THE CULT OF INCOMPETENCE

The question has often been asked, ‘what is the animating principle of different forms of government’, for each, it is assumed, has its own principle. In other words, what is the general idea which inspires each political system? Montesquieu, for instance, proved that the principle of monarchy is honor, the principle of despotism fear, the principle of a republic virtue or patriotism, and he added with much justice that governments decline and fall as often by carrying their principle to excess, as by neglecting it altogether. And this, though a paradox, is true. At first sight it may not be obvious how despotism can fall by inspiring too much fear or a constitutional monarchy by developing too highly the sentiment of honor, or a republic by having too much virtue. It is nevertheless true.
Every employee does the work he knows and does best, the skilled workman, the accountant, the manager and the secretary, each in his place. No one would dream of making the accountant change places with a commercial traveler or a mechanic. Look too at the animal world. The higher we go in the scale of organic existence, the greater the division of labor, the more marked the specialization of physiological function. One organ thinks, another acts, one digests, another breathes.
Now is there such a thing as an animal with only one organ, or rather is there any animal, consisting of only one organ, which breathes and thinks and digests all at the same time? Yes, there is. It is called the amœba, and the amœba is the very lowest thing in the animal world, very inferior even to a vegetable.
In the same way, without doubt, in a well constituted society, each organ has its definite function, that is to say, administration is carried on by those who have learnt how to administer, legislation and the amendment of laws by those who have learnt how to legislate, justice by those who have studied jurisprudence, and the functions of a country postman are not given to a paralytic. Society should model itself on nature, whose plan is specialization. Aristotle says, “At Carthage it is thought an honor to hold many offices, but a man only does one thing well. The legislator should see to this, and prevent the same man from being set to make shoes and play the flute.”
A well-constituted society, we may sum up, is one where every function is not confided to everyone, where the crowd itself, the whole body social, is not told: “It is your business to govern, to administer, to make the laws, &c.” A society, where things are so arranged, is an amœbic society.
Modern democracies seem to have adopted the same principle, in form they are essentially amœbic.
A democracy, well-known to us all, has been evolved in the following manner. It began with this idea; king and people, democratic royalty, royal democracy. The people makes, the king carries out, the law; the people legislates, the king governs, retaining, however, a certain control over the law, for he can suspend the carrying out of a new law when he considers that it tends to obstruct the function of government.
It is a basis, first, because a man who owns a certain fortune has a greater interest than others in a sound management of public business, and self-interest opens and quickens the eye; and again a man who has money and does not lose it cannot be altogether a fool. On the other hand it is a narrow basis, because the possession of money is of itself no guarantee of political ability, and the system leads to the very questionable proposition that every rich man is a competent social reformer. It is, however, a sort of competence, but a competence very precariously established and on a very narrow basis. This system disappeared and our democracy, after a short interregnum, repeated its previous experiment and submitted for years to the rule of one delegate with no great cause to congratulate itself on the result.
If the people were capable of judging of the legal and psychological knowledge possessed by those who present themselves for election, this form of selection need not be prohibitive of efficiency and might even be satisfactory; but in the first place, the electors are not capable of judging, and secondly, even if they were, nothing would be gained. Nothing would be gained, because the people never place itself at this point of view. Emphatically never! It looks at the qualifications of the candidate not from a scientific but from a moral point of view. If the candidates are considered from the point of view of their moral worth it is in a peculiar fashion. High morality is imputed to those who share the dominant passions of the people and who express themselves thereon more violently than others. Ah! these are our honest men, it cries, and we do not say that the men of its choice are dishonest, we only say that by this criterion they are not infallibly marked out even as honest.
Still, some one replies, they are probably disinterested, for they follow popular prejudices, and not their own particular, individual wishes. Yes, that is just what the masses believe, while they forget that there is nothing easier than to simulate popular passion in order to win popular confidence and become a political personage. If disinterestedness is really so essential to the people, only those should be elected who oppose the popular will and who show thereby that they do not want to be elected. Or better still only those who do not stand for election should be elected, since not to stand is the undeniable sign of disinterestedness. But this is never done. That which should always be done is never done.
