The Ascent of Technocracy

(The Origin of Principles, 25 Mar 2013)

Sarang Shah ·

Washington is on fire. Potomac parlours and palaces are ablaze with talk of the impending destruction of civility and credit ratings.

Cries ring out from every pulpit, “If we don’t fix the deficit, we’ll never get out of this recession!” “If we don’t get our fiscal house in order, we’ll be repo’ed by China!”

Fortunately, we have hope for salvation at the hands of a savior. Or rather, several saviors – consisting of the smartest men and women (but mostly men) from the highest echelons of academia, media, business, and politics. Under rather ominous names such as “The Gang of Ten” and “The Silent Centrist Majority”, these wealthy social engineers have the solution for our ills, revealed to them from atop Mount Aspen and Davos upon digital tablets by the gods of economics and mathematics and management science.

The solution? Austerity and painful sacrifices. Sequestration and entitlement cuts. Alas, if only the common rabble would put aside their bickering and come together in the spirit of bipartisanship and unity. If only we could put aside the electorate and strike a “Grand Bargain” in the spirit of the founding fathers.

Meanwhile, the UK has already embarked on its own disastrous expedition into the deserts of austerity. Sure it hasn’t been 40 years (yet) since the coalition government came into power back in May 2010, the UK with no sight of the promised land. Sure, the London Olympics were a temporary boost, but the growth that was meant to come from greater confidence in the bond market has yet to arrive. In fact, there were several quarters where GDP shrunk rather than stagnated. What about the debt? Due to the prolonging of the recession and a decline in government spending and investment, it seems likely that the decline in tax revenue will far exceed the savings from curtailed borrowing, worsening the deficit and debt.

What is the coalition’s response? In quarters where GDP grew, coalition leaders proclaimed that austerity is working and we need more of it for growth. In quarters where GDP was shrinking: austerity is working and we need more of it for growth. “Just trust us” said the wise toffs of the Home Counties. And many of us did.

Unfortunately, the situation looks far worse in the eurozone. Cyprus has just rejected a proposed haircut on all bank deposits proposed by the Troika (the European Union Commission, the International Monetary Fund, and the European Central Bank) – a proposal meant to protect Cyprus’s status as a Russian money haven while resolving Cyprus’s outstanding debt on the back of all of its depositors.

Perhaps most tellingly, the Italian public has rejected prime minister Mario Monti, an unelected technocrat asked to form a government following the departure of Silvio Berlusconi. In their most recent election, the Italian people have handed significant control over the reins of power to a protest party, the Five Star Movement, led by comedian Beppe Grillo.

The technocrats have long been ascendant. Since the era of the Reagan-Thatcher dream team, technocrats have insisted that they be allowed to place their hand on the tiller of the ship of state. Yet, it has becoming increasingly clear that technocracy has foundered, and that there is a rising populist mutiny against the technocrats.

What exactly is technocracy? Technocracy is a system of governance in which technical experts make and implement policy decisions. How are these policy decisions determined?


Like engineers constructing the perfect traffic circle, social scientists have devised the best means of organizing society. In practice, these policy proposals are posited under the aegis of neoclassical economics and liberalism.

Liberalism and neo-classical economics find their foundations in some widely esteemed (and predominantly Anglo-Saxon) political philosophers and economists, such as Adam Smith, Charles Montesquieu, John Locke, Thomas Jefferson, John Stuart Mill, and even John Maynard Keynes. Of course, this list is incomplete as we can only manage a tip of the hat to the great role general Enlightenment values and a belief in rational scientific progress has contributed to fueling the technocratic project.

The more virulent forms of radical liberal ideology can be found in the work of Austrians (or Austro-Hungarians to be more precise) such as Ludwig von Mises, Friedrich Hayek, and Joseph Schumpeter. To that we can add an American, Milton Friedman, to round out the European bunch.

The rapid global acceptance of their approach to public policy was not entirely rooted in their standing in academia – Mises and Hayek were never scholarly brokers during most of their academic careers. Rather, this acceptance came about due to a network of scholars and academics, public intellectuals, politicians and government officials, journalists and television personalities, vocal local and state groups, and others who held fast to their ideals and repeated them often.

Importantly, technocracy is founded on a belief in meritocracy: that only the best solutions from the most qualified people survive to implementation, and that solutions and people only rise to the top if they deserve to. If your idea doesn’t work, or if there is someone who is better than you, then you slip back down the ladder. Consequently, wealth naturally gravitates to people in accordance with their standing on that meritocratic ladder.

What’s there not to like about meritocracy? Wealth and riches are no longer the domain of kings and plutocrats, but to anyone who works hard and plays by the rule. Alas, meritocracy contains the seeds of its own destruction, even when it seems that everything is working just right. Without constant vigilance, every meritocracy descends into an oligarchy (“the iron law of oligarchy” as fatalistically coined by German sociologist Robert Michels).

