The psychology of political incompetence

Saturday, October 29, 2011

There was an interesting thread on a web forum I frequent about the EU mess and how none of the politicians involved seem to know what to do or want to take charge to do anything about it.

This reminded me of a book I read some years ago, On the psychology of military incompetence, a study of incompetent military actions and the reasons behind them. The general theory was that in peace time the military promotes people who do as they’re told, and then when they reach the top levels and are expected to take command, they have no idea of what to do; most people capable of making independent decisions have been weeded out at much lower level. Only in war time does the need for effective action override the demand for obedience to higher ranks.

The same process would seem to apply to many professional politicians, who’ve spent all their lives doing what they’re told in order to progress up the party hierarchy to the point where they’re suddenly able to give orders. Then they don’t know what to do, and because giving orders means taking responsibility for them, they’re not even willing to try because failure gives their opponents ammunition to use against them. Putting off decisions or pushing them onto committees in order to pass the buck is far less risky.

Until they face a crisis where important decisions have to be made, and not making a decision becomes an important decision in its own right. The political system then works against promoting the very people who are required in such a crisis and they can’t be promoted as fast as military officers in war time.

Hence when we look around the world today we see a lot of political ‘leaders’ who’ve spent most of their life getting to that point yet most of them would prefer to play golf than actually lead. It’s no wonder we’re in such a mess.

Leave a Reply