Democracy and Techocrats I

I wrote a bit about the events in Greece when Prime Minister George Papandreou called for a referendum of the European bailout. Since then, Papandreou rescinded his referendum suggested, struck a deal with the opposition to guarantee maintenance of the bailout agreement, and stepped down from his post. In his place, the Greek parliament instituted a technocratic government led by a former vice-president of the European Central Bank. Italy soon followed suit, toppling Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and handing the office to a former anti-trust commissioner for the European Commission. Mr. Monti will also serve as finance minister in his new cabinet.

Is this a good idea? Today I’ll lay out the argument in favor of ‘technocrats’ and later I’ll explore some arguments against the phenomenon.

First, this is not a coup. As far as I’m aware, no technocrats in history have succeeded in overthrowing an existing government to take control. Unlike the military, they lack the force of arms to enforce their will. So, instead, they must be invited to govern. And they do so contingently, only so long as those holding real power permit them to do so. In both Greece and Italy, they serve at the behest or sufferance of national parliaments made up of elected officials. Right now, competing factions have willingly ceded power to these technocratic leaders. But if these coalitions fall apart, the new leaders can be toppled as fast as the previous governments. (Perhaps even more quickly, since the new leaders lack their own political base on which to rely.)

Second, sometimes democratically elected leaders are not the best people at getting things done. We’ve seen this in spades in the United States. One of the problems with the supercommittee was that there was nothing to insulate it from the partisanship that is synonymous with politics these days. Even members who were not running for reelection were trapped by the demands of the party’s base, unwilling to budge far enough to reach a suitable agreement on the federal budget. The Simpson-Bowles is probably the closest we’ve come to a realistic blueprint for putting the federal government back on a sound fiscal footing. In part, that was because most of the members have greater incentives for personal success than they did for aiding their parties. To the extent that technocrats are focused primarily on their reputations as problem solvers, that could be a great aid in reaching the desired results.

Finally, as I have mentioned in earlier posts, I believe expertise does matter.* We live in an already complicated world that seems to grow more complex and interdependent with each passing day. Economics may not be rocket science, but economists may long for the relative certainties of physics. While it is essential that we maintain democratic control over government, we must also face the reality that some level of expertise is required to actually govern. The question is not whether specialists should be involved in government but what kind of latitude they will be given. In the case of Greece and Italy, the answer is now: quite a lot.

Look for a future post in which I’ll outline some of my concerns with technocratic government.


*I recognize that, like my natural empathy for the U.C. Davis protestors, my belief in the value of expertise is tied to my own life experience. But I would be hard pressed to say whether my trust in professionals is a result of my training or if it prompted my own desires to become an expert in an academic field. In either case, I do believe it is central to a functioning polity. If we cannot trust in some people to put other concerns above partisan political gain, we cannot move forward as a nation. This is a key precept of my call for a moderate politics.

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