The Trouble with Technocracy

Many Democrats and bipartisan centrists are keen to distinguish politics from policy. Politics, they lament, is a fetid swamp of ignorance and prejudice. Policy should be conducted on a higher plane of expertise and dispassion. Identify discrete problems, and apply technical solutions. Too often, Bill Gates and Barack Obama speak as if the fundamental questions of values have all been settled. As David Rieff said, “There are no great ideological contradictions, just issues of ‘empowerment,’ ‘good governance,’ ‘transparency,’ and ‘accountability.’”

Recently, Doug Henwood and Corey Robin were confronted by similar appeals to competence for competence’s sake. The debate began over the limits of easy money, but it was irreducible to technical minutiae. One of the posters over at The Current Moment touched upon why:

Different strategies for stimulating the economy are never just a matter of which technical fix is the most appropriate. They are also a matter of how power is distributed in the economy, and thus human freedom. There is often a tendency in public debates to argue over the ‘right’ answer, as if this can easily be determined independent of political questions about whose interests are served best, and how this shapes the lines of power in society. But, as we have tried to argue previously regarding financial regulation, expert knowledge and narrow policy concerns are not so easily extricated from questions of power and values.

When policy entails the creation and destruction of rights and penalties, it alters how citizens are governed. If that’s not political, then “politics” has been emptied of meaning.

Granted, much of the social world is not what it seems. No decent technocrat will ever want for examples of the counterintuitive (such as debt deflation). Daniel Patrick Moynihan appealed to this sense of reality when he distinguished programs from policies. Programs are about “inputs”: staff hired, structures built, expenditures made, etc. Policies are about programs and their consequences—about the relationship between efforts and “outcomes.” Because society is complex, with hidden interconnections, the most likely results are neither obvious nor bound by original intent. There must be guides to viable action, as well as a public purpose. Without the former policy is impotent, but without a clear sense of the latter policy is incoherent.

Legitimate expertise is earned by an ability to explain, however partially, how the social world works. This knowledge enables technocrats to serve the common good, but it never grants them the authority to define it. That authority should belong the voting public, whom the policy governs. And the governed have no obligation to master the convoluted designs of the technocrats. As Daniel Davies said:

I cannot fly an aeroplane but I can spot a crappy landing. I can’t cook a stew, but I can tell the difference between beef and shit. I can’t write a symphony but I can tell when something’s out of key. In general, for most people and most fields, their opinions about what is wrong with something are more likely to be worth listening to than their ideas about what might be done right. Karl Popper built a whole philosophy on this important point.

Appeals to pragmatism are only appropriate when there is a loose agreement about the ends pursued. Otherwise, the self-styled pragmatists are question begging, or worse. Social conflict cannot be reduced to a data problem. For a democratic republic, there can be no “replacing the government of persons by the administration of things.”

update (October 9, 2011): As John Gray said, there is no function Progress that maps the cumulative advances in science and technology onto ethics and politics:

The core of the belief in progress is that human values and goals converge in parallel with our increasing knowledge. The 20th century shows the contrary. Human beings use the power of scientific knowledge to assert and defend the values and goals they already have. New technologies can be used to alleviate suffering and enhance freedom. They can—and will—also be used to wage war and strengthen tyranny. Science made possible the technologies that powered the industrial revolution. In the 20th century, these technologies were used to implement state terror and genocide on an unprecedented scale. Ethics and politics do not advance in line with the growth of knowledge—not even in the long run.

In short, neither politics nor ethics are reducible to problems of knowledge.