The Peter Principle (in Government)

In 1969, I bought my first copy of The Peter Principle and read Laurence Peter’s words  “In a hierarchy every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence.”  He explained that “in time every post tends to be occupied by an employee who is incompetent to carry out its duties.”  Dr. Peter died 30 years ago – but those 30 years have just given more time for incompetents to fill every post.

Dr. Peter may have been prescient – or it may have been that Education departments in the university system were ahead of the curve.  He explained that “Work is accomplished by those employees who have not yet reached their level of incompetence.”

We live in a world where another of his comments should be remembered, “In most hierarchies, supercompetence is more objectionable than incompetence.”  Simply enough, as the hierarchy fills with incompetents, getting rid of the competent becomes institutionalized behavior.

A century ago, H.L. Mencken wrote “As democracy is perfected, the office of the President represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. On some great and glorious day, the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last, and the White House will be occupied by a downright fool and a complete narcissistic moron.”  The Peter Principle has been working over that century, and now we can look not just at the presidency, but the entire line of succession.  Heck, we can look at the senior civil service and military personnel that make the news.

Think about it – it would be a challenge to find someone who would wager that Joe Biden would be assessed as mentally competent.  Next in line is Kamala Harris.  Then Nancy Pelosi.  We have arrived at a situation where not only is the top slot filled by an incompetent, but the line of succession seems packed with them.

In 1966, Anthony Fauci graduated first in his med school class at Cornell.  That shows competence in 1966.  In 1968, he completed his residency, and went to work for the National Institutes of Health.  He’s been in the NIH hierarchy ever since.  I have no doubt he was a bright young physician 50 years ago – but he has over 50 years experience as a bureaucrat since then.   I wouldn’t want a fifty-year bureaucrat to cut on me, even if he was first in his class back when I was still in high school.

At the beginning of the war between the states, Lincoln started with General Winfield Scott.  He went out on November 1, 1861.  Then Lincoln had McClellan heading the Union army.  After Antietam, he fired him on March 11, 1862 and left the position open until late July.  On July 23, he put Henry Halleck in charge.  On March 9, 1864, Lincoln fired Halleck and put U.S. Grant in charge.  A long line of folks who reached their collective levels of incompetence.

I note that the only officer in the brig after the Afghanistan debacle is a lieutenant colonel.  I think Laurence Peter already made the relevant comment.

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