Matt Yglesias wonders why politicians are not more strongly motivated by higher ideals.

Selling the public good down the river to bolster your re-election chances isn’t like stealing a loaf of bread to feed your starving children. The welfare rolls are hardly stocked with the names of former members of congress. Indeed, it’s not even clear that voting “the wrong way” poses particularly serious threats to one’s re-election. But even if it did, one might assume that people who bother to dedicating their lives to securing vast political power did so because they actually wanted to accomplish something and get in the history books, perhaps, as one of the big heroes of their era.

Tyler Cowen comments,

Many people — especially those who become politicians — really do want fame and power and it is amazing what they will talk themselves into to get there and to stay there. They don’t even want fame in the sense of being recognized, in the longer run, for having done the right thing. They want more personal influence and power now.

I would add that I would explain excessive risk-taking and high pay for CEO’s on similar lines. Just substitute “CEO’s” for “politicians” in Tyler’s paragraph.

Both the corporate world and the political world are high-stakes status games, and we would expect the successful players to be the ones that are most highly skilled and motivated to play. As far as motivation is concerned, I think that the extremes tend to be in the male gender. The desire to dominate, to be the alpha male, has to be very powerful if you are going to get to the top in business or politics, because those are very popular status games. If you are willing to play a different status game–trying to be the best tiddly-winks player in your area or the leading expert on tribal customs on Bora-Bora–you don’t have to be quite so driven and ruthless about it.

One of the points that I make in my forthcoming Unchecked and Unbalanced is that the growth in concentrated political power in this country leads to a system that selects for leaders with exaggerated senses of self-importance and a remarkable lack of perspective on their own foibles (think of Elliot Spitzer or Mark Sanford or John Edwards). One of the problems with large-scale politics and large-scale capitalism is that there is this tendency to select the most overconfident, driven, and aggressive men for leadership positions.