Émile Faguet.

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only thing that we can trust, and that will never fail us.

In society the only feelings we obey are those which win our respect,
and the men to whom we listen, and whom we honour, are those who inspire
respect. This is the only criterion which enables us to gauge correctly
the men and things to whom we owe, if not absolute obedience, at least
attention and deference. Old men are the nation's conscience, and it is
a conscience at times severe, morose, tiresome, obstinate,
over-scrupulous, dictatorial, and it repeats for ever the same old saws;
in other words a conscience; but conscience it is.

The comparison might be carried further with results that would be
advantageous as well as curious. We degrade and finally vitiate our
conscience if we do not respect its behests. Conscience then itself
becomes small and timid and humble, shamefaced, and at length a mere
whisper. Absolutely silent it can never be made.

It becomes sophisticated, it begins to employ the language of passion,
not of the vilest passions of our nature, but still the voice of
passion; it ceases to use the categoric imperative and tries to be
persuasive. It no longer raises the finger of command, but it seeks to
cajole with caressing hand.

Then it falls still lower, it affects indifference and scepticism and it
puts on the air of the trifler in order to insinuate a word of wisdom
into the seductive talk that is heard around it, and it holds language
somewhat as follows: "Probably everything has its good points and there
is something to be said for both vice and virtue, crime and honesty, sin
and innocence, rudeness and politeness, licence and purity. These are
all simply different forms of an activity which cannot be wholly wrong
in any of its manifestations; and it is precisely because every one of
these has its value that there may be nothing to lose in being honest,
nay, perhaps something to gain."

Nevertheless, a nation that does not respect its old men changes their
nature and despoils them of their beauty and integrity. How true is
Montesquieu's saying that the respect paid them by the young helps old
men to respect themselves! Old men who are not respected take no
interest in their natural duties; they cease to advise, or else they
only venture to advise indirectly, as though they were apologising for
their wisdom, or they affect a laxity of morals to enable them to
insinuate a surreptitious dose of worldly wisdom; - and worst of all in
view of the insignificant part assigned to them in society, old men will
nowadays decline to be old.



If the worship of incompetence reverberates with a jarring note through
our domestic morals, it has an effect hardly less harmful on the social
relations of men in the wider theatre of public life. We often ask why
politeness is out of date, and everyone replies with a smile: "This is
democratic." So it is, but why should it be? Montesquieu remarks that
"to cast off the conventions of civility is to seek a method for putting
our faults at their ease." He adds the rather subtle distinction that
"politeness flatters the vices of others, and civility prevents us from
displaying our own. It is a barrier raised by men to prevent them from
corrupting each other." That which flatters vice can hardly be called
politeness, but is rather adulation. Civility and politeness are only
slightly different in degree; civility is cold and very respectful,
politeness has a suggestion of flattery. It graciously draws into
evidence the good qualities of our neighbour, not his failings, much
less his vices.

There is no doubt that civility and politeness are a delicate means of
showing respect to our fellow-men, and of communicating a wish to be
respected in turn. These things then are barriers, but barriers from
which we derive support, which separate and strengthen us, but which,
though holding us apart, do not keep us estranged from our neighbours.

It is also very true that if we release ourselves from these rules,
whether they are civility or politeness, we set our faults at liberty.
The basis of civility and politeness is respect for others and respect
for ourselves. As Abbé Barthélemy has very justly remarked: "In the
first class of citizens is to be found a spirit of decorum which makes
it evident that men respect themselves, and a spirit of politeness which
makes it evident that they also respect others." This is what Pascal
meant by saying that respect is our own inconvenience, and he explains
it thus, that to stand when our neighbour is seated, to remove our hat
when he is covered, though trifling acts of courtesy, are tokens of the
efforts we would willingly make on his behalf if an opportunity of being
really serviceable to him presented itself.

Politeness is a mark of respect and a promise of devotion.

