Émile Faguet was an important French writer and political philosopher. This extract, from his seminal work, "The Cult of Incompetence," was published in Aristokratia II, a journal of philosophy dedicated to the ideas of Nietzsche, Plato, Evola, Cioran, Aristotle, Socrates, and others. Aristokratia III: Hellas was recently published, and is highly recommended.


By Émile Faguet (Translated by Beatrice Barstow)

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 honour, 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 a despotism can fall by inspiring too much fear, or a constitutional monarchy by developing too highly the sentiment of honour, or a republic by having too much virtue. It is nevertheless true.

To make too common a use of fear is to destroy its efficacy. As Edgar Quinet happily puts it: "If we want to make use of fear we must be certain that we can use it always." We cannot have too much honour, but when we can appeal to this sentiment only and when distinctions, decorations, orders, ribbons—in a word honours—are multiplied, inasmuch as we cannot increase such things indefinitely, those who have none become as discontented as those who, having some, want more.

Finally we cannot, of course, have too much virtue, and naturally here governments will fall not by exaggerating but by abandoning their guiding principle. Yet is it not sometimes true that by demanding from citizens too great a devotion to their country, we end by exhausting human powers of endurance and sacrifice? This is what happened in the case of Napoleon, who, perhaps unwittingly, required too much from France, for the building up of a 'Greater France.'

But that, someone will object, was not a republic!

From the point of view of the sacrifices required from the citizen, it was a republic, similar to the Roman Republic and to the French Republic of 1792. All the talk was 'for the glory of our country,' 'heroism, heroism, nothing but heroism'! If too much is required of it, civic virtue can be exhausted.

It is, then, very true that governments perish just as much from an excess as from a neglect of their appropriate principle. Montesquieu without doubt borrowed his general idea from Aristotle, who remarks not without humour, "Those, who think that they have discovered the basis of good government, are apt to push the consequences of their new found principle too far. They do not remember that disproportion in such matters is fatal. They forget that a nose which varies slightly from the ideal line of beauty appropriate for noses, tending slightly towards becoming a hook or a snub, may still be of fair shape and not disagreeable to the eye, but if the excess be very great, all symmetry is lost, and the nose at last ceases to be a nose at all." This law of proportion holds good with regard to every form of government.

Starting from these general ideas, I have often wondered what principle democrats have adopted for the form of government which they favour, and it has not required a great effort on my part to arrive at the conclusion that the principle in question is the worship and cultivation, or, briefly 'the cult' of incompetence or inefficiency.

Let us examine any well-managed and successful business firm or factory. 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 traveller or a mechanic.

Look too at the animal world. The higher we go in the scale of organic existence, the greater the division of labour, the more marked the specialisation 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 specialisation. "For," as Aristotle says, "she is not niggardly, like the Delphian smiths whose knives have to serve for many purposes, she makes each thing for a single purpose, and the best instrument is that which serves one and not many uses." Elsewhere he says, "At Carthage it is thought an honour 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. 

That society, therefore, 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.

Now democracies, far from sharing this view, are inclined to take the opposite view. At Athens there was a great tribunal composed of men learned in, and competent to interpret, the law. The people could not tolerate such an institution, so laboured to destroy it and to usurp its functions. The crowd reasoned thus. "We can interpret and carry out laws, because we make them." The conclusion was right, but the minor premise was disputable. The retort can be made: "True, you can interpret and carry out laws because you make them, but perhaps you have no business to be making laws." Be that as it may, the Athenian people not only interpreted and applied its own laws, but it insisted on being paid for so doing. The result was that the poorest citizens sat judging all day long, as all others were unwilling to sacrifice their whole time for a payment of six drachmas. This plebeian tribunal continued for many years. Its most celebrated feat was the judgment which condemned Socrates to death. This was perhaps matter for regret, but the great principle, the sovereignty of incompetence, was vindicated.

Athenian democracy, somewhat romanticized.

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. Here then was a sort of specialisation of functions. The same person, or collective body of persons, did not both legislate and govern.

This did not last long. The king was suppressed. Democracy remained, but a certain amount of respect for efficiency remained too. The people, the masses, did not, every single man of them, claim the right to govern and to legislate directly.

It did not even claim the right to nominate the legislature directly. It adopted indirect election, à deux degrés, that is, it nominated electors who in turn nominated the legislature. It thus left two aristocracies above itself, the first electors and the elected legislature. This was still far removed from democracy on the Athenian model which did everything itself.

This does not mean that much attention was paid to efficiency. The electors were not chosen because they were particularly fitted to elect a legislature, nor was the legislature itself elected with any reference to its legislative capacity. Still there was a certain pretence of a desire for efficiency, a double pseudo-efficiency. The crowd, or rather the constitution, assumed that legislators elected by the delegates of the crowd were more competent to make laws than the crowd itself.

