A Philosopher's Blog

The Myth of (In)Competence

Posted in Politics by Michael LaBossiere on September 9, 2009
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In the course of the debate over health care reform, many stock political tactics have been employed. One of the classic methods is the use of the myth of incompetence. This method is based on the popular stereotype (or myth) that governments are incapable of competent action. On this view, anything the government does will be , a priori, bloated, wasteful, ineffective, costly and probably oppressive.  Usually associated with this myth is the myth of competence. This is the stereotype (or myth) that non-government actors (like businesses or individual folks) will always do things better than the government (less bloated, less wasteful, more effective, cheaper, and without oppression).

In some cases, the folks using the myths do back them up with examples. For example, the myth of incompetence is supported by pointing to the DMV, the Post Office and Amtrak. Pointing at the military is generally considered bad form, however. The general idea is that these examples show how the government is and must be in regards to competence (or rather the lack thereof).

While these examples (and so many others, such as the handling of Katrina and the sorry state of our public infrastructure) show that there are serious problems with some government programs and actions, to assume that anything run by the state must be done incompetently seems to be a rather hasty generalization.

Of course, it can be argued that the evidence is rather substantial evidence for government incompetence across the board. After all, one can go back through history and pile up example after example of incompetence (or worse, outright corruption).

I will, for the sake of the discussion, grant that the government (or rather the folks that do the actual stuff) is lacking in competence. However, the question arises as to whether or not the government is significantly less competent than the non-government actors (business and individuals). After all, the myth of incompetence (or the reality, if you prefer) is typically used in conjunction with the myth of competence. For example, in the health reform debate the incompetence of the state is matched unfavorably against the competence of the private sector.

In the case of the myth of competence, it is argued that non-government actors (especially business) have to be competent in order to continue to survive. Folks often say “why, if a company did what the government did, it would go out of business” or even “if I worked like the government did, I’d be fired.” But, these claims do not seem to be generally true. To show this, I’ll start small and then work up.

Think of the people you know and work with. Now ask yourself how competent they are.  How often do you think “wow, my friends and co-workers are amazingly competent!”

Next, think of the folks you work for. Do you praise their competence each day? At least once a week? Monthly? Ever?

Now, think of the businesses that you deal with. Do you regard these folks as competent? In my own case, I have doubts. For example, when I go to the doctor or dentist I usually have to wait at least 30 minutes after my appointment time to be seen. Then I spend 15-30 minutes waiting to see the actual doctor or dentist once I have been taken to the appointment area. As other examples, I have been ignored at McDonalds, had my orders horribly screwed up at restaurants, had repair jobs take three times longer than promised, had paperwork lost, been overcharged and so on. I’m sure that you have plenty of examples of your own.

Of course, I can bring out the really huge examples such as the folks involved in the sub-prime mess, AIG, General Motors, Chevy, and so on. Those businesses were clearly not models of competence.

Now, some folks might argue that the government helped ruin some business and such the state must take the blame for leading the sweet and innocent business folks down the path of incompetence.

In reply, the government did have a role in allowing business to do rather stupid things by deregulating and so on. Of course, this was mostly at the behest of business folks and, of course, the business people were not forced to make stupid choices. The government has, I must admit, played a role in keeping incompetent businesses going-but this is (once again) at the behest of those businesses. That is, the allegedly competent companies are lobbying the state to enable their incompetent behavior. The state, so far, has been quite willing to go along (that is, the folks being swayed by lobbyist cash and promises are enabling this).

My point in all this is that incompetence seems to be everywhere. Sure, it is in the government-but only because people seem to generally be low in competence. As such, there seems to be no special reason to fear government incompetence over the incompetence of the private sector.

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