Despite their many differences, many theorists from Plato to John Rawls agree that one needs the right ideal of justice, and then a just society can be formed on that basis. In pop culture, we might call this the West Wing pole of politics. In that NBC drama, in spite of corruption, scandal, and stupidity, nobler forces ultimately prevail, and every episode ends with the philosopher king confidently asking, “What’s next?” In real life, we might think of Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, who boldly ran for president as a self-identified socialist, or Congressman Justin Amash of Michigan’s third district (my own), whom Reason dubbed “the last honest man in Congress.” These men certainly have their own interests, but their principles, however opposite, clearly animate their actions in significant ways.
At the other end of the spectrum, the American Founding Fathers, Frédéric Bastiat, and Public Choice theorists such as James Buchanan and Gordon Tullock all saw self-interest as one of the greatest motivators of human activity and explored ways to control and harness its power. I call this the House of Cards pole of politics, after the hit Netflix series. Sure, there are people in politics pursuing altruistic ends, but they are just chumps waiting to be exploited by more intrepid and cutthroat forces. The politician puts on a good face, but overtures to the common good merely mask the private interests that more accurately predict political action. Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey), the show’s antihero, sums this up, “Shake with your right hand, but hold a rock in your left.” Whether it takes the form of cronyism or outright corruption, real-life examples of unchecked self-interest in politics are sadly numerous. From the paranoid self-preservation of Watergate to the Clinton campaign’s cooperation with the DNC and CNN to undermine Sanders’ presidential run, self-interest clearly drives much political action.
Yet these two poles alone cannot explain politics or the human nature from which it stems. There is truth to both, but if they are the only lenses we have, we will find ourselves too easily sliding into believing conspiracy theories. To be fair, sometimes such theories turn out to be true—there really was a secret war in Laos, after all, and Watergate did happen. But unless 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. Whatever the relation between the Trump campaign and Russia, for example, no conspiracy caused Secretary Clinton to neglect Rust Belt states like Michigan. That was just incompetence. Adding incompetence to our analysis keeps it grounded in a constant of human nature and provides support for more limited government.
Even Our Intelligence Needs Intelligence
By way of illustration, and to further push back against conspiratorial thinking, incompetence even affects our intelligence agencies, which are so often the supposed masterminds of conspiracy theories. Federalist’s Ben Domenech pointed this out in late March with regard to (now former) FBI director James Comey’s use of social media. While his recent firing certainly serves the president's self-interest, he didn't always inspire the utmost confidence in the bureau:
Comey mentioned in passing at a public event the other day that he had to be on Twitter these days, and that he has an Instagram account but only follows his family and his daughter’s boyfriend. This was a very foolish thing to say, because it immediately set the internet sleuths going—and thanks to Instagram’s algorithm, it made it very easy to find Comey’s accounts. He even named the blasted thing after Reinhold Niebuhr—the subject of his college thesis. It took a lone Gawker writer four hours to find him.
We might wonder whether his account password is simply “password.” This is the same man who in October 2014 publicly confessed that the FBI was at the mercy of Apple programmers, complaining about new iPhone security features. Again, this is the FBI we’re talking about. They’re supposed to be hiding evidence of extraterrestrials and covering up assassinations, but it seems that they can’t even handle smartphones and social media.
All that is to say, the grand conspiracy theory of government has seen better days. What is at work here is profound incompetence. But what is incompetence?
Incompetence is a popular explanation for human behavior, particularly the behavior of politicians, but it is rarely used with precision. It is not uncommon for people to complain about how stupid Trump or Obama (or whoever they don’t like) is. It makes us feel smart to call someone else—especially someone important—dumb. But offhand insults to other people’s intelligence do not provide a theory or a definition of incompetence.
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.
Faguet explains this in terms reminiscent of Tocqueville, though he prefers to cite Aristotle and Montesquieu. It is the people’s passion for equality in everything that fuels the cancerous spread of incompetence throughout democratic societies: “Democracy is thus led quite naturally, irresistibly one may say, to exclude the competent precisely because they are competent, or . . . because they are unequal, or . . . because being unequal they are suspected of being opponents of equality.”
I call this the Veep theory of politics, after the HBO comedy, because the results are as comical as they are tragic—or perhaps they’re even comical because they are tragic, if one has a dark enough sense of humor. In Veep, Vice President Selena Meyer (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) and her staff fumble through life as the ultimate runners-up. They are eternally second-best, like an Aldi brand version of the American presidency. They would be corrupt, if they weren’t so bad at it. They’d pursue high ideals, if they could remember which ones they liked in the first place. They succeed most often by accident, and continually fail despite everyone’s best efforts.
In one typical scene, an eccentric reporter asks Meyer, “Why does God allow suffering?” In response, her press secretary turns away from the interviewer and whispers into his iPhone, “Siri, why does God allow suffering?” Meanwhile, Selena can be heard in the background beginning to answer by saying, “Um, well, I wouldn’t ever presume to know the mind of God, but that said. . . .” The reporter shouldn’t be asking the question, the press secretary shouldn’t expect Siri to have an answer, and Meyer shouldn’t attempt to answer anyway. Clearly, none of them are competent for the tasks at hand.
What to Do
If Faguet is right, incompetence is inherent to democracy. His own proposed solution, however admirable, turns out a bit vague on the practicalities. Despite all his criticisms, he supports democracy but thinks it insufficient on its own. What is needed is to combine a people of an aristocratic temperament with a “demophil” (people-loving) aristocracy. He cites the ancient Roman Republic as his prime example, but he gives little guidance for how to achieve this in modern times.
I would go further by insisting that incompetence is actually inherent to human learning. To some degree, it 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.
It would be wrong, however, to conclude that the solution is simply education—at least not as it tends to function in modern democracies. As Faguet himself observes, “We search conscientiously for competence or efficiency, and we believe that we have found it when we find knowledge, but that is an error.” Competence is more a matter of know-how than knowledge.
Instead, my solution is to support limited government. It may be hard to achieve in practice, but we have recent historical examples (e.g., Ronald Reagan) of significant reining in of the scope of the state. In Faguet’s words, the private sector is one of the “refuges of efficiency” in democratic societies due to market feedback. Expanding its scope by limiting the regulatory state in particular should help incentivize competence in society as a whole. In this, incompetence gives us further support for many of the measures recommended by self-interest theorists. However, it also gives additional caution against trying to make any dramatic changes sometimes recommended in those same circles, like amending the Constitution. What confidence do we have that the democratically elected members of an Article V Convention, for example, would be competent to the task?
Instead, knowing that it is, to some degree, natural and unpreventable, we should also acknowledge that sometimes incompetence is a feature, not a bug. 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. Contra Faguet, incompetence may even be one of the strengths of democracy . . . as long as one has a dark enough sense of humor.
Dylan Pahman is a research fellow at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty, where he serves as managing editor of the Journal of Markets & Morality. He is also a fellow of the Sophia Institute: International Center for Orthodox Thought and Culture. Follow him on Twitter @DylanPahman.