All this is anti-democratic, because democracy does not recognise any
superiority, and therefore has no sympathy with respect and personal
devotion. Respect to others involves a recognition from us that we are
of less importance than they, and politeness to an equal requires from
us a courteous affectation that we consider him as our superior. This is
entirely contrary to the democratic ideal, which asserts that there is
no superiority anywhere. As for pretending to treat your equal as though
he were your superior, that involves a double hypocrisy, because it
requires a reciprocal hypocrisy on the part of your neighbour. You
praise his wit, only in order that he may return the compliment.

Without, however, insisting on this point, democracy will argue that
politeness is to be deprecated, because it not only recognises but
actually creates superiority. It treats an equal as a superior, as
though there were not enough discrepancies already without inventing
any more. It seems to imply that if inequality did not exist, it would
be necessary to invent it. It is tantamount to proclaiming that there
cannot be too much aristocracy. That is an opinion which democracy
cannot endure.

Considered as a promise of future devotion, politeness is equally
anti-democratic. The citizen owes no devotion to any person, he owes it
only to the community. It is no small matter to style yourself "your
most humble servant"; it means that you single out one man from among
many others and promise to serve him; it means that you acknowledge in
him some natural or social superiority, and according to democracy there
are no superiorities, social or natural, and if there were such a thing
as natural superiority, nature has no business to allow it. This is
tantamount to proclaiming a form of vassalage - a thing which is not to
be tolerated.

As to the absence of politeness considered as "a means of giving free
play to one's feelings," we recognise that in one sense this also is
essentially democratic. The democrat is not proud of or pleased with his
faults; not at all; only _ex hypothesi_ he does not believe in their
existence. A failing is an inferiority of one man in relation to
another; the word itself implies it; it means that something is lacking,
that one man has a thing which another has not. But all men are equal,
therefore, argues the democrat, I have no failing; therefore I need not
try to conceal and control my alleged failings, as they are at worst
merely mannerisms, and are possibly virtues.

The democrat, in fact, like young men, like most women, and like all
human beings who have begun to think but do not think very profoundly,
knows his failings and assumes that they are virtues. This is very
natural, for our faults are the most conspicuous parts of our character,
and when we are still at the self-satisfied stage it is our faults that
we cherish and admire. Consequently, politeness, in that it consists in
concealing our faults, is intolerable to a man who is impatient to
display qualities that to him appear commendable and worthy. The usual
reason why we do not correct our faults is that we mistake them for
qualities, and think that any practice which requires their concealment
must be quite absurdly tyrannical.

The democrat is therefore profoundly convinced of two things; first,
that all men are equal and that there is no such thing as inferiority or
failing, and secondly, that what men call faults are really natural
characteristics of great interest. He believes that faults are popular
prejudices invented by intriguers, priests, nobles and rulers, for their
own base purposes to inspire the poor with humility. He looks upon this
sense of inferiority as a curb on the people's power, all the more
potent that it works from within and has a paralysing effect on its
energy. He is persuaded that, from this point of view, politeness is an
aristocratic instrument of tyranny.

This explains why, when the wave of democracy swept over France, it
brought with it a perfect frenzy of rudeness, all the more curious in a
nation remarkable for courtesy. It was an affirmation that, appearances
notwithstanding, neither superiorities nor excellences of human
character had any real existence.

Rudeness is democratic.



The contempt for efficiency is carried far even in the liberal
professions and in professional customs. We all know the story, perhaps
a mythical one, of the judge who said to an earnest young barrister who
was conscientiously elaborating a question of law: "Now, Mr. So and So,
we are not here to discuss questions of law but to settle this
business." He did not say this by way of jest; he wished to say: "The
courts no longer deliver judgment on the merits of a case according to
law, but according to equity and common sense. The intricacies of the
law are left to professors, so please when conducting a case do not
behave like a professor of law." This theory, which even in this mild
form would have horrified the ancients, is very prevalent nowadays in
legal circles. It has crept in as an infiltration, as one might call it,
from the democratic system.

