Friday, 21 February 2020

The appeal of incompetence

In a Hierarchy Every Employee Tends to Rise to His Level of Incompetence.

Laurence J. Peter - The Peter Principle.

The Peter Principle is one of those satirical observations which never go stale because they encapsulate uncomfortable realities. Suppose we take this one a little further and apply some lateral thinking.

A widespread political assumption is that people vote for candidates who seem to be competent, or not obviously incompetent. Seems reasonable enough but perhaps it isn’t so. Political allegiances come first of course, but party political allegiance seems to imply party competence over the long term. If parties and candidates are to implement their election promises, then voters must surely assume a certain level of competence in formulating and implementing those promises. Voters are often disappointed as we know, but competence seems to be a general assumption.

Yet as we also know, voters manage to elect incompetent political parties as well as incompetent candidates. In which case, perhaps voters tend to vote for parties and candidates who seem to be no more competent than the average voter. Perhaps voters are uneasy about levels of competence significantly above their own. They know they cannot weigh up smart people, so superior competence may be seen as a threat. Which of course it is.

Perhaps most voters feel mild incompetence to be less threatening than too-obvious competence. In which case, to attract these voters political candidates must aim to come across as mildly but not dangerously incompetent. They must also belong to a mildly, but not dangerously incompetent party. Something we see all the time but we treat it as a fault rather than a feature.

Conversely, in times of political and economic stress voters may break ranks and vote for a higher level of competence or they may simply abstain if their preferred party or their preferred candidate has not kept pace with a temporary but pressing need for higher levels of political competence.

When the political and economic stress subside, voters may go back to aligning themselves with parties and candidates exhibiting a more benign level of competence, a level of competence not too far from the voter’s own.

When the outlook is benign, incompetently formulated policies, incompetent aspirations and incompetent presentation are all tolerated. Political parties drift towards the average level of voter competence. As societies become more middle class and more receptive to foolish and dishonest political fashions, the average level of voter competence trends downwards. As a direct consequence the incompetence of political decision-making trends upwards.

Hence climate change, political correctness and woke culture have given us Trump, Boris and Brexit as emergency counterweights to some obviously incompetent political trends. Will it last though? That’s the question.


Graeme said...

Remember that they are coming for your stove now

Sam Vega said...

I think Boris is purposefully projecting a kind of incompetence, but only in the inessential stuff. Theresa May was the opposite, in that she strove to appear competent but was clearly out of her depth.

SpAds like Cummings and that kid who has just resigned are interesting examples of your theory. Do we want them to be stratospherically intelligent? The problem is that we can't tell that type of intelligence from bullshit or even idiocy. As has been fulsomely remarked upon, a "superpredictor" who couldn't work out what hot water his actions were likely to land him in is a rather odd beast.

A K Haart said...

Graeme - I wonder if Boris will turn out to be much of an improvement over Corbyn.

Sam - I'm not so sure about Cummings. His type of intelligence seems to be laced with bullshit. That "superpredictor" requires some explanation.