Kakistocracy is not a very common word in our present lexicon but it is very useful to assess the quality of those in power. The word was coined for the first time during the English civil war by Paul Gosnold in 1644 to describe the supporters of Charles I of England. It is a combination of two Greek roots kakistos, meaning the worst, and kratos, meaning rule. The word was later used in the 19th century in a satirical novel by Thomas Peacock, The Misfortunes of Elfin, published in 1829. In his novel, based on ancient Welsh stories, Peacock criticized the Tories, utilitarianism, and the unquestioning acceptance of progress and industrialization as a panacea.
At present, the word kakistocracy is often used to denounce a ruler for his incompetence and lack of intelligence, as was proposed many times with Donald Trump. But if we follow the Greek meaning, it just means the rule of the worst, which doesn’t necessarily mean that the ruler has to be stupid and crass, or belong to a particular government system -a democracy, a monarchy, or a communist rule. There are many ways in which those in power can rule in the worst way possible, even if they are intelligent, polite, and have a good reputation.
Our world zeitgeist considers capitalist democracy as the best type of government based on the rhetoric of its description -but a better way to judge rulers is by measuring their degree of kakistocracy (bad rule). The goodness of a ruler should be measured by the benefits he or she brings to the majority of the people ruled –a very difficult thing to assess since a true measurement is only possible if we can assess their performance without bias.
Our opinion of a government is based on the information we have, which is very often colored by the interests of elites, and therefore quite biased. Our technological progress has convinced us that we have access to more information than ever before but this doesn’t mean that it is unbiased. The media is owned by a few corporations and can’t bite the hand that feeds it -the corporate elite. The pulpit and the monarch’s ordinances have been replaced by the constant news that bombards us with a very limited set of stories that rarely give the correct picture and instead manipulate our minds with repetition. The internet was supposed to be the answer for the expansion of information but it has also been co-opted by the same elites so that the search algorithms are completely biased to show information that suits what these elites want to instill in the public. It is possible to get real information, but it requires a willingness to make an effort to bypass the biased algorithms.
Throughout history, most governments have had a high degree of kakistocracy and only a few have had a lower percentage. Monarchs, presidents, or communist leaders usually live in a bubble of elitism in which their group’s gain becomes the priority while they conveniently rationalize their behavior with the delusional assumption that what benefits them also benefits the population at large.
The size of the bubble in which these elites live is proportional to their kakistocracy and only a reduction of its size can improve their government. Accountability helps to poke their bubble and increases the chances for a good government, but this rarely happens because the ones in control, the elites, fight tooth and nail to remain unmolested in their privileged cocoon and avoid any accountability.
Can any ruler be good while his whole government is captured by special corporate or elite interests that insist on spending huge sums of money on unneeded wars, and creating laws and budgets that appear to benefit everyone but profit mostly the elites? I don’t think so. An elected government that increases the war budget more than was asked for while conveniently forgetting about funding Medicare for All, and forgiving a huge student debt that is crippling young people’s future, can’t be considered good. Any king, tyrant, or president that sacrifices the well being of the ruled to satisfy their small elite base, be it the nobility that surrounds a monarch, the Communist Party in a communist rule, or the corporate elites in the present capitalist democracies, can be said to be very kakistocratic.
An elected government whose main priority is to benefit the corporate elites that funded their campaign is no different from a medieval king. The knights and nobles wanted war for the opportunity to loot and increase their wealth, glory and territory. The money that could have helped reduce poverty at the time was instead used to fund luxurious uniforms and weapons for the knights and their attendants. The Military Industrial Complex in the US similarly insists on the lion’s share in budget allocation which will go mostly to their own pockets as rewards for providing overly expensive weapons and services to the government — a modern version of looting. In both economic systems, the working class is manipulated into going to wars that don’t benefit them, while they are overburdened with taxes and their benefits and salaries diminished.
The people who suffer the most under a bad government, the poor, usually know what is wrong with a government — they live the consequences of a ruler’s kakistocracy each day. In contrast, the people who identify with the ruling elites in any of the above types of governments rely on the information colored by the elite’s wishes and remain unaware of what really happens. Since the 20th century, the media’s main job has been to corroborate the inherent goodness of the ruler preferred by the elites. Communist rule and absolute monarchies lack a free press, while a democracy boasts about it, but in the end, the information is always biased to suit the ruling elite.
In democracies, elections require a variety of parties which end up confusing more the problem of kakistocracy. The followers of each party usually believe that their party has no percentage of kakistocracy, while the opposition necessarily has a high degree of it. In reality, any party can have a bad government, and the belief in the goodness of your party brand without questioning leads to even less accountability and an increase in kakistocracy. This is very convenient for the elites who know that achieving no accountability is easier if they divide people through their allegiance to a certain party or governmental system.