A magistrate, nowadays, whatever remnant of the ancient feeling of caste
he may have retained, certainly does not consider himself bound by the
letter of the law, or by jurisprudence, the written tradition; when he
is anything more than a subordinate with no other idea of duty than
subservience to the Government, he is a democratic magistrate, a Heliast
of Athens; he delivers judgment according to the dictates of his
individual conscience; he does not consider himself as a member of a
learned body, bound to apply the decisions of that body, but as an
independent exponent of the truth.

An eccentric, but in truth very significant, example of the new attitude
of mind is to be found in the judge, who formally attributed to himself
the right to make law and who in his judgments made references, not to
existing laws, but to such vague generalities as appealed to him, or to
doctrines which he prophesied would _later on_ be embodied in the law.
His Code was the Code of the future.

The mere existence of such a man is of no particular importance, but the
fact that many people, even those partially enlightened, took him
seriously, that he was popular, and that a considerable faction thought
him a good judge, is most significant.

There is another much commoner sign of the times. The worst form of
incompetence is perhaps that which allows a man to be competent without
realising it, and, in criminal cases at least, this seems to be the
normal attitude of the majority of our magistrates.

We should read on this point a very curious pamphlet called _Le Pli
Professionnel_ (1909), by Marcel Lestranger, a provincial magistrate. It
is very pertinent to our subject. It shows plainly that the magistracy
nowadays, both the qualified stipendiaries and the bench of magistrates,
has lost all confidence in itself and is terrified of public opinion as
represented by newspapers, associations, political clubs and the man in
the street; the magistrate knows too, or thinks he knows, that promotion
depends, not on a reputation for severity as it used to do, but on a
reputation for indulgence.

He is confronted in the execution of his duty by forces which are always
in coalition against him; the public, almost always favourable to the
accused, the press, both local and Parisian, the so-called science of
judicial medicine, which is almost always disposed to consider the
accused as persons not responsible for their actions. He lives, too, in
constant terror of being mixed up in a miscarriage of justice, for
miscarriage of justice is now a sort of craze, and with a considerable
section of the public every conviction is a miscarriage of justice. And
so the magistrate of first instance never dares to sum up severely, and
the stipendiary never dares press his interrogations with firmness.

There are exceptions of course; but these exceptions, by the
astonishment which they excite, and by the reaction to which they give
rise, show sufficiently, indeed conclusively, that they are abnormal,
outside the new order of things, outside the new habits of the people.

More often than not the subordinate magistrate, whose business it is to
commit the prisoner for trial, acts with timidity and reserve,
apologetically attenuating the crime; he leaves loopholes of escape,
appeals in audible asides for indulgence, dwells on the uncertainty of
evidence. He demands indeed the prisoner's head but lives in terror lest
he obtain it.

The fact is what both he and the stipendiary desire is that the affair
should be settled by an acquittal, for an affair settled by an
acquittal is an affair buried. Stone-dead has no fellow; it is consigned
to oblivion. It can never be made the sort of affair which someone is
sure to declare is a miscarriage of justice, or which someone, animated
by private and political spite or merely for the sake of a jest, can
make into a ghost to haunt for ten or even fifteen years the unfortunate
magistrate who had to deal with it.

M. Lestranger tells a story which, from all the information I can glean
and from what I can remember hearing at the time, is absolutely true and
a perfect illustration of thousands of similar cases.

A poacher, aged nineteen, first outraged and then strangled in the woods
a peasant woman, the mother of a family. On this occasion there could be
no question of a miscarriage of justice or even of any suggestion of
such a thing, because the prisoner pleaded guilty. That is a great
point. In France every conviction that is not based upon the prisoner's
confession is a miscarriage of justice; but when the prisoner pleads
guilty there can be no incriminations of this sort, although there might
be, for false confessions are not unknown, but nothing of the sort is
ever put forward, and the case seemed to be quite straightforward.

