Public Discourse: On the Importance of Incompetence

Today at Public Discourse, I have an essay on the importance of incompetence as a category of political analysis. I wrote it over a month ago, so I would likely have chosen different examples, but the basic point still comes through:

The French literary critic Émile Faguet is one of the few to attempt a theory in his book The Cult of Incompetence, now over a century old. 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. I think Mark Twain understood this when he wrote, “Reader, suppose you were an idiot, and suppose you were a member of Congress; but I repeat myself.” This is not exactly a formula for competence.

Read the whole essay here.