The Causes of America’s Problems, Andrew Joppa


As I sit down to put fingers to computer keys, it becomes increasingly difficult to offer anything of value. I know this doesn’t stop other writers from making their living by doing this every day but, since I’m the lower price spread, I concern myself with this type of consideration. It has become quite apparent that each day presents us with issues that are decade-long redundancies, without resolution, or those that seem to have no rhyme nor reason as to why they even took place. It seems obvious, at least to this writer, that we are always dealing with the symptoms of a problem but seldom, if ever, the cause.


As I try to respond to that self-imposed challenge, I believe there are two long standing theories that are clearly the cause of almost all of America’s problems. From my perspective, The Peter Principle and Parkinson’s Law, are sufficient unto themselves to explain every one of America’s troubles. I’ll move directly to my conclusion by telling you these concepts deal with competency and rapidly expanding and inefficient bureaucracies. Yes…I see all of America’s dilemmas emanating from one, or both, of these complimentary phenomena.


Specifically, The Peter principle is a concept developed by Laurence J. Peter in 1969, which observes that people in a hierarchy tend to rise to “a level of their respective incompetence.” Employees are promoted based on their success in previous jobs until they reach a level at which they are no longer competent, as skills in one job do not necessarily translate to another.

The Peter principle states that a person who is competent at their job will earn a promotion to a position that requires different skills. If the promoted person lacks the skills required for the new role, they will be incompetent at the new level, and will not be promoted again.


This outcome is inevitable, given enough time and enough positions in the hierarchy to which competent employees may be promoted. The Peter principle is therefore expressed as: “In a hierarchy, every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence.” This leads to Peter’s corollary: “In time, every post tends to be occupied by an employee who is incompetent to carry out its duties.”


It also explains that, once employees have reached their level of incompetence, they always lack insight into their situation.

The concluding chapter of Peter’s book applies his principle to the entire human species at an evolutionary level and asks whether humanity can survive in the long run, or will it become extinct upon reaching its level of incompetence as technology advances. I ask the same question.


As one, but significant example, a century ago, H.L. Mencken wrote, “As democracy is perfected, the office of the President represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. On some great and glorious day, the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last, and the White House will be occupied by a downright fool and a complete narcissistic moron.”  The Peter Principle has been working over that century, and now we can look not just at the presidency, but the entire line of succession. Beyond that, we can look at the senior civil service and military personnel that make the news. Joe Biden is a walking, talking (babbling), perfect example of the ‘Peter Principle’.


As another example of recent note…In 1966, Anthony Fauci graduated first in his med school class at Cornell.  That showed competence in 1966.  In 1968, he completed his residency, and went to work for the National Institutes of Health.  He’s been in the NIH hierarchy ever since.  I have no doubt he was a bright young physician over 50 years ago – but he has over 50 years’ experience as a bureaucrat since then.   I wouldn’t want a fifty-year bureaucrat to cut on me, even if he was first in his class back when I was still in college.


All my previous discussions described The Peter Principle as being operative even when the system is not contriving incompetent ends. Of course, with Affirmative Action and DEI hiring and placement procedures, the negative impact has been accelerated dramatically.  I believe that most of our problems can be chalked up, categorically, to incompetence. To those who legitimately suggest that “evil” is also at work, I would note that evil, in my opinion, is derived from moral and human incompetence. I think that evil is derived from their grotesque distortions of human reality.


Now to Parkinson. Simply stated, Parkinson’s law, first published in 1955, is the observation that the duration of work in a bureaucracy and officialdom expands to fill its allotted time span, regardless of the amount of work to be done. This was attributed mainly to two factors: that officials want subordinates, not rivals, and that officials make work for each other.


Parkinson’s Law was translated into many languages. It was highly popular in the Soviet Union and its sphere of influence. In 1986, Alessandro Natta complained about the swelling bureaucracy in Italy. Mikhail Gorbachev responded that “Parkinson’s law works everywhere.” I would add that it might be Parkinson’s Law that destroyed the Soviet Union.


Parkinson also proposed a rule about the efficiency of size. He defined a “coefficient of inefficiency” with the number of members as the main determining variable. This is a semi-humorous attempt to define the size at which a committee or other decision-making body becomes completely inefficient.


Empirical evidence is drawn from historical and contemporary government cabinets. Most often, the minimal size of a state’s most powerful and prestigious body is five members. From English history, Parkinson noted several bodies that lost power as they grew.


Less certain is the optimal number of members, which must lie between three (a logical minimum) and 20. (Within a group of 20, individual discussions may occur, diluting the power of the leader.) That it may be eight seems

Parkinson argued that if you have a 6% growth rate of any administrative body, then sooner or later any company (or nation) will die. They will have all their workforce in bureaucracy and none in production.”


