Peter Bye

The rise of the kakistocracy?

I was recently looking around for a word to describe government by the incompetent, rather as, for example, kleptocracy is government by thieves. I googled ‘government by the incompetent’ and was rewarded with the magnificent word in the title of this piece. Kakistocracy means government by the worst[1], from the Greek kakistos meaning worst and kratos meaning rule. A very entertaining blog by Amro Ali, who writes on the Middle East, explains the idea, and why it is relevant, in some detail[2]. He defines kakistocracy as ‘the government of a state by its most stupid, ignorant, least qualified and unprincipled citizens in power’. A kakistocracy may of course also be a kleptocracy.

It is all too easy to think of examples of kakistocracies; they can be found in many parts of the world. They are sometimes the result of leaders who have long outstayed their useful lives – think of Zimbabwe, for instance. In other cases, they take over by force. They may even be elected as populists, sometimes achieving useful results but more often just offering simple solutions to complicated problems. When circumstances change, or the simple solutions fail to solve the problems, the government may then continue in power through the use of force; Venezuela is an example.

Can any of the Western democracies be thought of in some sense as kakistocracies? People sometimes think so. In January this year, the NewStatesman carried a piece on Donald Trump, following his inauguration: ‘Donald Trump ushers in a new era of kakistocracy: government by the worst people’[3]. We would hardly expect the NewStatesman to be a Trump supporter, but events since the article was published have revealed alarming signs of the attributes of kakistocracy. However, the maturity of the US democracy, and the checks and balances of the constitution, have largely kept excesses under control.

But we should require much higher standards from Western democracies such as the USA and the UK than we would expect from a newly emerging country. And they should be particularly high when the countries in question choose to pontificate about ethics and moral leadership. To maintain high standards, we must be prepared to pick up and fight signs of deviation from what we expect. What is the position with respect to Western democracies? As I am British, I’ll confine myself to some observations about the UK.

By most standards, it would be absurd to describe the UK as a kakistocracy. In Transparency International’s corruption index[4] for 2016, it figures 10th out of 176, along with Germany and Luxembourg (1 is best). Denmark and New Zealand are joint number 1 and the USA is 18th. In the World Bank’s ease of doing business index[5] for 2016, the UK is 7th out of 190, equal with the USA (1 is best). New Zealand is first, with Germany 17th and France 29th. So what is the problem?

My doubts concern the competence of the current – and some previous – governments. Anthony King and Ivor Crewe, two distinguished political scientists, published an excellent book on the subject of blunders committed by UK governments[6]. They contend that modern UK governments blunder far too often, and more than they used to. King and Crewe are careful to distinguish between mistakes and blunders. The former are inevitable if we are to do anything; the latter are much harder to justify. They give examples in a wide range of government activities, including the so-called poll tax, IT project failures and the exit from the ERM (the Exchange Rate Mechanism of the European Community). The UK joined the ERM in 1990, under the Thatcher government, and fell out of it on Wednesday 16th September 1992, known as ‘Black Wednesday’. King and Crewe clearly explain what happened and why.

I fear that the current approach to Brexit is indicative of another Europe-related cock-up in waiting, caused by a lack of competence. The negotiations started in June and do not appear to have made a lot of progress[7]. There have been some heated exchanges and, although there is no doubt a degree of posturing by both sides, the EU negotiating team is, in my opinion, justified in its frustration at the lack of preparedness by the UK. As they point out, the Brexiteers have had years to develop a clear position but have not done so.

Let me state again that the UK is by no stretch of imagination a real kakistocracy; the ratings by Transparency International and the World Bank show that. But, by the high standards with which we must judge it, the UK government does display a degree of incompetence, especially when it comes to Europe. I believe this is less to do with the capability of the civil service, which is of high quality, than with the people responsible in government. They seem unable get a clear grip on what they need to do. I sometimes feel that there is a belief in the power of ‘the effortless amateur’ rather than the serious professional.

Notes and sources

[1] A Wikipedia entry provides some background. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kakistocracy

[2]Kakistocracy: A word we need to revive’, May 2016. See: http://amroali.com/2016/05/kakistocracy-rule-by-the-stupid-unqualified/ I strongly recommend reading it.

[3] See http://www.newstatesman.com/world/2017/01/donald-trump-ushers-new-era-kakistocracy-government-worst-people

[4] See https://www.transparency.org/research/cpi/

[5] See https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/IC.BUS.EASE.XQ?name_desc=false

[6]The Blunders of our Governments’, Anthony King and Ivor Crewe, 2013, published by ONEWORLD. The book is entertainingly written and full of information about the blunders and the likely causes.

[7] Nick Clegg, former leader of the Liberal Democrats and a strong EU supporter, went on the attack this weekend. See http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/av/uk-politics-41146316/nick-clegg-government-wasted-a-year-on-brexit Various people advocating Brexit have strongly rejected his comments.

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