Libya has come upon a novel concept: choosing an electrical engineer, Abdel Rahim al-Kib, as its interim prime minister. As Libya's National Transitional Council endeavors to rebuild the country's government from the ground up after more than four decades of tyrannical control, who better than an engineer to lead the way?
Actually, the concept is not really novel. According to a study conducted by The Economist in 2009 using the Who's Who International Database, about 7 percent of elected politicians worldwide are engineers by trade. In China, for example, the concept is quite entrenched, with a number of engineers holding office, including President Hu Jintao. (The Economist suggests that this is partly due to Maoism, with engineering seen as a safer field of study than others, and partly due to China's authoritarian style of government.)
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, president of Iran, and Boris Yeltsin, the first president of the Russian Federation, are other notable examples of international engineer-politicians. No doubt there are many others (please feel free to add to the list in the comments section below).
In the U.S. and other Western democracies, though, there appear to have been very few engineers elected to major offices. (As should be obvious, there are many, many more lawyers in Washington than engineers). A listing of U.S. presidents by occupation on Wikipedia lists only one U.S. President, Herbert Hoover, as an engineer (and that didn't go so well—he presided over the early years of the Great Depression). Jimmy Carter also studied nuclear engineering and was involved in the development of nuclear propulsion systems while in the U.S. Navy, though there is some debate about whether Carter should be considered an actual engineer as opposed to a technician, because he did not earn an engineering degree.
One reason may be the cultural reverence attached to engineering in some places of the world. We often hear that engineering is respected and revered much more in other countries than here. In places were engineers are put on a pedestal, they are much likely to gain support for national office.
I suspect another dynamic at work here is difference in style of government. As The Economist points out, governments in China often "ride roughshod over critics." In the U.S., the situation is different. Politicians are endlessly sparring with critics, framing arguments, spinning messaging and standing behind the podium to deliver speeches to appeal to the masses. They are, in short, constantly politicking.
Many brilliant engineers, while quite comfortable solving complex problems in the laboratory or in their cubicle, may lack the skills or even the desire to take on a hostile opposition party, kowtow to constituents and glad-hand wealthy backers in the never-ending quest to raise election war chests.
Which brings me to another point: While there certainly aren't a lot of engineers that hold office in the U.S., there is also no real evidence to suggest that many engineers are interested in entering the political arena. On a national level, I cannot recall a single engineer becoming a serious candidate for the U.S. presidency in the past 20 years. (Ross Perot, a third-party candidate in 1992, founded Electronic Data Systems but did not earn a degree in engineering). There are only a handful of engineers in Congress.
Perhaps it's time for this to change. The stereotypical engineer may not seem an ideal fit for the realities of modern U.S. politics for many of the reasons mentioned above, but those reasons have a lot to do with why the U.S. political system is broken. And engineers, at a very fundamental level, are builders—exactly the type of people that we need to fix a broken system.
Facing a mountain of serious problems and a venomous political environment that makes it all but impossible to imagine that anything constructive can be done about any of them, I for one believe that Washington would greatly benefit from an infusion of serious analytical minds with a penchant for getting things done.
It'll never happen, but imagine for a second that all of the politicians in Washington were replaced by engineers. And let's just say that these engineers encompass a range of political viewpoints that roughly approximates what we have represented today. No doubt there would still be plenty of disagreement on major issues, but I for one would have much more confidence in the engineers' ability to put their collective heads down, roll up their collective sleeves and get to work solving problems. Let's take it a step further and replace all of the Congressional office buildings—and the west wing of the White House for that matter—with a giant, open cube farm, where the engineers now running the country can work in close proximity, engage in water cooler chit chat and have occasional awkward conversations about overly loud phone voices and other issues that result from working together in close quarters.
All we need now is to identify some promising candidates for our new engineer-run government. I hereby open the floor for nominations in the comment section below.