How much influence could you have by becoming a politician? Common sense says that politicians have a lot of influence, and it’s a serious contender as a high impact path for someone who’s altruistically motivated. But aren’t the chances of success incredibly low? Our guess was that even though the chances are low, the potential impact is still very high. So, when we were asked about UK politics in a recent case study, we decided to make a more detailed estimate of the expected influence to feed into an overall analysis of politics as a career path.
We found that chances of success are low, but for some students they’re not low enough to offset the very large potential influence. The UK government budget is £720 billion, and even a small chance at influencing a budget that large could be highly significant (and the impact of politicians extends well beyond budgets).
We’ve extended our analysis of the chances of an Oxford PPE graduate succeeding as a politician, to make a rough estimate that such a student can expect to be able to direct £7.5 - 75 million to the causes they support from their chances of making it into elected office. For a student similar to an Oxford PPE graduate, this suggests the path is competitive with the most high potential earning to give careers - such as those in finance - in terms of financial influence, which when combined with politicians’ law-making powers and advocacy opportunities could put politics clearly ahead.
Aren’t politicians highly constrained by existing policy, what other politicians want, the desires of the electorate and other factors? Yes, but these factors have already been included in the estimate. Read on to see the full process.
Summary of the estimate
Our preliminary estimate is that an Oxford PPE graduate who aims to become a politician in the UK, could expect to influence £150 million of government spending, arising from their chances of making it into office. A number of factors decrease the impact of that money; giving a quality-adjusted estimate of £7.5 - 75 million, falling towards the lower end if you’re primarily interested in very specific interventions (e.g. supporting a certain organisation) rather than broader ones (e.g. promoting evidence-based policy). This is the amount of government spending the graduate might be able to direct towards the causes they support.
For students without the typical attributes of Oxford PPE students, chances are significantly reduced. For instance, repeating the calculation but considering students from Oxford and Cambridge as a whole suggests expected influence on the order of £1 - 10 million. More generally, the expected influence is highly sensitive to the individual’s degree of fit with politics i.e. it could be substantially higher for someone with strong success in student politics at Oxford, and near zero for many others.
Our proposed estimate is extremely coarse. We rely on a crude economic model of influence within government, assume that this influence in aggregate accounts for all public spending, and try to estimate the share of influence possessed by a number of relevant groups. We believe this model is much stronger than it appears casually, and do provide some justification for some of the simplifying assumptions at the end of the document. We also explain some important caveats, such as our uncertainty over the prominence of MPs and ministers, and focussing mainly on Oxford PPE. Nevertheless, it is certainly an extremely crude model. The error on this estimate is at least an order of magnitude or so, and if there are significant issues with the methodology they may actually be even larger.
To compensate for this we have made conservative estimates throughout, and still arrived at a remarkably high number. Since the conclusion of this calculation is also supported by the common sense position that going into politics is high potential for students with the right characteristics, we conclude that the expected influence of entering this path is indeed very large.