But the magistrates were terrified that the prisoner would be condemned
to death. The crime was horrible, particularly in the eyes of a village
jury, whose wives and daughters were often obliged to work some distance
from the village. Moreover, there was a tiresome man, the widower of the
victim, thirsting for vengeance, who sang the praises of his wife and
brought his weeping son into court while he gave his evidence. The
president and the public prosecutor were in despair.

"I have done all I can," said the president to the public prosecutor. "I
have made the most of his youth. I have repeated 'only nineteen years of
age.' I have indeed done all I can."

"I have done all I can," said the public prosecutor to the president. "I
have not said a word about the punishment. I merely accused. I could not
plead for the defence. I have done my best."

At the close of the hearing the chief constable was very reassuring to
these gentlemen. "He is under twenty and he looked so respectable at
the enquiry. It is quite impossible that he should be condemned to death
in this quiet village. You will see, he will not be sentenced to capital

He was not. The jury brought in a verdict of guilty with extenuating
circumstances. The magistrates recovered their tranquillity.

M. Lestranger's facts are supported by figures. Those who commit crimes
which excite pity, such as infanticide and abortion, are less and less
likely to be prosecuted, and if they are, they are frequently let off,
however flagrant the offence. The average number of acquittals during
the last twelve years is twenty-six per cent. A magistrate nowadays is a
St. Francis of Assize.

Either the magistrate does not believe in his own efficiency, or he
sacrifices it to his peace of mind, and he cares more for his own peace
of mind than for the public safety. The magistracy will soon be no more
than a _façade_, still imposing but not at all alarming.

There is already a very serious symptom of how little confidence the
crowd has in the wholesome severities of justice; the criminal caught in
the act is often lynched or almost lynched, because it is well known
that if he is not punished immediately, he is very likely to escape
punishment altogether.

- Yet this same crowd, in the form of a jury, is often, almost always,
very indulgent. - True, and that is because between the crime and the
assizes there is often an interval of six months. At the date of the
crime it is the misfortune of the victim that excites the crowd, at the
date of the assize it is the misfortune of the accused. Be this as it
may, the practice of lynching amounts to a formal accusation that both
magistrates and juries are over indulgent.

* * * * *

The clergy even, who are more tenacious of tradition than any other
order in the State, are gradually becoming democratic to this extent,
that though by profession teachers of dogmas and mysteries, they now
teach only morality. In this way they try to get into closer touch with
the poor, and so have a greater hold upon them. Evidently they are not
altogether to blame. Only, when they cease to teach dogma and interpret
mysteries, they cease to be a learned body or to have the prestige of a
learned body. On the other hand they sink to the level of any other
philosophy, which teaches and explains morality, and illustrates it by
sacred examples just as well as any priesthood. The result is that the
people say to themselves "What need have we of priests? Moral
philosophers are good enough for us."

This Americanism is not very dangerous, in fact it does not matter, in
America, where there are very few lay moral philosophers; but it is a
very great danger in France, Italy and Belgium where their name is

* * * * *

In every profession, to sum it all up, the root of the evil is this,
that we believe that mere dexterity and cunning are incomparably
superior to knowledge and that cleverness is infinitely more valuable
than sound learning. Those who follow professions believe this, and the
lay public that employs the professions is not dismayed by this attitude
of the professional class; and so things tend to that equality of
charlatanry to which democracy instinctively tends. Democracy does not
respect efficiency, but it soon will have no opportunity to respect it;
for efficiency is being destroyed and before long will have disappeared
altogether. There will soon be no difference between the judge and the
suitor, between the layman and the priest, the sick man and the
physician. The contempt which is felt for efficiency destroys it little
by little, and efficiency, accepting the situation, outruns the contempt
that is felt for it. The end will be that we shall all be only too much
of one opinion.



