Inability in politicians

Ability in a politician, his, or her, worthiness to fulfil the position, is hard to judge and more apparent when the burdens of office have borne upon them. Speech is easy: action is hard. Only the latter is a reliable test, by which time it may be too late.

An appropriate motto for many a former Prime Minister would be capax imperii, nisi imperasset.

In a dictatorship or oligarchy, power is gained through force or guile or corrupt dealing, and these may be the appropriate qualities for governing. In a democracy, power is gained through creating popularity, in a form of playacting (which is by very definition hypocrisy), and this is of no relevance in actually ruling. The voter then who is serious about his choice has a counterintuitive balancing act, to choose between two or three candidates who, by the very nature of the system which selected them, are probably unsuitable.

Hobbes makes the crucial distinction which the popular electoral system fails to make:

WORTHINESSE, is a thing different from the worth, or value of a man; and also from his merit, or desert; and consisteth in a particular power, or ability for that, whereof he is said to be worthy: which particular ability, is usually named FITNESSE, or Aptitude.

For he is Worthiest to be a Commander, to be a Judge, or to have any other charge, that is best fitted, with the qualities required to the well discharging of it; and Worthiest of Riches, that has the qualities most requisite for the well using of them: any of which qualities being absent, one may neverthelesse be a Worthy man, and valuable for some thing else. Again, a man may be Worthy of Riches, Office, and Employment, that neverthelesse, can plead no right to have it before another; and therefore cannot be said to merit or deserve it. For Merit, praesupposeth a right, and that the thing deserved is due by promise: Of which I shall say more hereafter, when I shall speak of Contracts.

The political system of popular acclamation encourages the rewarding of popularity, not ability, and then destroys that popularity with the demonstration of inability. It is a calamitous application of the Peter Principle.

Looking at myself, I am well aware of my own inabilities in some areas, and though I am lauded in some endeavours, I would be hopeless if entrusted with others. For a politician it can be no different. Ability must have so many aspects, it is surely impossible that one man should have them all. This makes Cabinet government vital (although only Grenville has been credited with putting together a ‘Ministry of All the Talents’). David Cameron to his great credit placed senior ministers in long-term positions, to learn and master the job. (Unspoken, it also tames the civil servants, who may otherwise ignore the politicians as another will be along in a few minutes.)

One might say, in the poplar context:

The Value, or WORTH of a man, is as of all other things, his Price; that is to say, so much as would be given for the use of his Power: and therefore is not absolute; but a thing dependant on the need and judgement of another. An able conductor of Souldiers, is of great Price in time of War present, or imminent; but in Peace not so. A learned and uncorrupt Judge, is much Worth in time of Peace; but not so much in War. And as in other things, so in men, not the seller, but the buyer determines the Price. For let a man (as most men do,) rate themselves as the highest Value they can; yet their true Value is no more than it is esteemed by others.

The manifestation of the Value we set on one another, is that which is commonly called Honouring, and Dishonouring. To Value a man at a high rate, is to Honour him; at a low rate, is to Dishonour him. But high, and low, in this case, is to be understood by comparison to the rate that each man setteth on himselfe.

Debate as I may, it is out of my hands. It is no wonder that the voters are disquieted, disenfranchised in the choice of the King’s First Minister (as even the King himself is disenfranchised in the choice of his own minister). Were the system more clearly that of a Cabinet government, the Prime Minister in Bagehot’s terms ‘first amongst equals’ then maybe all this hurley-burley would look less like an élite coup. One wonders how the Australians cope, when this sort of thing happens all the time.

One must only hope that the Members of Parliament who are making the decisions, flawed as they are, can consider the right measure of ‘worthinesse’ to the actual task to be entrusted, and that they know their colleagues’ qualities, which we on the other side of the screen never can. One may hope too that their chosen leader will have the humility to trust colleagues, flawed though they are to carry the burden no mortal man can carry alone.

See also


Author: LittleHobb

Solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short