Peter and Other Principles of Politics

Peter and Other Principles of Politics

Let us see how many of the most famous and supposedly unbreakable rules of the world we all know:

__ 1. For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.

__ 2. Work expands to fill the time available for its completion.

__ 3. The hypotenuse of a right triangle is equal to the sum of the squares of the other two sides.

__ 4. People rise to the maximum level of their incompetence.

__ 5. Institutions will try to preserve the problem to which they are the solution.

__ 6. 80% of consequences come from 20% of causes.

__ 7. If anything can go wrong, it will.

From the following list, put the right letter in the blank above: (A) Murphy’s Law, (B) Newton’s Third Law of Motion, (C) Pareto Principle, (D) Parkinson’s Law, (E) Peter Principle, (F) Pythagorean Theorem, (G) Shirky Principle.

(Answers are discussed in this post, with a key at the end.) If you matched all seven correctly before reading ahead, let us know.

Application to Politics

Various people have tried to come up with profound and definitive “laws” of politics, but we are not really enthralled by any of them.* It is more fun just to think about how the “laws,” “principles,” and even the “theorem” listed above would apply in the context of politics.

*One supposed First Law of Politics is that “nothing matters”—meaning that voters are going to vote for whoever they originally were going to vote for, regardless of the strategies, speeches, or campaign tactics of the candidates during a political race. Such a so-called rule that everything is irrelevant seems too cynical for us.

The inherent pessimism of Murphy’s Law provides a good place to start. In politics, does everything that can go wrong really always happen? Hilary Clinton may think so, given her “luck” in 2016. But she would then have to explain how she attained all of her other high political positions. Donald Trump might think so now, but he also would have to explain how, then, he won four years earlier. The truth is that a lot goes right for politicians, and many things that could have gone wrong for them didn’t. Anything that is a bad break for one candidate is a good break for the others, so Murphy was too much of an Eeyore on politics (and probably almost every other topic).

Newton’s Laws of Motion are more scientific, and thus more accurate.* His third law, summarized at the top of the list above, states the truth that two bodies in motion will react equally and opposite to each other. This hits sadly close to home in politics when we consider that if officials in one party recommend masks, followers of the other party oppose them just as strongly. If one party sponsors almost any bill, the other automatically opposes it. At least is seems so.

*We do not mean to make a partisan political statement here. Since when did believing or not believing in science have anything to do with politics?

Pythagoras, another scientist, gets credit for the famous Pythagorean Theorem about the length of the longest sides of triangles. This is a tough one to apply to politics, but here goes: A third-party candidate can draw from the fundamental strengths (the “roots”) of the other two parties and create something greater than either of the other sides. That’s our “PBPen Theorem.” More about it later this year.

It does not take as much creativity to see the application of the other laws and principles. Take the ironically named Shirky Principle about institutions keeping alive the problem they are assigned to end. A federal agency fighting a war on poverty, or drugs, or hunger in America indeed could put itself out of business if it ever actually accomplished its mission. Nevertheless, we doubt an agency would intentionally shirk (pun intended) its duty.

The messages of the Peter Principle and Parkinson’s Law likely provide better explanations for political inability to fix problems. Bureaucrats being promoted to a level beyond which they are competent, as Peter put it, seems natural and likely. The problem, then, is that a “leader” can get stuck in that unfortunately high position. Parkinson’s observation about work expanding to fill the time allotted hits the nail on the governmental head. This is true because ongoing problems like poverty, climate change, and others usually do not come with set deadlines. Thus, the federal agency, like the problem, becomes perpetual, often growing in size along with its assigned task.

That brings us to the old 80-20 Rule, named after economist Vilfredo Pareto. All of the following probably are true in politics: 80 percent of the good done by our federal government comes from 20 percent of the politicians and bureaucrats; conversely, 80 percent of the harm is done by 20 percent; 80 percent of campaign donations come from 20 percent of donors; and 80 percent of Americans rely on the other 20 percent to pay attention and set the tone for politics in our country.

There you have it—our take on the political application of Pareto, Peter, Parkinson, Pythagoras, and non-P-named folks like Murphy, Newton, and even Shirky. On balance, despite the wisdom and wit of these famous thinkers, we prefer politicians and voters to rely on leadership and governmental principles like those espoused in our ongoing blog posts.

Answer Key to the Quiz Above

1.B, 2.D, 3.F, 4.E, 5.G, 6.C, and 7.A.

Written by Quentin R. Wittrock, founder of Principle Based Politics. 

Look for his posts each week, as this blog will explore and promote the idea of principle in politics, both as to individual elected leaders and our federal government as an institution.

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