Among the three systems, the capitalist democracy wins the prize for easily varnishing the degree of kakistocracy in a government. In this system, the ruled are convinced that they have access to unbiased information from the free press which supposedly allows them to correctly assess the candidates that will satisfy the wishes of a majority. This means that people tend to question less the information on which they base their democratic decisions and believe most of what they hear. This conviction reduces dissent, and protest, which precludes much accountability. This never-ending cycle continues with candidates promising hope and change but instead ending up pleasing their donors and the corporate elites while leaving the crumbs to the people.
Communism and monarchic systems have a much tougher time whitewashing their kakistocracy. The ruled in these government systems already know that they have no freedom so they don’t expect much. This doesn’t mean that they don’t notice the reality of their ruler’s kakistocracy so they have two options: to accept or to rebel. The rulers know about their discontent and just like in capitalist democracies, they don’t want pesky protests that might bring some accountability.
The tried and true strategies to dissuade people from protesting are repression and fear. Fear especially is the most effective strategy that all three governmental systems use for effective control of the masses -they only differ in the specific tactics. In capitalist democracies the fear is induced with the repetition of frightening news by the media, and in the other systems repression tends to be the preferred method. Control of people is essential for reducing accountability and this can be done politely or harshly, but the effect is the same.
Despite the high level of kakistocracy present in most governments, sometimes we are lucky to get a good tyrant, monarch, or elected official, who in defiance of all the push from the elites has enough independence of mind, valor, and a true understanding of the responsibilities of a ruler. Some have managed to outflank the wishes of the elites to benefit the population at large a few times during their rule but only a few have done it more consistently and though humanly prone to error, have risen well above the usual level of kakistocracy.
A good example of low level of kakistocracy is the emperor Ashoka, who ruled the Mauryan Empire in India from c 265–238 BC. This empire had been brutally conquering the surrounding area for about a century when Ashoka started his rule and continued the policy with the bloody conquest of the Kalinga Empire. The brutality of the war made him question it and regret the suffering that the war had inflicted on the conquered people. This prompted him to look for ways to change the horrors of conquest and he found the answer in Buddhism.
Ashoka renounced conquest by violence and replaced it with what he called “conquest by dharma” (i.e., by principles of right life). He repeatedly declared that dharma was the energetic practice of many socio-moral virtues like honesty, compassion, non-violence, considerate behavior, non-extravagance, and non-acquisitiveness. He toured the country preaching dharma and helping people, and he filled the country with stone pillars inscribed with his dharma principles. He believed that a ruler had more success by using reason than by mandating, and his government included many dharma ministers who were urged to think about the plights of the general population and to relieve their suffering. To further the benefit to the general public he also started a public works agenda, building hospitals, wells, and roads.
I am sure the ruled under Ashoka weren’t all relieved of suffering and the usual amount of corruption was present, but at least, the emperor was able to be a model for the people by refusing violence and prioritizing the well-being of people.
Let’s go forward in time to a capitalist democracy that instituted a War on Terror that has destroyed and caused intense suffering in about 7 countries in the Middle East without bringing any benefit to the US. Have any of the elected rulers involved in these wars ever thought about the suffering caused to millions of people in the destroyed countries? No. Has the media ever described the suffering and real destruction that their lies have allowed to happen and continue? No. In essence, the majority of people in modern capitalist democracies are completely unaware of the suffering that their acquiescence to the wishes of the elites causes all over the world. If they are unaware of this it follows that they are also unaware of how kakistocratic is their government.
We live in a global culture that prioritizes over-acquisitiveness and over-extravagance, the opposite of the dharma principles of Ashoka. Even with the correct principles, it is difficult to maintain the ruler’s interest in benefitting the majority of people –as soon as Ashoka died the quarrels and brutal conquests became the priority again and the people had to accept a return to a high degree of kakistocracy. Our present culture has no qualms about greed and over-consumerism, we don’t even have the right standards to judge our elected officials and few ways to render them accountable -our chances of less kakistocratic governments are quite slim.
So what can we do to actively improve our government? Peaceful protest and rebellion can be an option, but they usually backfire. The demonization of protests that don’t suit the objectives of the elites happens in all 3 systems for different reasons and this vilification leads to either brutal repression or veiled censorship.
A capitalist democracy boasts about freedom, but even in this system, the people find it difficult to exert their right to demand accountability. In a democracy, accountability requires a complete paradigm shift that allows most people to see that our blind allegiance to a certain political party or government system doesn’t allow us to see reality. The division of people into brands is usually reinforced by the media so it would be also useful to understand that the media is not an information tool but a manipulation one. This acknowledgement would immediately relieve the mind from many received ideas and lead to questioning of the status quo narrative. This in turn will allow people to notice all the discrepancies and lack of logic in reporting that betray the lies that abound in mainstream media.
In our present state of affairs, the chances of getting an Ashoka are as slim as the chances of a paradigm shift, so the probability of getting rid of kakistocracy is quite small. Maybe the necessary paradigm shift could happen when the excesses of bad government reach a climax that will make it impossible to deny, even for the people who identify with the elites and see reality through rose-colored glasses. Only then there will be a sufficient critical mass to question our rulers, demand accountability, and reduce kakistocracy.