But these are, many would argue, issues of process and implementation. The global crisis of confidence is an indication that people are not exactly upset that technocracy isn’t technically working. In fact, it’s working exactly as expected in many countries, with lower projected deficits and an uptick in stock indices. People are upset because they aren’t sure what these policies intend to accomplish. Both citizens and politicians conflate their problems, such as unemployment, with the policy solutions proposed by the technocrats without having a clear idea of how the policy prescriptions cure their particular diseases.

That is why it is essential to view technocracy not as a set of mathematical solutions, but as a complete, internally consistent ideology.

What is an ideology? Jonathan Haidt, professor and author of “Righteous Mind”, describes ideology as “a set of beliefs about the proper order of society and how it can be achieved.”

Technocracy certainly proposes several ways we can achieve some proper order of society. Deregulation and greater competition. Austerity. Lower taxes. Freedom of movement for labor and capital. The private sale of state assets. The promotion of open democratic governments. There is nothing inherently objectionable about any of these policy prescriptions. But they beg the question:

To what end are these means? What is the set of beliefs about the proper order of society that technocrats advocate? And even if we reached a consensus on these beliefs, are the technocrats’ policy prescriptions the proper way to achieve them?

Many technocrats would prefer to skirt these questions. It’s the end of history, they would say. The great debates have all been decided (coincidentally in their favor). Liberal democracy and capitalism are the crowned victors in the great Hegelian dialectic. We already know that the end goal of civilization is a more refined version of the American ideal, now we just need to get there.

But perhaps it’s not so simple. Given that there are a lot of assumed principles behind the technocratic vision, what exactly are these moral foundations?

Jonathan Haidt helpfully breaks down moral foundations into six categories:

Political ideologies (and religions!) seek to answer the various questions posed by each of these foundations. For example:

What or who do you think is worth caring for? What do you consider fair (in your dealings at work, school, home, etc.)? Should we be more loyal to our country, our ethnic or religious compatriots, or to our family and friends? Where do we draw the line between respecting an institution’s decisions and actively questioning its every activity? Should we allow for the bulldozing of graveyards, pass a law that limits the construction of minarets, or refuse public funding to artists that desecrate religious symbols? What liberties and freedoms do we allow, and how do we determine when one person’s liberty is obstructing the liberty of another?

Technocracy has answers for all these questions and more. For example, neoclassical economists greatly value the liberty of individuals to pursue unregulated economic activity, while liberals greatly value the ability for individuals to form political groups and express themselves freely. Unfortunately, we rarely consider these value judgments in our current public debate.

There is nothing inherently wrong with these principles! But in practice, these value judgments can clearly cause harm when not regulated. Other times, the value judgments made by technocrats conflict with what a majority of the population considers morally just. For example, international technocracy rarely distinguishes between cheap, unregulated labor in China or India and labor in the Western industrialized countries. But you’ll find that even in today’s globalized world, people still care very deeply for their country and countrymen, and for the guarantee of humane working conditions.

Most distressingly, technocrats rely on the authority invested in their institutions and leaders to shut down debate. Combining this sense of authority vested in individuals with the relatively little trust that remains for collective institutions has created a situation in the USA where voters return their representatives to Congress at an alarming rate, while Congress itself is less popular than Donald Trump, head lice, and colonoscopies.

Technocracy is fundamentally radical and voters in Western democracies tend to shy away from radical change and revolution. So why is it so often associated with moderate conservatism? Like dredging bits and pieces from the Titanic, salvaging conservatism requires a prolonged campaign of deep and arduous exploration. Generally speaking, conservatives believe that gradual or no change, within the context of existing institutions, is far better than revolutionary upheaval.

What technocrats have posited is that the natural buffer to radical change is the unregulated free market. The power concentrated in the state would naturally be countered by the individual liberties of its citizens as expressed in their free exchange of goods and services in the marketplace. Were this dream utopia only true! As we have found out, repeatedly since the mid 1970s, is that a rigid adherence to unregulated free markets leads to massive instability.

These policies also enrich the upper classes and the educated elite. Therefore, the natural base of democratic support for these policies is very narrow, hence why concealing and reframing the debate is so vital to technocrats.

The technocrats have an advantage in the public discourse. They are based, ostensibly, in science and numbers. They appeal to rationality. And when something doesn’t work, it’s the implementation that is at fault, and not the underlying principles. Technocracy cannot fail, it can only be failed. Hence we are left with a growing frustration with every failure, and an unvarying set of tools to solve every problem we have.

Once we transition the debate away from technical solutions to the moral foundations on which those solutions are predicated, then we can begin to have a truly political debate. What exactly is a political debate? It is a discussion that addresses who we are as a group, the values we collectively hold as a society, and how we can achieve a vision of society that accords with those values.

