Acton Institute Powerblog

The Importance of Incompetence

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An illustration of the Peter Principle. Source: Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.


Today at Public Discourse, I argue that in addition to idealism and self-interest, incompetence needs to be recognized as a more important factor in politics:

[U]nless we add incompetence as a category of analysis, we will tend to view every victory for our own team as a triumph of justice or freedom or equality (idealism), and every failure the result of deep and convoluted corruption (self-interest). This is not a productive approach or an accurate reflection of reality.

In particular, I draw upon the French literary critic Émile Faguet, who developed a theory of incompetence in democracy in his book The Cult of Incompetence:

Faguet wrote, “That society . . . stands highest in the scale, where the division of labour is greatest, where specialisation is most definite, and where the distribution of functions according to efficiency is most thoroughly carried out.” But, according to Faguet, democracies are a form of government particularly ill-suited to such efficiency. Incompetence is a failure of the division of labor, and democracies demand and seek out such failure.

How so? On the whole, a democracy is a group of people with no relevant qualifications or experience for government claiming political sovereignty for themselves. Rather than choosing the most competent persons for any given public position, they often elect people who reflect their passions and prejudices, and those people appoint others who will further their political careers…. This is not exactly a formula for competence.

Unlike democratic governments, however, Faguet acknowledged the private sector as a refuge of efficiency due to the feedback of the market. If a cookie company is incompetent at making tasty cookies, for example, it will quickly discover this when no one wants to buy the ones it makes. This will motivate it to adapt its recipe and baking methods to more competently produce tasty cookies … or it will fail to be profitable and go out of business. Democratic governments don’t have this feedback mechanism.

That said, I note in my essay that “[t]o some degree, [incompetence] is unavoidable in any form of government or organization. All competence is learned, though different people have more natural aptitude at some skills than others.”

Indeed, in addition to what I say in my essay, while democratic governments are especially vulnerable to incompetence for the reasons Faguet details, all organizations have a tendency toward incompetence through what is known as the “Peter Principle.”

Put simply, the Peter Principle is the idea that the basis for a person’s promotion is always competence in his/her current role. However, competence at being a salesman, for example, does not necessarily translate into competence as a sales manager. Thus, organizations of all kinds, including governments, tend to push people into roles that they are not competent to fulfill.

While this is by no means always the case — sometimes people turn down promotions; sometimes they turn out to be great at their new roles — the force of the principle is difficult to deny. Incompetence is all around us and somewhat unavoidable.

To me, this should be a source of optimism — not be confused with confidence, but still. Knowing that incompetence is unavoidable, we can be think about how to harness it for good, just as the American founding fathers, for example, thought well about how to harness the self-interest of political actors for the good of the nation.

I can’t claim to have a detailed theory all worked out, but I end with a contrarian suggestion:

Incompetence limits idealism when politicians accidentally overestimate the popularity of policies. Incompetence sometimes also exposes the self-interest that may lie beneath those who are popular, through slips of the tongue, the publication of private emails, sloppy financial records, and so on.

Democracy may maximize incompetence, but perhaps that isn’t always a bad thing. So long as we acknowledge its importance, perhaps we can further develop a theory of incompetence and learn to direct it toward the common good as well.

You can read the whole essay here.

Dylan Pahman Dylan Pahman is a research fellow at the Acton Institute, where he serves as managing editor of the Journal of Markets & Morality. He earned his MTS in Historical Theology from Calvin Theological Seminary. In addition to his work as an editor, Dylan has authored several peer-reviewed articles, conference papers, essays, and one book: Foundations of a Free & Virtuous Society (Acton Institute, 2017). He has also lectured on a wide variety of topics, including Orthodox Christian social thought, the history of Christian monastic enterprise, the Reformed statesman and theologian Abraham Kuyper, and academic publishing, among others.