But, someone will say, your public bodies which recruit their numbers by co-optation, Academies and learned societies, do not elect their members in this way. Quite so, and they are right. Such bodies do not want their members to be disinterested but scientific. They have no reason to prefer an unwilling member to one who is eager to be elected. Their point of view is entirely different. The people, who pretend to set store by high moral character, should exclude from power those who are ambitious of power, or at least those who covet it with a keenness that suggests other than disinterested motives.
These considerations show us what the crowd understands by the moral worth of a man. The moral worth of a man consists, as far as the crowd is concerned, in his entertaining or pretending to entertain the same sentiments as itself, and it is just for this reason that the representatives of the multitude are excellent as documents for information, but detestable, or at least, useless, and therefore detestable, as legislators.
Montesquieu, who is seldom wrong, errs when he says, “The people is well-fitted to choose its own magistrates.” He, it is true, did not live under a democracy. For consider, how could the people be fitted to choose its own magistrates and legislators, when Montesquieu himself, this time with ample justification, lays down as one of his principles that morals should correct climate, and that law should correct morals, and the people, as we know, only thinks of choosing as its delegates men who share, in every particular, its own manner of thinking? Climate can be partially resisted by the people; but if the law should correct morals, legislators should be chosen who have taken up an attitude of reaction against current morality. It would be very curious if such a choice were ever made, and not only is it never made but the contrary invariably happens.
What is the people’s one desire, when once it has been stung by the democratic tarantula? It is that all men should be equal, and in consequence that all inequalities natural as well as artificial should disappear. It will not have artificial inequalities, nobility of birth, royal favors, inherited wealth, and so it is ready to abolish nobility, royalty, and inheritance. Nor does it like natural inequalities, that is to say a man more intelligent, more active, more courageous, more skilful than his neighbors. It cannot destroy these inequalities, for they are natural, but it can neutralize them, strike them with impotence by excluding them from the employments under its control.
Democracy is thus led quite naturally, irresistibly one may say, to exclude the competent precisely because they are competent, or if the phrase pleases better and as the popular advocate would put it, not because they are competent but because they are unequal, or, as he would probably go on to say, if he wished to excuse such action, not because they are unequal, but because being unequal they are suspected of being opponents of equality.
So it all comes to the same thing. This it is that made Aristotle say that where merit is despised, there is democracy. He does not say so in so many words, but he wrote: “Where merit is not esteemed before everything else, it is not possible to have a firmly established aristocracy,” and that amounts to saying that where merit is not esteemed, we enter at once on a democratic regime and never escape from it.
Democracy, therefore, has the greatest inducement to elect representatives who are representative, who, in the first place, resemble it as closely as possible, who, in the second place, have no individuality of their own, who finally, having no fortune of their own, have no sort of independence.
We deplore that democracy surrenders itself to politicians, but from its own point of view, a point of view which it cannot avoid taking up, it is absolutely right. What is a politician? He is a man who, in respect of his personal opinions, is a nullity, in respect of education, a mediocrity, he shares the general sentiments and passions of the crowd, his sole occupation is politics, and if that career were closed to him, he would die of starvation.
He is precisely the thing of which the democracy has need. He will never be led away by his education to develop ideas of his own; and having no ideas of his own, he will not allow them to enter into conflict with his prejudices. His prejudices will be, at first by a feeble sort of conviction, afterwards by reason of his own interest, identical with those of the crowd; and lastly, his poverty and the impossibility of his getting a living outside of politics make it certain that he will never break out of the narrow circle where his political employers have confined him; his imperative mandate is the material necessity which obliges him to obey; his imperative mandate is his inability to quarrel with his bread and butter.
Democracy obviously has need of politicians, has need of nothing else but politicians, and has need indeed that there shall be in politics nothing else but politicians.
(Adapted from The Project Gutenberg EBook of The Cult of Incompetence, by Emile Faguet of the French Academy)

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