Dilbert's presidential bid: is technocracy dressed up as libertarianism the natural political home of the engineer?

Szczekociny festival poster

All rights reserved

The definitive U.S. comic strip of the last two decades features workplace alienation, managerial dysfunction, and socio-economic stratification. Last month its creator announced he's running for President as an independent. His candidacy may not be serious, but how about his policies?
James Warner
2 January 2012


 In the Dilbert strip published on April 2nd 2000, an employee declares, “I wrote a huge resignation manifesto that I planned to e-mail to the entire company. But I thought it needed pictures. Before long I was adding video clips and humorous sound files. Then I thought, hey, why not put it all on a website? Now I'm turning the whole thing into an off Broadway theater production.” Dilbert comments to Dogbert, “I saw my first motivated employee today.”

This encapsulates the personal history of Scott Adams, who similarly succeeded in spinning employee dissatisfaction into a profitable multimedia enterprise. From 1979 to 1995, Adams worked in banking and then telecommunications: each of these industries is a “confusopoly” according to Adams's own definition from The Dilbert Future –  "a group of companies with similar products who intentionally confuse customers instead of competing on price.” In 1995, six years into writing his daily comic strip on the side, Adams was able to make “Dilbert” his full-time occupation. Published daily since 1989, the strip provides an informal history of America since the end of the Cold War, focusing on the frustrations of office life – previously not a topic much addressed within the comic strip genre. From the start, Adams's preferred targets as a humorist were gullibility, wishful thinking, and illogicality – it was feedback from readers that led him to concentrate his attention on the office environment.
Adams studied economics at college but spent enough of his career working with engineers to take on their general mindset. In Dilbert's company, nobody outside the Engineering department has much acquaintance with reality – other departments are dominated or heavily infiltrated by mythical creatures such as trolls or unicorns – and the engineers themselves are at the constant mercy of what Adams calls “random acts of management.” Among the more obvious takeaways from “Dilbert” is that people feel unfulfilled working in large bureaucracies for managers who give them no respect or direction. A recent Forbes article by management theorist Steve Denning, discusses a survey showing that the most-hated jobs include Director of Information Technology, Product Manager, and Electronics Technician, and in attempting to define what these jobs have in common, inevitably references “Dilbert.”
Dilbert would be happy to spend his time designing products, but instead has to make presentations, attend useless meetings, or write mission statements. He perceives the flaws in his company, his political system, and in human psychology, but is powerless to fix anything important or turn his company around – his lack of influence within his company is reflected in the way he's drawn without a mouth. Dogbert sees the same problems Dilbert sees, but his response is to hatch over-the-top schemes to exploit them. The character of the pointy-headed boss took slightly longer to evolve – from not caring about the problems, to being oblivious to them, to triumphantly reciting such slogans as this one, from the 24th April 2009 strip -- “From now on, we will refer to all our problems as opportunities.”
In the world of the strip, the only presented alternative to the U.S. system is post-Communist, civil-war-torn Elbonia. In the 9th April 1990 strip, Dilbert tells the Elbonians, “The first thing you Elbonians must understand about capitalism is the incentive system. If you're willing to work twelve hours a day, eventually the guy who owns your factory will get rich.” An Elbonian mutters, “Am I missing something here?” Dilbert says, “Then you guys get to watch great TV shows based on the millionaire's life.” In May of 1992, Dogbert buys Lenin's dead body to use as a coffee table.

Since the fall of Communism, the U.S. has experienced an enormous increase in income disparity. It's said that satire works by sharpening the contrast between the way things are and the way the satirist feels things should be. In a 22nd November 2011 blog entry, Adams summarizes the jobs environment that obtained when he entered the U.S. workforce in 1979 –

  1. Lots of jobs for people who were willing to relocate
  2. Low entry-level pay
  3. Company-paid healthcare
  4. Company-paid training, including external degree courses
  5. Inexpensive cost of living
  6. Clear opportunities for advancement

– and notes how little of this still applies. “Dilbert” can be read as a lament over reduced economic mobility and the shrinking of the skilled industrial sector. Over the course of the 1980s and 1990s, the service sector eclipsed the manufacturing sector as the main source of U.S. jobs – the cultural historian might see “Dilbert” as recording the failure of the service sector to provide a comparable level of job security or satisfaction.

Adams himself has libertarian inclinations but also a populist streak – reflected in the fact that “Dilbert” is far more occupied with the woes of the everyman than is its closest British equivalent, “Alex,” a strip that rarely strays beyond the world of elite financiers. It says something that the smartest character in the “Dilbert” strip is actually Dilbert's garbageman. The strip frequently contrasts the degrading motivational rhetoric of “dignity enhancement programs,” trinkets intended to symbolize empowerment and the like, and the fact that people's actual job security is often at the mercy of forces outside their control. To read too many Dilbert strips in succession can become depressing – here only the malign are competent, and only the ineffective ever profess altruism. In the 31st October 1998 strip Dilbert asks, with regard to the boss's proposal to remove cubicle walls to improve communication, “Why do the worst ideas always have the noblest sounding reasons?”

