing in common. They all have a close relative who held a prominent political office before them, and thus are part of a political dynasty.

This research examines one of the potential consequences of such political dynasties for the functioning of democracy and the quality of representation. In particular, the author evaluates whether – and under what circumstances – those favoured by their family connections when selected for political office have lower levels of (formal) human capital than those who fail to get a position due to the lack of such family ties.

This is an important question since formal educational attainment often provides a valid approximation for an individual’s skill set, and may thus provide one signal about politicians’ quality.

The analysis covers nearly 540,000 local politicians in more than 8,000 Italian municipalities active within the period 1985-2012. Importantly, under the Italian local electoral system introduced in 1993, individuals can be appointed by the mayor as an alderman or vice-mayor despite not having been elected into the local council.

Allowing the selection of unelected individuals to positions of political power can be beneficial when it increases specific policy-relevant expertise in the local council. Yet, clearly, this weakening of the electoral constraints on the political selection process might also increase the potential for nepotistic hiring practices.

The main findings indicate that a political selection process more directly under the control of the mayor – rather than the electorate – favours dynastic individuals with relatively lower levels of education.

Specifically, the study finds no evidence of lower education levels among directly elected dynastic mayors and councillors relative to their non-dynastic counterparts. In sharp contrast, among aldermen or vice-mayors appointed by the mayor without having been elected to the local council, dynastic politicians on average have between six and 16 fewer months of education compared with non-dynastic politicians. They are also roughly 20% less likely to hold a university degree.

These results are not driven by southern, small or rural municipalities, and they arise even after taking account of the upward trend in Italian education levels, as well as probable differences in nepotistic ‘culture’ across municipalities.

Further evidence also suggests that mayors not only treat their own comparatively less educated relatives favourably, but also those of other local politicians. This may reflect a ‘tit-for-tat’ game whereby the mayor appoints the relative(s) of another local politician, perhaps in return for political support during the legislative term.

Researcher Benny Geys comments:

‘Overall, my findings suggest that family-based nepotism induces the selection of dynastic politicians with relatively lower education levels – particularly when there are fewer electoral constraints on the political selection process.’

‘Even so, the results should not be interpreted as suggesting that dynastic politicians are necessarily worse politicians. They might learn from their political predecessors about identifying the priorities of constituents, drafting regulations and getting them approved, achieving policy compromises, and so on.’

‘An important next step is therefore to evaluate whether the educational implications uncovered in my study carry over into policy-making.’

ENDS


Notes for editors: ‘Political Dynasties, Electoral Institutions and Politicians’ Human Capital’ by Benny Geys is published in the October 2017 issue of the Economic Journal.

Benny Geys is at BI Norwegian Business School (Oslo, Norway) and Vrije Universiteit Brussel (Brussels, Belgium).

For further information: contact Benny Geys on +47-4641-0923 (email: Benny.Geys@bi.no); or Romesh Vaitilingam on +44-7768-661095 (email: romesh@vaitilingam.com; Twitter: @econromesh).