Reform the Kakistocracy: Rule by the Least Able or Least Principled Citizens, by William L. Kovacs (Red Bank, NJ: Newman Springs Publishing, 2019).
Review by Joseph L. Bast
November 10, 2020
During a long career with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, William Kovacs worked with many of the nation’s top elected officials, cabinet members, regulators, and business leaders. (Full disclosure: I met him on a few occasions when he worked in that capacity.) He helped write rules and regulations and led many reform efforts at the national and state levels. Now retired, he is at liberty to comment frankly on what he saw and learned during that long and distinguished career. It isn’t pretty.
According to Kovacs, the politicians and regulators and business leaders he got to know were far from the “best and brightest” of their generations; just the opposite, they were the kakistos, Greek for “worst.” And because they hold positions of great power in America, they constitute what he dubs a “kakistocracy.” They are aided by “collabortakers,” a class of bureaucrats and moochers who collaborate with the kakistocracy to “take as much of the wealth of the nation as they can take without inciting revolt” by the rest of us, who Kovacs calls “the Dutiful Cogs.”
It is usually a bad sign when an author invents his own vocabulary to set forth a treatise on what ails the country and how to fix it, but in this case it works. What marks the ruling class and its enablers, Kovacs says, is not that they own the means of production, or are wealthy or especially virtuous, or are simply out-of-touch elites, but that they are genuinely incompetent, ignorant, arrogant, selfish, and delusional. These traits explain why they enter politics or become sycophants and enablers for those who get elected. You cannot make sense of how wrong things have gone in recent decades without knowing these distinguishing characteristics of our current ruling class. You do not have a credible plan to fix the country’s problems if you assume our leaders are competent, smart, compassionate, or have genuine leadership skills.
“Governing is a relationship of trust,” Kovacs writes, “and those governing are in a fiduciary relationship with the citizens who are the beneficiaries of the relationship.” (p. 20) The current system has broken that relationship, resulting in “massive debt and a vast, incomprehensible set of laws, regulations, taxes, and unfunded liabilities, so that we the people are losing our desire to innovate, build new industrial complexes, create wealth, compete in the world, and, most important, continue regenerating our American spirit.” (p. 37)
Congress has delegated massive amounts of its legislative authority to the federal bureaucracy by passing broad, vague laws. The President has become all powerful, while courts have become politicized and so are not independent checks on the chief executive or congress. There are so many laws that we break at least one every single day. “We are all criminals,” Kovacs writes, “and we don’t know it.” (p. 49) Instead of being regularly revisited and allowed to expire, “Congress merely passes resolutions deeming all expired laws reauthorized, and then funds these laws without any serious review. By using this fiction of deeming expired laws as reauthorized, Congress continuously cedes more and more legislative power to the executive branch and its agencies.” (p. 43)
So what can be done? A great virtue of this book is its focus on solving problems, not merely documenting them. According to Kovacs, “we must exercise our power as citizens and remove the kakistocrats so that we can return to a government of the people, by the people, and for the people.” (p. 68) He proposes ten governance principles, modeled after the corporate governance codes many companies use to stay focused on attaining the corporation’s goals and mission.
Kovacs proposes twelve proposals to restructure the kakistocracy. Congress, he says, must reclaim its role as the primary legislative body, if necessary by threatening to withhold funds to operate the administrative state. Devolving power to the states, auditing and capping and then prioritizing spending, deregulation, and selling unused assets are on the list.
Kovacs devotes a section of the book to reforming what he calls “automatic withdrawals of taxpayer assets.” (p. 132) He defends spending on Social Security and anti-poverty programs by noting rising income inequality, enabled in many cases by policies adopted by the kakistocracy to benefit itself and its collabortakers. He proposes a number of reforms that would make Social Security sustainable. He describes reforms that would make health care more affordable (many of which the Trump administration has been pursuing) and reforms that would end widespread tax evasion by the wealthy and politically connected.
The final section of the book describes policies that would manage, reform, or replace the kakistocracy. Included in the list are promoting transparency, voiding the doctrine of sovereign immunity, imposing term limits, demanding that candidates for political office take a pledge to never vote to give public funds to private parties, and ways that states can reassert their powers against federal over-reach.
My only criticism of this book is that the final sections do not give individual citizens much direction on what to do next. Kovacs’ “principles for citizen management of the kakistocracy” are ideas and proposals that we, as voters or activists, can agree with but not actions we can actually take to take down and replace the kakistocracy. Are there groups we should join or stop funding, petitions to sign, promising third parties to join, or news sources to follow? Is there a place where candidates can take the gift clause pledge?
Still, Reform the Kakistocracy makes a compelling case for citizen action. I highly recommend it.