We have sought very conscientiously, and democrats themselves have
sought very conscientiously, to find remedies for this constitutional
disease of democracy. We have preserved certain bodies, relatively
aristocratic, as refuges, we would fain believe, of efficiency. We have
preserved for instance a Senate, elected by universal suffrage, not
directly, but in the second degree. We have preserved also a Parliament
(a Senate and a Chamber of Deputies), a floating aristocracy which is
continually being renewed. This is, however, in a sense an aristocracy
inasmuch as it stands between us and a direct and immediate government
of the people by the people.

These remedies are by no means to be despised, but we recognise that
they are very feeble, for the reason that democracy always eludes them.
By the care it takes to exclude efficiency, it has made the Chamber of
Deputies (with some few exceptions) a body resembling itself with
absolute fidelity both in respect of the superficial character of its
knowledge and the violence of its prejudices; with the result in my
opinion that the crowd might just as well govern directly and, without
the intervention of representatives, by means of the plebiscite.

The same thing applies to the Senate, though perhaps in a more direct
fashion. The Senate is chosen by the delegates of universal suffrage.
These delegates, however, are not chosen by a general universal suffrage
where each department would choose four or five hundred delegates, but
by the town councillors of each commune or parish. In these communes,
especially in the rural communes, the municipal councillors who are by
far the most numerous and, with regard to elections, the most
influential, are more or less completely dependent on the _préfets_. The
result is that the Senate is, practically, chosen by the _préfets_, that
is, by the Government, as used to be the case under the First and Second
Empire. The maker of the constitution made this arrangement for the
benefit of his own party, for he upheld authority; and he wanted the
Central Government to control the elections of the Senate. It has not
turned out as he intended. _Vos non vobis_, others have profited by his
device, as the following considerations will show.

It is well known that in France a deputy belonging to the opposition,
though sure of his constituents, and certain to be re-elected
indefinitely, who for private reasons wishes to be a senator, is obliged
to be civil to the Government in power, to abate his opposition, and to
make himself pleasant, if he wishes to avoid failure in his new
ambition. It is very inconvenient to have a strong and active opposition
in the Senate.

It comes back again to this, that we have a Senate not far removed from
one elected by universal suffrage.

Universal suffrage elects the Chamber of Deputies, the Chamber elects
the Government, and the Government elects the Senate. The Senate is
therefore an extremely feeble anti-democratic remedy, and if it were
intended as a check on democracy, it has not been a striking success.

If we really wish to have an upper chamber as competent as possible,
independent of the central authority, and relatively independent of
universal suffrage, we must establish a chamber elected by the great
constituent bodies of the nation, and also in my opinion, by universal
suffrage, but with modifications somewhat as follows. The whole nation,
divided for practical purposes into five or six large districts, should
elect five or six thousand delegates who in turn should elect three
hundred senators. There would then be no pressure from Government nor
any manufacture by the crowd of a representation fashioned in its own
image, and we should have a really select body composed of as much
competence as could be got in the country.

It is, however, exactly the opposite of this that is done, and the
French Senate is an extremely feeble, anti-democratic remedy.

It represents the rural democracy, arbitrarily guided and governed by
the democratic Government.

* * * * *

Another remedy which has been given an equally conscientious trial is
the system of competitive examination, which is supposed to be a
guarantee for the ability of those who seek admission into government
service. The object of these examinations, which are extremely detailed
and complicated, is to test the ability of the candidate in every
particular, to give employment to merit and to exclude favouritism.

- You call that an anti-democratic remedy! It is as democratic as well
can be! -

Nay, pardon! It would be anti-monarchical if we lived under a monarchy,
anti-aristocratic if we lived under an aristocracy, and it is
anti-democratic because our lot is cast in a democracy. Competition for
public offices is a sort of co-optation. In fact it is co-optation pure
and simple. When I suggested that the magistracy should be chosen by the

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Online LibraryÉmile FaguetThe cult of incompetence → online text (page 8 of 12)