Democracy and Technocrats II

As promised earlier, here are my main concerns with technocratic government, from the new governments in Greece and Italy to the emergency city managers cropping up in the United States.

To begin with I would actually like to set aside one argument: that technocrats are often associated with autocratic government. There are plenty of historical examples of this. But I don’t think it’s necessary a precondition, especially if we expand our definition to include non-elected, life-tenured judges. These have coexisted with representative democracy in the United States for centuries. With that aside, my three principle concerns:

First, technocrats are usually representatives of the representatives. That makes them another step removed from the source of sovereignty: the people. This can compound issues like the principle-agent problem. If representatives are ‘hired’ to execute the will of the people but are likely to look out for their own interests, ‘hiring’ technocrats to execute the will of the representatives adds another layer of self-interest. We can hope the additional layer is (a) positive-to-benign or (b) serves as a corrective to the self-interest of the politicians. But it’s difficult to know at the outset whether that will be the case.

Second, technocrats often bring dramatic changes separate from votes. In basic terms, this is their purpose. But I’m less concerned with the proscriptive ideal of democratic voting than with the practical consequences of this sort of change. In a democratic society (Greece, Italy, U.S.), every time a non-elected official or officials change our relationship to government, that places a strain on the system as a whole.

The necessity of the change doesn’t make the strain any less profound. Think, for instance, about the desegregation decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1950s and 1960s. I absolutely think those were the right actions, but in some ways we as a nation are still working out the consequences of those having been court decisions rather than the more direct results of popular elections. Or think of Roe v. Wade. What has been the significance of the fact that the battle over abortion in the United States has largely become synonymous with a battle over the federal courts?

Third, technocracies risk substituting the aims of capitalism for those of citizenship. This is related to the first concern: one of the few things that elected representatives seem to have in common across partisan lines (whether in Greece, Italy, or the U.S.) is a concern for the continuing integrity and profitability of large financial institutions. What those on the right and left seem to forget is that the initial bailouts in 2008-2009 were the result of a bi-partisan decision that most of the largest financial institutions in the U.S. were ‘too big to fail.’ Similarly, contentious political parties in Greece and Italy came together on only two issues recently: the appointment of technocrats to run government and the absolute necessity of an external financial bailout.

Now, maybe this is the right thing. Personally, I still embrace the necessity of the bailouts in the U.S., though I wish some elements had been handled differently (more breakups and fewer mergers, more attention to smaller firms that benefit consumers and small businesses more directly). I don’t really know enough about the intricacies of eurozone finance to make a call there, though the consequences of default are certainly unattractive.

But each time the priorities of capitalism dictate the shape of citizenship I think we need to weigh those competing priorities. And I don’t think you usually get that considered balance by appointing those who have spent their life specializing in one of the two systems. During an economic crisis, governments turn to experts in capitalism. But when have you seen a government turn to experts in citizenship to address a crisis in democracy? Governments frequently work to bolster markets, but I’ve yet to see the market make a concerted effort to bolster government. Turning to technocrats may prove one more step in undermining the system of citizenship at the core of democracy.



Note: For some worthwhile perspectives on technocracy, check out the Slate article linked above and three pieces from The Economist (here, here, and here).

2 Responses to Democracy and Technocrats II
  1. kaahl
    December 3, 2011 | 10:06 am

    This turning to technocrats in times of duress is not a just a feature of democracies. In fact, it is the main dynamic that has allowed China to continue to develop its economy over the last three decades.

    Read here:

    One of the main misconceptions about China is that Beijing has an authoritarian vice-grip on the country. In fact, for much of its development, national leaders in Beijing had the tiger by the tail.

    Victor Shih does a good job of breaking down elite politics in the CCP. Basically, there are two types of factions within the CCP–generalist factions and specialist factions. In general, factions are groups of party members at all levels of government who support one of the top leaders in the 9-member state council. In turn, the generalist faction leader awards resources and privileges to his supporters.

    Generalist politicians tend to be mayors and governors who also spend time in the army, poor provinces, etc. The Organization Department does a good job of shifting them all around the country to get experience.

    The specialist factions, however, are basically technocrats–they run the ministries, the central bank, the organization department, etc.

    The two factions have different preferences–generalists “score points” by growing the economy, expanding employment, keeping unrest low, etc. Specialists score points by solving tough political and economic problems.

    The monetary preferences of each are different as well–generalists want to print money and shower it on their supporting faction’s provinces. The problem is that when all factions are pursuing the same approach, you get run-away inflation. Then it is a chicken match between generalist factions on who will stop the nepotism first.

    Generally what happens instead is that the generalist faction will instead empower a technocratic faction to bring about reforms. The key is the specialist factions have power to reform the system, but not the connections and political ability to wrest control of the country from the dominant generalist faction. So it is basically like a time-out while the technocrats fix the country. But eventually, generalists see that the economy is stable and want to gain advantage by supporting their factions.

    if i had time, I would have wrote a shorter summary. but that’s the idea.

    I wonder if the US, Greece, etc are in a similar bind–competing political ideologies have stalled, but you can bring in a technocrat to make the difficult changes and then easily depose him later, and potentially even undo his corrections.

    • Jason
      December 4, 2011 | 3:11 pm

      Fascinating. I knew some scholars had suggested that the Soviet Union might qualify as the world’s first technocracy, with all the engineers running government and focus on “scientific” policy making. But I didn’t know about this dual leadership system in China.