What Does An Incompetent Leader Do To A Country?
Pool/Getty Images News/Getty Images
Share

If there's one thing that many Americans have been wondering about since, oh, let's say some time near the end of January, it's the impact an incompetent political leader can have on a country — even one with the strong institutions. We often tend to view unqualified, floundering leaders as a problem confined to countries with chaotic histories and weak democratic traditions, but there have been many in history, in a wide variety of countries — and they can cost their country rather a lot when they're done with it.

Incompetence, as far as it goes, isn't really a matter of political views; you can have horrendously controversial ideas and be very efficient at carrying them out as a leader. The "quality" of a leader, explained two American academics in the Journal Of Public Economics in 2004, might actually be divided into two elements: competence and honesty. While honesty is a defined here as a basic sort of resistance to bribes, kickbacks and cronyism, competence, they explain, "is the skill to identify the appropriate policy objectives and achieving them at minimum social cost."

Though we may imagine that all voters cast their ballot for whoever they feel to be the most competent leader, there's an interesting theory, according to research partially based on the 2016 election, that people are more likely to elect leaders widely seen as incompetent when they feel that the previous one personally betrayed them.

But while many of us feel that incompetence is preferable to an administration that is able to effectively execute policies that we disagree with, according to evidence from political science, incompetent political leaders impact more than just the top stories on the evening news.

Infrastructure And Key Systems Suffer

If you're going to try to run a country properly, you need to be an expert at collecting viewpoints, appointing experts and sifting through them to produce effective and well-judged policy objectives that might actually work. In the absence of that sort of expertise, chaos can reign; and that can have real costs for the underlying infrastructure and priorities of a country.

The things that underpin a functioning modern country, both physical and abstract (working roads, an effective rule of law, plumbing, energy grids, telecommunications, resources, literacy) require maintenance and attention. It's not just figuring out where to put what money, either; the collapse of an apartment building in Nigeria last year revealed that the President hadn't acted on a series of recommendations from a commission about construction standards.

At its worst, incompetent leadership can mean the erosion of the things that keep a country grinding on day after day.

Corruption Becomes A Severe And Costly Issue

Incompetence can, often, not be easily disentangled from malevolence or intentional gaming of the system. Even in the best-case scenario, though, an incompetent leader in a country with wealth and assets to spare may be unable to enforce the checks and balances that keep a country corruption-free. This is less of a problem in places like the US, where legal systems operate largely independent of the political system and the vast bureaucracy of economic regulation isn't personally appointed from the top, but it's still a concern. (Zimbabwe, for instance, is agreed to have lost billions of dollars in investment purely because the right person wasn't at the right desk at the right time.)

There's an ongoing debate about the precise relationship between good governance and corruption in politics around the world, but it's now commonly accepted that they go hand-in-hand: a country becomes more corruption-free as it gets better governance, and vice versa. The other way also holds: incompetence or inexperience in a leader raises the possibility that corruption can start to develop (or flourish from small beginnings) in other levels of government, thanks to bad oversight, poorly qualified candidates in positions, nepotism, a failure to understand proper procedure, and yes-men. The OECD notes that corruption of any type has a lot of costs for a country, from making doing business more expensive to wasting resources and eroding public trust. And if this sort of nonsense is allowed to go on unchecked, as one expert noted in 2015, bad governance can create a "vicious cycle of corruption, poverty, and unemployment" that leads, in turn, to a rise in violence.  

Constant Scandal Distracts From Deep, Entrenched Issues

Incompetent leaders, to put it bluntly, f*ck up. And they do it a lot. Running a country is a complex and mind-numbingly 24-hour job, and even the most qualified people make giant hashes of it on occasion; but people who don't know what they're doing make stupid mistakes, and that, in the context of a large and complex country, is a big problem — because it means taking our eyes off the ball.

Incompetence creates scandal, gaffes, offense, and a cycle of denial, apology and anger that creates the genuine issue of distraction. It's a problem discussed freely in terms of the Trump administration, whose frequent missteps (like the president being seen discussing a North Korean military strike in the public restaurant of Mar-a-Lago) take up valuable media space that could be devoted to more pressing worries.

An incompetent government may well be its own worst enemy, but it's also the enemy of public focus and informed opinion; the government itself, and other people with less-than-savory motives, can use the confusion to advance their own agendas out of view. On occasion the vast media attention can lead to genuine political action (note the recent impeachment and removal from office of Park Geun-hye, the South Korean President who was caught in a huge scandal about alleged corruption and incompetence). However, in other cases it just leads to a veil of nonsense that keeps everybody's focus away from true problems.

The Population Lowers Its Expectations

Humans are great adapters. It's one of the key ways in which we've become so dominant as a species. However, when it comes to incompetent leaders and administrators, that can work against us. In an environment in which the head of a country appears not to know the most basic acts of office, the appearance of competence at any point will be met with the congratulations a more qualified politician would receive for the most difficult achievement of their career. The "This Is Not Normal" slogan of the Resist movement in America is meant to emphasize that this is not business-as-usual for multiple nefarious reasons, but it's also a wider comment on incompetent leaders in general.

The "normalization of incompetence", as Jumaane D Williams of New York's City Council wrote of Ben Carson's nomination as head of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, is a deep issue for unqualified governments and those who are subject to them. In an attempt not to exist in a continual, unpleasant state of disappointment and rage, citizens understandably adjust, hold lower standards for elected officials in general (which is a really bad idea), and recalibrate their ideas of successful governance. This is a disaster not just for the present moment, but for the country's future — because it sets up the possibility of a legacy of similarly incompetent leaders who are accepted as the new norm.