Parkinson pointed to two critical elements that lead to bureaucratization – what he called the law of multiplication of subordinates, the tendency of managers to hire two or more subordinates to report to them so that neither is in direct competition with the manager themself; and the fact that bureaucrats create work for other bureaucrats.


It was said that companies typically start with a flat hierarchy, perhaps two engineers. As the company grows, they hire assistants, who then get promoted and hire their own subordinates. “A pyramid starts to grow. One might add artificial layers that serve no purpose other than introducing hierarchy, that help you to promote people to please them and keep them motivated. When the pyramid gets very large and expensive it might eat up all the company’s profits. If the bureaucratic body is not drastically reduced at this stage the company will die.”


The bigger the size of a government or organization, the more bureaucracy – and, in turn, the less effective it becomes. There is considerable truth to the notion that without strict time constraints, we waste time, and our work takes longer to complete.


In fact, studies in the decades since Parkinson wrote his essay have shown it has considerable merit. In the 1960s, researchers showed that when subjects were “accidentally” given extra time to complete a task, the task took longer to complete. Researchers also found that the extra time spent on a task didn’t lead to increased accuracy.


OK, there you have it.  The explanation for everything. A growing number of incompetents, functioning in a rapidly expanding and totally inefficient governmental bureaucracy. This is enough to explain every problem facing America. The resolution of these problems is difficult but not impossible. We must ensure merit-based appointments and promotions. Merit that deals with attributes necessary for what lies ahead and not those that were successful in the past. We must limit the size of bureaucracies because of cost but, more so, to arrive at sounder decisions that are possible only in smaller numbers. There are a countless number of historic examples that can document the wisdom of these ideas.  The one that is of the most profound and immediate importance is the current abysmal state of current America.



Here are some additional comments that will give you more insight into Peter and Parkinson. As you read these consider America in terms of their implication. Also consider, what this nation would be like if those issues didn’t exist:


“I have noticed that, with few exceptions, men bungle their affairs. Everywhere I see incompetence rampant, incompetence triumphant…I have accepted the universality of incompetence.”


“Any government, whether it is a democracy, a dictatorship, a communistic or free enterprise bureaucracy, will fall when its hierarchy reaches an intolerable state of maturity.”


“Sometimes I wonder whether the world is being run by smart people who are putting us on or by imbeciles who really mean it.”


“As individuals we tend to climb to our levels of incompetence. We behave as though up is better and more is better, and yet all around us we see the tragic victims of this mindless escalation.”


ᐧ “Good followers do not become good leaders.”


“Employees in a hierarchy do not really object to incompetence (Peter’s Paradox): they merely gossip about incompetence to mask their envy of employees who have Pull.”


“Incompetence knows no barriers of time or place.”


“The computer may be incompetent in itself–that is, unable to do the work for which it was designed. This kind of incompetence can never be eliminated, because the Peter Principle applies in the plants where computers are designed and manufactured.”


“The more conceited members think in terms of an endless ascent—or promotion ad infinitum. I would point out that, sooner or later, man must reach his level of life-incompetence.”


“The skills required to run a great political campaign have little to do with the skills required to govern.”


“All, from police forces to armed forces, are rigid hierarchies of salaried employees, and all are necessarily encumbered with incompetents who cannot do their existing work, cannot be promoted, yet cannot be removed.”


“One reason so many employees are incompetent is that the skills required to get a job often have nothing to do with what is required to do the job itself.”


“Many a man, under the old and the new systems, has made the upward step from candidate to legislator, only to achieve his level of incompetence.”


“Parkinson’s First Law: Work expands to fill the time available.”


“Parkinson’s Fourth Law: The number of people in any working group tends to increase regardless of the amount of work to be done.”


“Administrators make work for each other so that they can multiply the number of their subordinates and enhance their prestige.”


“Expenditure rises to meet income.”


“The Law of Triviality… briefly stated, means that the time spent on any item of the agenda will be in inverse proportion to its importance.”


“If there is a way to delay an important decision, the good bureaucracy, public or private, will find it.”


“Work expands to fill the time available for its completion. General recognition of this fact is shown in the proverbial phrase “It is the busiest man who has time to spare.”


“When any organizational entity expands beyond 21 members, the real power will be in some smaller body.”


“The man who is denied the opportunity of taking decisions of importance begins to regard as important the decisions he is allowed to take. He becomes fussy about filing, keen on seeing that pencils are sharpened, eager to ensure that the windows are open (or shut) and apt to use two or three different-colored inks.”


“The chief product of an automated society is a widespread and deepening sense of boredom.”
“Deliberative bodies become decreasingly effective after they pass five to eight members.”

Check Also

“The Wisdom of The Wise,” by Andrew Joppa

  The use of quotations has been described in many ways.  One cynical writer offered …