Drawbacks of Technocracy, Part 2: Blue-ribbon America

In part 1, “Europe’s Political Crisis,” I examined the (well-intended) rise of governance and policy decision-making by unelected technical experts in the European Union, along with the effects it has had on promoting a growing political crisis there. I also suggested that a milder version of this trend is starting to make its way into the U.S. political system as well — or at least into the U.S. political philosophy that influences the system.

As I argued in [another] recent piece, in the United States, “there is now a prevailing assumption that everything can be converted into numerical values, and that we can forge our country into a Blue-ribbon technocracy of ‘best practices’ with no subjective judgment calls (or perhaps eventually even directional disagreements altogether).”

 

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The conditions for technocracy’s growth

The circumstances that have encouraged the beginnings of technocracy to emerge in the United States are not exactly the same as the circumstances in Europe. Here, it is philosophically grounded in the now largely faded early American notions of a republican government of wise and elite elders who do what is best for the people, with or without their consent. The role of experts in the United States has so far been limited to advisory roles with far less formal and front-row power than in Europe. Very rarely have they gained official, high-ranking decision-making roles in place of politicians.

In Europe, in contrast, a major factor in the rise of powerful technocrats was the creation of the European Union as an economic union that required — but did not officially hold — significant political power to be able to implement its economic integration policies. That gap between needs in practice and anticipated needs on paper created a decision-making vacuum that the experts filled. No politicians were being replaced directly because there were no powerful federal politicians in the EU or predecessor European Economic Community to begin with. (In the United States, obviously, there has been a strong political union of the member states with its own strong and elected federal government since the Constitution of 1787.) The creation of that pseudo-federal “European” layer of unelected experts making decisions then established a precedent for deferring to national level experts when the national political systems began breaking down more recently in the face of very serious policy and budgetary demands from the Union and elections failed to produce the necessary leadership to enact them. Such crises create the conditions for the constitutional but non-democratic elevation of unelected experts to the cabinet and, in Italy’s case, even the premiership.

The stalemate in elected governance, though, does bear similarity to much of what we have seen in the United States lately. With polarization and dysfunction mounting, rather than making smaller procedural fixes like overhauling the Senate rules, there is likely to be a growing chorus of people seriously suggesting drastic alternatives for achieving policy aims. In past gridlock/crises points, radical reformation of the American constitutional system has been suggested. This time, following the European model, it is more likely that the proposed alternatives would be the gentler introduction of expert commissions empowered to present big decisions for rubber-stamping to the legislative branch or executive bureaucracy.

This solution is particularly likely to be applied, as in Europe, to budgetary reform gridlock, because a certain set of people is already convinced that such reforms are desperately needed and cannot be entrusted with making the “hard choices.” (Interestingly, we don’t see such a push on global warming.)

Redistricting

The gold standard example of American technocracy so far is the trend toward elimination in many states of legislature-driven redistricting in favor of unelected “nonpartisan” commissions. Nine states have abdicated redistricting entirely to outside commissions. A further 13 have some kind of commission in parallel with or assisting the legislators in the redistricting — including five where the commission serves as a “backup” when the normal process fails and a few where a commission is empowered to draw the state districts but not the congressional districts.

To be sure, there is a compelling logic to such a transfer of power and authority, given the obvious conflict-of-interest in having the people who make the districts be the ones who also want to get re-elected from those districts. And they have certainly more than abused that power. However, it remains equally true that the technocratic approach of drawing districts by nonpartisan and unelected commission takes it out of the hands of the people (and their elected representatives) and places it in the hands of a far smaller number of people who style themselves as “experts” and believe they are able to decide what is best for the people that did not choose them and are not able to hold them directly accountable. Then the question becomes which group should be trusted more to serve the people.

Rules and regulators

But whether or not redistricting commissions are merited and worthy ideas, there are many other bodies of “experts” that are far more concerning. In an effort to avoid Congressional gridlock, Congress has quietly been offloading a lot of the details of major legislation to the executive agency regulators and offices that will be charged with implementing them. This blurs the line between bureaucrat (the administrator carrying out policy) and technocrat (the expert making policy), but the decisions of the specifics of rules are left to unelected and generally low-profile agencies leaders. Again, there’s a logic to the transfer of power: leave it to people with time to study the issue and leave it to people insulated form campaign finance pressures. But many of them are appointed for their “expertise” gained in the private sector working for the companies they will be regulating, in sectors ranging from health care to finance to power generation to telecommunications and more. They too meet often with lobbyists and are generally headed back to the private sector after their terms end.

Sometimes, the regulators themselves blindly outsource massive decisions to non-governmental commissions of “experts.” Here is one example from the health care industry:

Known as the American Medical Association/Specialty Society Relative Value Scale Update Committee, or RUC, the group is unknown to much of the medical profession. Yet for almost two decades, the committee has had a powerful influence on Medicare payment rates. Since 1991, the RUC has submitted more than 7,000 recommendations to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) on the value of physician work. CMS has overwhelmingly rubber-stamped RUC recommendations, accepting more than 94 percent, according to AMA numbers.

More:

This fee schedule is crucial. It determines how taxpayers’ Medicare dollars are spent, and it sets the relative worth of one physician service versus another. Moreover, because many private insurers and Medicaid programs model their own payments on Medicare’s, its fee schedule ends up largely determining physician incomes.

 
Congressional (and regulator) outsourcing of decision-making, then, is not necessarily a good solution to a real problem, but rather a different solution — and one that is arguably even less accountable, transparent, and grounded in the popular will. A better path than increasing technocracy would be to fix the problems with our representative democracy.

