The word is derived from two Greek words, kakistos (κάκιστος; worst) and kratos (κράτος; rule), with a literal meaning of government by the worst people.
The earliest use of the word dates to the seventeenth century, in Paul Gosnold's A sermon Preached at the Publique Fast the ninth day of Aug. 1644 at St. Maries:
"Therefore we need not make any scruple of praying against such: against those Sanctimonious Incendiaries, who have fetched fire from heaven to set their Country in combustion, have pretended Religion to raise and maintaine a most wicked rebellion: against those Nero's, who have ripped up the wombe of the mother that bare them, and wounded the breasts that gave them sucke: against those Cannibal's who feed upon the flesh and are drunke with the bloud of their own brethren: against those Catiline's who seeke their private ends in the publicke disturbance, and have set the Kingdome on fire to rost their owne egges: against those tempests of the State, those restlesse spirits who can no longer live, then be stickling and medling; who are stung with a perpetuall itch of changing and innovating, transforming our old Hierarchy into a new Presbytery, and this againe into a newer Independency; and our well-temperd Monarchy into a mad kinde of Kakistocracy. Good Lord!"
English author Thomas Love Peacock later used the term in his 1829 novel The Misfortunes of Elphin, in which he explains kakistocracy represents the opposite of aristocracy, as aristos (ἄριστος) means "excellent" in Greek. In his 1838 Memoir on Slavery (which he supported), U.S. Senator William Harper compared kakistocracy to anarchy, and said it had seldom occurred:
Anarchy is not so much the absence of government as the government of the worst—not aristocracy but kakistocracy—a state of things, which to the honor of our nature, has seldom obtained amongst men, and which perhaps was only fully exemplified during the worst times of the French revolution, when that horrid hell burnt with its most horrid flame. In such a state of things, to be accused is to be condemned—to protect the innocent is to be guilty; and what perhaps is the worst effect, even men of better nature, to whom their own deeds are abhorrent, are goaded by terror to be forward and emulous in deeds of guilt and violence.
American poet James Russell Lowell used the term in 1877, in a letter to Joel Benton, writing, "What fills me with doubt and dismay is the degradation of the moral tone. Is it or is it not a result of Democracy? Is ours a 'government of the people by the people for the people,' or a Kakistocracy rather, for the benefit of knaves at the cost of fools?"
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- Idiocracy – 2006 science fiction comedy film by Mike Judge
- Kleptocracy – Government with exploitative rulers who seek to extend their personal wealth and power
- Negative selection (politics) – Aversion to the success of one's subordinates
- Political ponerology
- Peter principle – Concept that people in a hierarchy are promoted until no longer competent
- Totalitarianism – Political system in which the state holds total authority
- Lewitt, Michael (13 October 2016). "Investing In A Kakistocracy". Forbes. Retrieved 21 November 2016.
- Fiske, Robert Hartwell (2011). The Best Words. Marion Street Press. ISBN 9781933338828. Retrieved 21 November 2016.
- "Trending: When Government Is Just The Worst". Merriam Webster. 29 June 2017. Retrieved 22 August 2017.
- Evans, Rod L (2011). Thingamajigs and Whatchamacallits: Unfamiliar Terms for Familiar Things. Penguin. p. 87. ISBN 9781101515921. Retrieved 21 November 2016.
- Gosnold, Paul (1644). "A sermon preached at the publique fast the ninth day of Aug. 1644 at St. Maries, Oxford, before the honorable members of the two Houses of Parliament there assembled by Paul Gosnold ... ; and published by authority". University of Oxford Text Archive. Retrieved 22 August 2017.
- "Kakistocracy". Dictionary.com.
- Harper, William (1838). Memoir on Slavery: Read Before the Society for the Advancement of Learning, of South Carolina, at its annual meeting at Columbia, 1837. J. S. Burges. p. 49. Retrieved 27 November 2016.