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Business and political incompetence can be explained by 'The Peter Principle'

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Tunney's Pasture LRT station in Ottawa. Image: Sean_Marshall/Flickr

Commuters in Ottawa are outraged by the multiple flaws and delays that plague the city's new LRT (lousy rail transit) service.

Federal employees are embittered by their government's atrocious Phoenix "pay-not" system, which has battered them with financial distress for the past four years.

These are just a few examples of the anguish inflicted on helpless millions by inept and unfeeling employers and politicians.

For an explanation, all you need to do is consult a little book first published in 1969: The Peter Principle: Why Things Always Go Wrong. It was written by Laurence J. Peter with the collaboration of Raymond Hull, and has had many subsequent printings.

The book provides this succinct precept: in a hierarchy every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence.

There's a Peter's corollary: in time, every post tends to be occupied by an employee who is incompetent to carry out his duties.

Peter pointed out that nearly everyone who is employed works in some kind of hierarchal system, whether it's business, industry, politics, government, trade unionism, the armed forces, religion, education, or sales and services.

"All of them are controlled by the Peter principle. So, given enough time -- and assuming the existence of enough ranks in the hierarchy -- each employee rises to, and remains, at his level of incompetence. Productive work is accomplished by those employees who have not yet reached their level of incompetence."

These pithy precepts, although they were formulated over 60 years ago, still remain valid. The incompetence of so many of our current political and business leaders, and the officials and bureaucrats who submissively cater to them, plainly show they have reached their level of incompetence.

Peter's remedies

Peter's remarkable foresight was evident in his list of Peter's remedies, in which he suggested how employees could resist promotion to their level of incompetence and thus remain useful members of society.

"An enormous store of […] hours, of creativity and enthusiasm would thus be set free for constructive purposes. We might, for instance, develop safe, comfortable, efficient rapid-transit systems for our cities. We could tap (natural) power sources which would not pollute the atmosphere. We could return our farmlands to organic products that would enrich instead of poisoning the soil."

In closing, Peter declared that he had written the book so that readers could comprehend and make use of the Peter principle.

"Its acceptance and application are up to you," he concluded.

The Peter Principle was widely read and received glowing reviews, with The New York Post even agreeing with the authors that it was "the key to understanding the whole structure of civilization."

Unfortunately, its revelations and advice were ignored by the world's business and political leaders, most of whom, even then, had risen to their level of incompetence.

If Peter were alive today, he would be shocked and deeply saddened by the horrific extent to which the incompetence of business leaders and their political vassals has intensified rather than lapsed.

The rampant rise of business and political leaders' incompetence is alarming on its own, but is downright terrifying when accompanied by the overwhelming power they derive from the dominant global economic system.

Uncontrolled global capitalism, in fact, could itself be considered the ultimate outcome of the Peter principle. Having reached the nadir of incompetence, its elite adherents have no constraints on their omnnipotence. They are free to maximize their power and wealth by depleting the planet's non-renewable resources and contaminating its atmosphere and water.

Corporate and political foolishness

This is a clear demonstration of foolishness, of course, but is the inevitable consequence of the Peter principle running amok.

Who, now, can avert a global cataclysm? The employees of the planet-wreckers are impotent in their servitude, and the climate-change protesters, though personally still competent, can't prevail against the irreversible incompetence of the corporate and political elites.

If you have any doubt about my reasoning, consider the plight of the world's scientists and climatologists. Their specialized knowledge of the environment immunizes them from the Peter principle, so they have been free to sound the alarm about climate change since the 1950s.

Their warnings have become increasingly strident as time passes without significant preventive action being taken. The big corporate CEOs and investors consistently ignore the scientists, while subservient politicians make only ineffectual token efforts.

When Laurence Peter first explained the Peter principle, he anticipated that his revelation would help spur a mass avoidance of incompetence. He failed to take into account the vast poverty, inequality, ill health and misery that global capitalism would inflict on billions of the world's inhabitants.

He did not foresee the corporate devastation of the environment.

He never imagined that, in such a blighted world, the moral and ethical depravity of its rulers would transmute their incompetence into an imminent Armageddon.

Otherwise, he would have changed the title of his book to The Peter Perdition.

Ed Finn grew up in Corner Brook, Newfoundland, where he worked as a printer's apprentice, reporter, columnist and editor of that city's daily newspaper, the Western Star. His career as a journalist included 14 years as a labour relations columnist for the Toronto Star. He was part of the world of politics between 1959 and 1962, serving as the first provincial leader of the NDP in Newfoundland. He worked closely with Tommy Douglas for some years and helped defend and promote medicare legislation in Saskatchewan.

Image: Sean_Marshall/Flickr

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