Why Autistics Can’t Run The World But Could Run the Government

If Only People Like Us….

I suspect that members of most identity groups think that, if only people like them were in charge, the world would be a better place. Certainly autistic people are not immune from this line of thought. We look at our political leaders and think of all the ways we would do better. We despair at how dysfunctional and ineffective politics are as a mechanism for solving problems.

I have deliberately used politics and not government. Understanding the distinction between these terms is critical to understanding where autistic people are more likely to succeed in improving the world.

Government vs. Politics

While we often treat these ideas as interchangeable, they are distinct concepts that ideally coexist in a healthy, symbiotic relationship. Governing is the process of running something, such as a company, or a government. When we speak of government, we mean the process of defining the rules of how things work. While a portion of this process involves legislation, a great deal of it is the conversion of law into rules, structures, organisations, etc.

When things are working really well in a country, we speak of it being well-governed. The difference between a well-governed state, and a dysfunctional state, is the success of the oft-maligned civil service. For a good look at what the best people in civil service can do for us, I recommend exploring Apolitical (full disclosure: I am an investor).

Politics, on the other hand, is the process of determining who wields power. In a democracy this power is largely wielded by elected officials. These officials hold the votes to determine what legislation is passed, although they often lack expertise in governance.

Ideally, the decisions made by elected officials correlate with recommendations from experts in governance. Many of the questions with the deepest societal impact, however, are primarily guided by politics.

Ensuring that government contracts are awarded in an open and non-discriminatory manner is governance. Deciding how the tax burden is distributed across an entire nation is political. How government oversight of manufacturing or financial services functions is government. Deciding how extensive this oversight should be is political.

Success in Politics

In theory, electoral success is due to one’s views being in line with the views of the electorate.  However, most electorates lack the knowledge, interest, and/or time to  understand what different politicians represent.

Instead of being a competition among ideas, elections tend to be decided by emotion and narrative. One of the problems with politics is that it is far easier to make people afraid about their own lives or families than it is to make them excited about taking on an abstract challenge such as “saving the environment.”

Politicians, then, are not chosen to govern because they are believed to be the people likely to be most competent. They are chosen because of how they make voters feel.

As a consequence, political speeches are primarily about an emotional impact on the public. This is why politicians and political writers are obsessed with favourability ratings. The more popular a politician is with the voters, the more successful they are deemed to be. This popularity is converted into the passing of legislation.

Often politicians act against the interest of their voters, while creating a narrative that keeps people well-disposed towards their elected officials. This, in a nutshell, is why politics seems so nonsensical: it is ostensibly about governance, but is actually about popularity.

The truth is that most neurotypical people would prefer to be told comfortable lies rather than uncomfortable truths; and politics is largely the telling of comfortable lies.

Whither Autistics

Success in politics is driven by three key factors: the ability to manipulate the emotions of a large number of neurotypicals; the ability to convincingly say things one does not believe to accomplish such manipulation; and one’s possession of charisma.

I am fairly sure that being autistic is disqualifying on all three of these factors. It is plausible that an autistic person could successfully use masking to perform as if one possessed these factors. At some point, though,  the mask would slip. The public response to that slip would likely be fatal to one’s political career.

More to the point, the very reason why an autistic person would consider themselves better suited than the incumbent to hold elected office would be nullified by this usage of  masking.

The autistic fantasy is that we could step into national leadership bolstered by our ability to clearly see problems, unflinchingly expose those problems, and clearly lay out the plan and necessary sacrifices needed to overcome each problem.

The reality is that the voters would reject us for having made them uncomfortable well before we reached such a level of power. Politics is not our realm.

Governance, however, can greatly benefit from autistic voices. The problems are large, the system is the very world, and the solutions often require questioning orthodoxies and thinking as if the box didn’t even exist.

Think of the criticisms often levelled at civil services and civil servants: resistant to change, fixated on things being done in a particular way, endlessly obsessed with knowing everything about a specific area of interest, impatient with outsiders who can’t grasp the logic behind how they work.

Sound like anyone you know?


The problem isn’t that governments lack autistic people, or at least people who think in ways with which autistic people are comfortable. The problem is that presently the political people have too much influence over how government works, and export their discomfort with truth-telling into civil service structures to the detriment of everyone.

Often the rules of government are nonsensical because the logic and order of the governance experts were over-ruled for political reasons.

When we hear politicians denouncing government, or arguing that government should function more like a business, we need to push back and question why it is that they are so committed to silencing the voices that are necessary for the world to run smoothly.

We also should ask why voices which make sense to autistic people are attacked in a way which feels all too familiar. Bashing government may be good politics, but it is bad for everyone. Our problem is not too much government, our problem is too much politics.

Just as the problem in the rest of the world is not too much different thinking, it’s too much hostility to difference.

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6 Responses

  1. I’d suggest that it’s worthwhile to recognize that the entire idea that the government should primarily consist of apolitical civil servants who are evaluated in terms of expertise and job performance is a relatively recent one. At least in the United States, the shift to such a civil service was a political achievement of the progressive movement in the early 20th century. Prior to that, government positions were viewed and managed as spoils that political victors distributed through a patronage system as a means of obtaining and rewarding loyalty. Basically the same goes for the idea that government contracts should be awarded through a fair and open process.

    It is also worth noting that Trump is seeking to undo these progressive reforms in order to reestablish a patronage system. He quite rightly recognizes that the professional civil service limits both his power to rule, and his ability to use the government for the benefit of himself and his cronies.

    1. Yes – the Progressive Era was roughly 1890-1930 – and there were settlement societies too.

      Procurement became really big during the neoliberal/neoconservative era and we are still untying that.

  2. I work for a large public institution (7000 employees) and I’ve always appreciated the contributions made by my autistic colleagues and me. We quickly reach a ceiling in our careers, once the need for politics comes in, but at our highly skilled mid-levels, we’re amazing and do the work of thousands, even though there are less than a hundred of us. We’re the invisible foundation.

    1. Cathy,

      just read through your SPECTRUM blog [the last three articles] where you talk about your work life.

      And this is very very encouraging.

      “Highly skilled mid-levels” – good to know that middle management does not politics-politics so much as office-politics.

      And a foundation does not need to be seen to be felt or to have impact.

  3. Some really good observations on governance vs politics. In practice though, politics permeates governance, certainly in traditional hierarchical public sector organisations.

    “Politics, on the other hand, is the process of determining who wields power. In a democracy this power is largely wielded by elected officials. These officials hold the votes to determine what legislation is passed, although they often lack expertise in governance.”

    This is unfortunately the case in many democratic countries. “Unfortunately” on several accounts:

    1. Dunbar’s number highlights the limited extent to which elected officials are able to empathise with the many individuals that make up electorate. The need for elected officials can be minimised by extensive use of direct forms of democracy and related tools. A country like Switzerland is an interesting example.
    2. Direct democracy and open source software hold the potential to minimise the need for politicians.
    3. Democracy in the sense of “rule by the people” mainly works well when the people involved know each other personally. It relies on psychological safety within the group, mutual trust, and a consultative advice process for decision making.
    4. Over longer periods of time, in most democracies, governance power increasingly gravitates to towards a small elite at the national or federal level. It does not have to be that way. In Switzerland most of the power of governance resides at the scale of local communities and the 26 cantons, and the powers at the level of the federation are quite limited. This reduces the tyranny of the majority that plagues many democracies.
    5. Democracy in the sense of “consensus” supported by votes can work well at larger scales, but only if the scope for governance at the national or federal level is limited to the platform (infrastructure) for coordination at smaller scales.

    I have lived in many countries, and I have worked for many years in Germany, Australia, Switzerland, and New Zealand. There is no country with perfect governance, but there are a number of things that work well in Switzerland and/or New Zealand, and there is less to be learned from Germany and Australia.

    Smaller scale is better when it comes to governance. This is easily lost in a world of “bigger is better” and “profit over people”. From what I have learned to date, the future of politics is open space collaboration in the small and open source software in the large.

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