According to Dilbert and the Way of the Weasel, “Leadership is possible only because people are, on the whole, spectacularly gullible.” But it is somewhat comforting that Dogbert's schemes are generally too obviously Machiavellian to work – e.g. when Dogbert is running for President on October 8th 2007, he says – “My policy is to give all the money in the Treasury to Iowans. But I might flip-flop after the first primary.”

In November of 2011, Adams announced his own independent Presidential candidacy. Dilbert is good at logical problem-solving, but to advance within the confusopoly that employs him would need to become good at public relations, perception management, and plain obfuscation – the Scott Adams Presidential campaign faces similar hurdles. As with his comic strips, Adams's approach to policy is to generate ideas prolifically and then pay attention to the feedback he receives – also as with his comics, his ideas tend to combine the analytic reductionism of an engineer manqué with a cartoonist's propensity for wild imaginative leaps. In a November 2011 blog entry he discusses the idea he calls Cheapatopia – “to build cities in America, from scratch, that have an absurdly inexpensive cost of living, and use them as magnets to suck up the unemployed from around the country. The initial jobs would involve building the city itself." One commenter on the blog says the Chinese already have cities rather like this and that in practice they are not all that utopian.

In an article for the Wall Street Journal in January 2011, Adams argues that since nobody has yet come up with a better way of reducing the budget deficit than increasing taxes on the rich, the U.S needs creative incentives for the rich to pay such taxes. One idea he throws out – “Suppose the tax code is redesigned so that the rich only pay taxes to fund social services, such as health care and social security. This gives the rich an incentive to find ways to reduce the need for those services, which would in turn keep their taxes under control. Perhaps you'd see an explosion of private investment in technologies that make it less expensive to provide health care. You might see rapid advances in bringing down the cost of housing for seniors. Meanwhile, the middle class would be in charge of funding the military.” One commenter suggests a tax structure where each rich person pays for the health care of a number of poor families, so that the taxpayers get feedback on these families's medical appointments, and do not feel their money is being wasted.

Another suggestion is that people who pay higher taxes could get more than one vote – Adams thinks this would probably not change election results, given that there aren't that many rich people and they don't all vote the same way, but could still make rich people less reluctant to pay higher taxes. Adams favors regulation as long as it saves the government money, hence is in favor of taxing fast food – “While I'm close to being a libertarian... I do think that when people eat themselves into a coma, and it raises my healthcare costs directly or indirectly... that becomes very much my business...” Many of these proposals are politically and/or legally impossible, but they illustrate the approach Adams would bring to policy-making. Nothing is sacred to him, and he makes no appeal to tradition or higher principle. Some of his ideas – e.g. in a June 2011 blog entry he proposes boosting employment by offering a Federal tax rebate for all home improvements – have apparently proved reasonably effective in other countries.

Sensibly if uncharismatically, Adams has pledged if elected to delegate most of his decisions to people who know more than him, and flip-flop on any issue where new evidence causes him to modify his position. His worldview has its limitations – he underestimates the value of ways of thinking other than the engineer's, and it's naïve of him to claim his approach to policy is purely pragmatic and non-ideological. On the campaign trail, Adams would be unable to resist cracking jokes that, disseminated in all seriousness by the media, would inevitably doom his candidacy. I myself winced at his comments on the fact that, over the past twenty years or so, most of China's leaders have been engineers – “For years I have marveled at the fact that the Chinese government could be so practical. They didn't seem bogged down by the superstitions and sideshow passions that you so often see in other governments. China's leaders make decisions like engineers. For example, every time I hear someone yapping about how China harvests organs from executed criminals, all I'm thinking is That's a practical way to get spare parts.”

Catbert, who runs the human resources department, is a scarier character than Dogbert because his Machiavellianism is more plausible – a chilling Catbert quote from the March 31st 2010 strip, goes “Leadership is the art of trading imaginary things in the future for real things today.” Adams's lack of leadership in the Catbertian sense is sure to cost him at the polls in 2012. One of his strengths as a writer is his eye for the flaws in human nature, and for the way that, in our current system, none of them are allowed to go unexploited – consider the casino, the lottery, the economic bubble... From this standpoint, the widespread preference for charismatic leaders with glossy hair who make vague promises looks like just one more bug in our mental software.

And yet the fact that China is Adams's best example of an engineer's utopia – the Soviet Union's Politburo in the 1980s, incidentally, were also mostly engineers – suggests the limitations of the technocratic approach to politics. If Adams is truly Libertarian, he should see the danger of a government that makes efficiency an end in itself -- defined without reference to what people, however irrationally, actually cherish. Adams wants to strip politics of all sideshow passions, noble reasons, and values -- but what look to him like bugs in the political system, the majority of people consider to be features.


Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData