Chris Bickerton on Technocracy

  • How do you define technocracy? It means different things to different people but the consensus core is “rule by experts.”
  • Plato is often cited, Plato rejected the distinction between polis/politics and what the ancient Greeks called oikos/household. Plato said that we can think about them in the same way because both are a matter of craft/skill. “Philosopher king” rulers have that capacity, combining expertise and power.
  • From the end of the 19th century into the 20th century “technocracy” is associated with modern technology, engineers, and technological developments. It’s a movement within modernization with engineers and technical know-how at the center.
  • Is technocracy opposed to democracy? The Platonic conception is opposed to democracy. In Plato’s formulation specialists should rule over others. Closer to the current day it’s more complicated.
  • Silicon Valley boosterism is a form of post-political technocracy but that’s not the main notion of technocracy at work today.
  • People tend not to go so far as saying it’s an alternative but rather a compliment to democracy with the aim to identify realms best staffed by experts.
  • It’s accepted that central banks are the domain of the experts, ie. a legitimate realm for the technocrat.
  • But who decides? In many cases it’s technocrats themselves, the state or outside experts.
  • At one time pre-2008 there was consensus in economics on models for policy makers. Economists were vested with independent technocratic power for this reason.
  • If there is consensus it becomes easy for politicians to say “let’s hand it over to the experts.” When there isn’t consensus the technocratic model breaks down.
  • If there isn’t a consensus view the technocratic model breaks down—even in terms of appointments—and the situation is back in the realm of political debate.
  • The more leftwing economics vision—Keynes and skepticism of the price system—lost out in the late 20th century and the outcome was consensus.
  • In the UK politicians have left decisions like quantitative easing to the Bank of England. Politicians are happy to foist responsibility onto the BoE where there is ambiguity about who should act.
  • Some politicians see themselves as technocrats.
  • The emphasis on “competence” and the “CV” demonstrate a technocratic element in UK politics.
  • Tony Blair said “my ideology is what works.”
  • The above is a technocratic statement because it’s an either/or frame that doesn’t acknowledge another view. The other more democratic position is that views represent different values. More recently the values view has given way to right or wrong and right or wrong turn in politics is dangerous.
  • The Micheal Gove statement “I think the people of this country have had enough of experts” was against the notion that claims to expertise should be decisive.
  • Trump is a populist but a clear “what works” person. His supporters used a “plumbing” metaphor. Trump emphasizes “my business has been successful” etc.
  • There is a wonkish side to the technocratic view of politics as opposed a deal making or populist political strain in the current day but they are opposed to the same thing.
  • Both views oppose the sclerotic political class, excessive partisanship, interest groups, rent seeking etc.
  • If you accept that technocracy doesn’t want to replace democracy then it’s in a weak position vs. populism as populism has a democratic mandate.
  • There haven’t been many technocratic governments in Europe since WW2.
  • Macron is technocratic. In terms of what he says, his great emphasis on expertise, how he has brought state administration into his office and the fact that he came to power without much of a party structure. His party En Marche is new and top down. Macron is an “I get things done” or “what works” person. A “voice of people” who are tired of French politics.
  • Is technocracy straight-forwardly opposed to politics? Yes. Party politics is not premised on a right or wrong answer. There is an in-built relativism with party politics.
  • The sense of right and wrong is really important to the technocratic view.
  • Is the current Chinese political system basically technocratic? There is no democratic political competition and party rule rests on a claim of “what works” ie. market economy and prosperity.
  • The problem when legitimacy rests on “what works” is what happens when it stops working? In a democracy if something doesn’t work the system isn’t challenged you just vote the party out.
  • Who are the technocrats in Britain today? The UK is a front runner in terms of the “regulatory state” ie. investing power in independent institutions. The element of technocracy in British politics is shown in the competence/CV view.
  • The British state as a whole over the last 30 years has increasingly oriented to institutions run by experts. This trend is very powerful and present in UK politics and undermines what people think parliament can do. That said, increasingly people are questioning this tendency.

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