Why do we even need to discuss these questions? People have legitimate points of disagreement between each other, and there isn’t a clear rubric that determines who is right or wrong. That’s good! Disagreement is how we expose our assumptions, learn from others, and together evolve to a better understanding of ourselves and each other.

Were it not for moral considerations, it would seem just as sensible to us to employ children and foster slavery as it did 200 years ago. A moral dialogue is the foundation of a good society, and in a time of greater diversity, migration, and globalization, it is essential at all levels of global society. What do we want as a society and what are the necessary sacrifices and opportunity costs we are willing to accept in order to achieve that vision of the future?

A common telling of the foundation of moral philosophy and even metaphysics is that these fields originally started as offshoots of these fundamental political questions. By discussing with others our present state of affairs and how we must come to terms with living together do we begin to truly inquire into everything from what is right or wrong to the nature of existence itself. As historian Tony Judt once said, “A democracy of permanent consensus will not long remain a democracy.”

Simply put, challenging the moral foundations of technocracy (or any other set of policy prescriptions) is not just a means to develop a better society, but necessary to satisfying our natural human curiosity and creative capacities. Without an opportunity to answer these questions, people are left with a vacuum of what to believe in and hope for. Trust in institutions crumbles. Cooperation between individuals and groups is strained, even beyond the point where capitalism can function effectively.

So returning to the USA, the clear moral alternative to cutting entitlements and starving senior citizens is to simply borrow more money at the incredibly favorable interest rates Americans currently enjoy to invest in infrastructure, education, and research and to stimulate aggregate demand. Concurrently, the USA should be examining the role of money in its political systems and finding ways to regulate its political institutions (such as Congressional redistricting) in order to ensure that Americans feel some sense of ownership over their own democracy.

In the UK, there ought to be a return of some assets and functions handed over to the private sector or quangos back to the state. Rather than rely on a flawed, utopian conception of a “big society”, it’s far better to return to the post-war social democratic model that promoted a sense of national unity and efficient economy of scale in the distribution of services.

In Europe, Cyprus ought to reject the euro and its exposure to Russian depositors as a means of reclaiming its sovereignty – a far better option than allowing wealthy foreigners demolish the savings and pensions of mostly lower and middle class Cypriots. Italy and Greece should continue rejecting the imposition of deleterious socialized solutions to crimes committed by wealthy bankers and investors in the private sector. Their integration within the EU gives them the leverage to force the European Central Bank to do what it should have done some time ago: print money to pay off bonds, even if that means bond-holders will take a haircut due to inflation.

Globally, communities of various sizes and shapes should examine what policy solutions truly work for them on both a moral and pragmatic basis. Governments should seek out solutions that allow them to maintain the trust and cooperation of their own citizens for the short to medium term.

But if we are rejecting technocracy, then what set of policies and principles do we turn to? Going back to the way things were is no good — to the early twentieth century age of war and statism. Surely liberal democracy plus capitalism is the best we can do. How could we possibly do better?

Unfortunately, we’ve avoided this discussion for so long, it’s difficult to propose a clear alternative to the current system for our present troubles. There are, however, some directions in which we can go. For instance, several of the principles assumed by technocracy, with minor modification, can be used to buttress more social democratic policies. By realizing that individual liberties and freedom are enhanced by social security and stability, we can then focus on how the state can ensure an adequate safety net for capitalism to be even more robust and dynamic.

Or we can question just how much individualism people truly desire. As Jonathan Haidt points out in “Righteous Mind”, we are perhaps not so much selfish as we are “group-ish”. We are social creatures by birth, and as such we seek out whatever is in the best interest of our group – whether that’s our spouse, our family, our friends, our country, our religious comrades, our fellow language speakers, our fellow members of X ethnicity, our fellow Klingons and Jedis, our fellow philatelists and numismatists and other hobbyists, etc. We are still, of course, constrained by the powerful forces of geography, language, and nationhood, but increasingly these forces must be reconciled with other powerful affiliations borne of globalization.

This debate is essential for everyone, and not just those of us in the industrialised West. As Western institutions and culture spread throughout the world, so do their accompanying problems. If we don’t rectify the flaws in our own system now, then we risk spreading a malignant cancer to the rest of the global body politic.

Our greatest tool for exploring alternate policy solutions is principled discourse. Only then can we reconcile populist frustrations with policy solutions to our collective problems. Otherwise, as the late Vaclav Havel once remarked, people will continue to “shrug off anything that goes beyond their everyday, routine concern for their own livelihood; they seek ways of escape; they succumb to apathy, to indifference toward suprapersonal values and their fellow men, to spiritual passivity and depression”.