This somewhat curious form of efficiency I have called compétence par collation, efficiency or competence conferred by this form of selection. There is absolutely nothing to show that so-and-so has the slightest legislative or juridical faculty, so I confer on him a certificate of efficiency by the confidence I repose in him when nominating him for the office, or rather I show my confidence in the electors and they confer a certificate of efficiency on those whom they nominate for the legislature.

This, of course, is devoid of all common sense, but appearances, and even something more, are in its favour.

It is not common sense for it involves something being made out of nothing, inefficiency producing efficiency and zero extracting 'one' out of itself. This form of selection, though it does not appeal to me under any circumstances, is legitimate enough when it is exercised by a competent body. A university can confer a degree upon a distinguished man because it can judge whether his degreeless condition is due to accident or not. It would, however, be highly ridiculous and paradoxical if the general public were to confer mathematical degrees. A degree of efficiency conferred by an inefficient body is contrary to common sense.

There is, however, some plausibility and indeed a little more than plausibility in favour of this plan. Degrees in literature and in dramatic art are conferred, given by 'collation,' by incompetent people, that is by the public. We can say to the public: "You know nothing of literary and dramatic art." It will retort: "True, I know nothing, but certain things move me and I confer the degree on those who evoke my emotions." In this it is not altogether wrong. In the same way the degree of doctor of political science is conferred by the people on those who stir its emotions and who express most forcibly its own passions. These doctors of political science are the empassioned representatives of its own passions.

—In other words, the worst legislators!—

Yes, very nearly so, but not quite. It is very useful that we should have an exponent of popular passion at the crest of the social wave, to tell us not indeed what the crowd is thinking, for the crowd never thinks, but what the crowd is feeling, in order that we may not cross it too violently or obey it too obsequiously. An engineer would call it the science of the strength of materials.

A medium assures me that he had a conversation with Louis XIV, who said to him: "Universal suffrage is an excellent thing in a monarchy. It is a source of information. When it recommends a certain course of action it shows us that this is a thing which we must not do. If I could have consulted it over the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes, it would have given me a clear mandate for that Revocation and I should have known what to do, and that Edict would not have been revoked. I acted as I did, because I was advised by ministers whom I considered experienced statesmen. Had I been aware of the state of public opinion I should have known that France was tired of wars and new palaces and extravagance. But this was not an expression of passion and prejudice, but a cry of suffering. As far as passion and prejudice are concerned we must go right in the teeth of public opinion, and universal suffrage will tell you what that is. On the other hand we must pay heed, serious heed to every cry of pain, and here too universal suffrage will come to our aid. Universal suffrage is necessary to a monarchy as a source of information."

This, I am told, is Louis XIV's present opinion on the subject.

As far as legislation therefore is concerned, the attempt to secure competence by 'collation' is an absurdity. Yet it is an inverted sort of competence useful for indicating the state of a nation's temper. From this it follows that this system is as mischievous in a republic as it would be wholesome in a monarchy. It is not therefore altogether bad.

The Great Representative.
The democracy which we have in view, after having been governed by the representatives of its representatives for ten years, submitted for the next fifteen years to the rule of one representative and took no particular advantage therefrom.

Then for thirty years it adopted a scheme which aimed at a certain measure of efficiency. It assumed that the electors of the legislature ought not to be nominated, but marked out by their social position, that is their fortune. Those who possessed so many drachmas were to be electors.

What sort of a basis for efficiency is this? It is a basis but certainly a somewhat narrow one.

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 eighteen years to the rule of one delegate with no great cause to congratulate itself on the result.

It then adopted democracy in a form almost pure and simple. I say almost, for the democratic system pure and simple involves the direct government of the people without any intervening representatives, by means of a continuous plebiscite. Our democracy then set up and still maintains a democratic system almost pure and simple, that is to say, it established government of the nation by delegates whom it itself elected and by these delegates strictly and exclusively. This time we have reached an apotheosis of incompetence that is well-nigh absolute.

This, our present system, purports to be the rule of efficiency chosen by the arbitrary form of selection which has been described. Just as the bishop in the story, addressing a haunch of venison, exclaimed: "I baptise thee carp," so the people says to its representatives: "I baptise you masters of law, I baptise you statesmen, I baptise you social reformers." We shall see later on that this baptism goes very much further than this.

Symbol of the Third Republic.
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 places 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.

—Well that surely is something, and, in a way, a guarantee of efficiency. The legislators are not capable of making laws, it is true; but at least they are honest men. This guarantee of moral efficiency, some critic will say, gives me much satisfaction.

Please be careful, I reply, we should never think of giving the management of a railway station to the most honest man, but to an honest man who, besides, understood thoroughly railway administration. So we must put into our laws not only honest intentions, but just principles of law, politics, and society.

Secondly, 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 I do not say that the men of its choice are dishonest, I 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, which pretends 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 in my opinion 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.
To sum it all up, it is intellectual incompetence, nay moral incompetence which is sought instinctively in the people's choice.
If possible, it is more than this. The people favours incompetence, not only because it is no judge of intellectual competence and because it looks on moral competence from a wrong point of view, but because it desires before everything, as indeed is very natural, that its representatives should resemble itself. This it does for two reasons.

First, as a matter of sentiment, the people desires, as we have seen, that its representatives should share its feelings and prejudices. These representatives can share its prejudices and yet not absolutely resemble it in morals, habits, manners and appearance; but naturally the people never feels so certain that a man shares its prejudices and is not merely pretending to do so, as when the man resembles it feature by feature. It is a sign and a guarantee. The people is instinctively impelled therefore to elect men of the same habits, manners and even education as itself, or shall we say of an education slightly superior, the education of a man who can talk, but only superior in a very slight degree.

In addition to this sentimental reason, there is another, which is extremely important, for it goes to the very root of the democratic idea. 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 favours, 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 neighbours. It cannot destroy these inequalities, for they are natural, but it can neutralise 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.

The chance, then, of efficiency coming to the front in this state of affairs is indeed deplorable.

Paris liberated by the Germans from French incompetence.
First and last, democracy—and it is natural enough—wishes to do everything itself, it is the enemy of all specialisation of functions, particularly it wishes to govern, without delegates or intermediaries. Its ideal is direct government as it existed at Athens, its ideal is "democracy," in the terminology of Rousseau, who applied the word to direct government and to direct government only.

Forced by historical events and perhaps by necessity to govern by delegates, how could democracy still contrive to govern directly or nearly so, although continuing to govern through delegates?

Its first alternative is, perhaps, to impose on its delegates an imperative mandate. Delegates under this condition become mere agents of the people. They attend the legislative assembly to register the will of the people just as they receive it, and the people in reality governs directly. This is what is meant by the imperative mandate.

Democracy has often considered it, but never with persistence. Herein it shows good sense. It has a shrewd suspicion that the imperative mandate is never more than a snare and a delusion. Representatives of the people meet and discuss, the interests of party become defined. Henceforward they are the prey of the goddess Opportunity, the Greek ΚαιρὁςΚαιρὁς. Then it happens one day that to vote according to their mandate would be very unfavourable to the interest of their party. They are therefore obliged to be faithless to their party by reason of their fidelity to their mandate, or disobedient to their mandate by reason of their obedience to their party; and in any case to have betrayed their mandate with this very praiseworthy and excellent intention is a thing for which they can take credit or at least obtain excuse with the electors—and on such a matter it will be very difficult to refute them.

The imperative mandate is therefore a very clumsy instrument for work of a very delicate character. The democracy, instinctively, knows this very well, and sets no great store by the imperative mandate.

What other alternative is there for it? Something very much finer, the substance instead of the shadow. It can elect men who resemble it closely, who follow its sentiments closely, who are in fact so nearly identical with itself that they may be trusted to do surely, instinctively, almost mechanically that which it would itself do, if it were itself an immense legislative assembly. They would vote, without doubt, according to circumstances, but also as their electors would vote if they were governing directly. In this way democracy preserves its legislative power. It makes the law, and this is the only way it can make 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.
Its enemy, or rather the man whom democracy dreads because he means to govern and does not intend to allow the mob to govern through him, is the man who succeeds in getting elected for some constituency or other, either by the influence of his wealth or by the prestige of his talent and notoriety. Such a man is not dependent on democracy. If a legislative assembly were entirely or by a majority composed of rich men, men of superior intelligence, men who had an interest in attending to the trades or professions in which they had succeeded rather than in playing at politics, they would vote according to their own ideas, and then—what would happen? Why then democracy would be simply suppressed. It would no longer legislate and govern; there would be, to speak exactly, an aristocracy, not very permanently established perhaps, but still an aristocracy which would eliminate the influence of the people from public affairs.

Clearly it is almost impossible for the democracy, if it means to survive, to encourage efficiency, nay it is almost impossible for it to refrain from attempting to destroy efficiency.

Thus, we may sum up, only those are elected as the representatives of the people, who are its exact counterparts and constant dependents.

The Cult of Incompetence (Classic Reprint)

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