Government by data

At the local level, as I explored in my July 2014 article “Should government programs be funded Moneyball-style?” there has been a trend toward using “big data” as a panacea for everything, including analyzing the merits of various government programs. This is not all bad, because programs need to be effective and efficient in their delivery of services. But how we measure programs and interpret results remains a political question that is not entirely free of subjectivity.

Moreover, state and local governments increasingly outsource all sorts of complex policy decisions, including the research that could point in multiple directions, to external firms (including one that I’ve worked for myself). In part, this trend is again a logical response to natural and understandable circumstances. Instead of preventing a conflict of interest as with the redistricting commissions, the outsourcing is done in this case because the budget and time is hard to set aside for internal work to be done by the elected officials and their staffs, who are often already only working part-time. So, the decision is made to outsource it to a team of expert researchers, who can return with a fully-formed presentation of what the town, city, county, or state should do.

Often this is intended to help “compete” with other such communities, which does mean the elected officials have chosen this course of action before they seek outside recommendations. Plus, they are free to reject the results. But there is still a significant amount of pressure to accept the wisdom of outside “experts” — who may very well indeed by helpful experts concerned with helping a community — and this decision is undertaken in the first place within a fairly narrow worldview of acceptable choices.

That is what I meant at the beginning with my reference to a “prevailing assumption” that there is now a correct, objective, numbers-driven way of doing everything in government, to the point where subjective politics can be eliminated because “this is above politics.” As in Europe, there is a hope in this sentiment that it will be possible to find a correct way of governing that is beyond the petty partisan differences. This is unrealistic and, as I argued in part 1, probably self-undermining in the long run.

“Best practices”

Even so, in a globalized economy, I acknowledge that no community exists in a silo apart from the world, and so they are compelled to some extent to act within the narrow framework that allows them to compete on terms defined by a much bigger picture than their local voters. In that sense, these local and state governments are simply seeking advice from experts who have figured out how that game is played. And these experts are not formally empowered to make decisions. But they certainly influence and sell certain narratives to decision-makers about the “best” way to do things. That way is always compatible with mainstream modern American and global capitalism but is not necessarily in sync with the needs of the voting public.

More broadly, the corporate view on “best practices” has seeped over into American governance in general. But that trend excludes (or ignores) the key distinction between the business world and democratic government. One is supposed to be operating within pretty clear and limited parameters for the narrow goal of generating a profit and providing goods or services, wherein doing things a certain way can measurably improve efforts to reach that goal and there’s no competing alternative goal. The other is supposed to be executing the collective will of the people to achieve a much wider range of goals under the headers of economic policy and social policy. The question in government is not just “how do I make more money for my company” but “how do I promote the general welfare of my population from as many angles as possible?” The latter is a vastly more complicated political question that forces continual trade-offs between competing rights and demands, trade-offs which we ask the electorate to ratify at the ballot box.

Temptation of technocracy

Asserting that there is a universal standard of expertise that can determine the objectively “best” course isn’t just an easy way out, it’s a deceptive way out. So far, experts have largely been kept to advisory roles in the American political system, but the increasing interconnectedness at the same time as mounting political gridlock is likely to make it more tempting here to offload more and more decision-making onto non-elected experts, just as technocracy seemed like the perfectly apolitical post-national solution for the European Union’s decision-making needs across 28 jurisdictions.

That is a temptation that should be resisted. Experts are undeniably important. But they also have their own backgrounds and experiences, as well as sometimes their own agendas and conflicted compensation structures, and that necessarily informs their research and recommendations to some unknowable degree. They are not receiving divine wisdom. They are people, too. And if they too are fallible humans, why would we not use (and hold to account) the fallible humans we actually elected to ask these questions and make these decisions?

Technocracy in the United States would introduce an added layer of opacity to our governance at a time we should be seeking more transparency, and (as in Europe) it allows our elected officials to punt on asking or answering the big questions like “How much of a safety net should the bottom of our society be afforded?” and “Is unrestrained economic growth the preferred long-term route to lifting people out of poverty on a permanent basis, even if some people lose in the meantime?” and “Whose rights should be paramount when two peoples’ rights come into conflict?”

Consent of the people

As in Europe, you can keep boiling everything down to data points, best practices, and expert recommendations, but if you fail to consult or convert the popular will to support your policy aims, there will eventually be backlash, in some form or another. Technocracy, as a long-term system of political governance, can only work if backed by force, coercion, or unshakeable apathy — and that means it is incompatible with liberal democracy. To present, technocracy has flourished alongside democracy in the United States and Europe, because it had been making much smaller decisions that only tinkered at the margins of the big questions. Experts have a valuable role to play, but in a democracy they cannot permanently replace the politicians as our leaders and definitively eliminate politics, because all big policy decisions are political. The politicians, whether we like it or not, are the ones who represent (or seek to change) the views of the people, so that big policies can be undertaken with the people’s consent and cooperation.

In the words of Winston Churchill in 1947:

No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.

 
We the people may not always make the best decision for ourselves at the ballot box, but at least it was our decision. Taking decision-making away from the electorate’s representatives and handing it to experts, even by constitutional means and with the support of elected officials, would be condescending at best — and anti-democratic and dictatorial at worst, however softly or benevolently. Representative democracy has its flaws, but at least it provides us with an opportunity to register our values as a society and make decisions as a collective. If these values are misguided or will have unintended consequences, the experts should advise the politicians on the need to go out and campaign to change them.

I value expertise and learned advice in the political system, but the political system — not the experts themselves — must actually make the decisions…and submit them to the people for ratification in some form or another.

Bill Humphrey

About Bill Humphrey

Bill Humphrey is the primary host of WVUD's Arsenal For Democracy talk radio show and is a Senior Editor for The Globalist. Follow him @BillHumphreyMA on twitter.
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