The Economist on technocracy in democracies

In March of this year, I published a very lengthy two-part essay on the political challenges technocracy increasingly poses to Western democracy.

In “Drawbacks of Technocracy, Part 1: Europe’s Political Crisis”, I defined what I meant by technocracy:

Technocracy is a term that essentially means rule by non-elected technical experts, often academics, who (theoretically) place the country’s interests above the interests of any particular “side.” By extension, technocracy is usually set in contrast with, but not opposition to, elected partisans (i.e. champions of a specific political party or faction). It is not the same as “bureaucracy,” either, because bureaucrats carry out the policy decisions of the executive and legislative branches, whereas the technocrats are replacing the role of the decision-makers themselves. That means the experts are substituted directly for politicians at the top. Also, quite unusually compared with other systems, technocracy often exists alongside democratic systems and completely within a normal constitutional framework. The replacement of the politicians does not occur in a “state of emergency” or other extra-constitutional circumstance, as would occur in a dictatorship, but rather occurs through appointments of experts to the top level of government through regular constitutional procedures.

I also explored how it had grown in strength in the European Union:

Technocrats, in this case, had to step in to fill a new vacuum, more than they were needed to replace existing elected officials. The democratically elective component of the EU’s political union was (and is) quite weak to begin with — like the political union itself — because the functions of the “supranational government,” such as it is, are quite limited and removed from the population.

And I argued this dependency on technocrats was becoming a problem for the future of the Union:

Worse, the reliance on and deference toward technocrats at all levels of the European project has suffocated all debate. Yes, it is hard to hold a debate across 28 member countries, but the lack of debate has engendered fearsome resistance to the policies and projects. Debating policy is politics. In essence, politics may be unseemly sometimes, but it is still the mechanism necessary to sell the people on policy solutions.

Europe’s drift toward unaccountable technocracy means even the good ideas can’t be sold to the masses, because no one has been selling them at all other than by alluding to the expertise of the people making the decisions. That works right up until that trust erodes, and then no one is there to make the case itself. Ideas are simply dropped on the masses as fait accompli policies, like a ton of bricks from the window of an ivory tower. The populist parties that actually bother to campaign on ideas — even horrible ideas — start to take a big share of the vote.

In “Drawbacks of Technocracy, Part 2: Blue-ribbon America”, I examined whether technocratic systems were creeping into the U.S. democracy as well.

The Economist has just published a new mega long-read entitled “What’s gone wrong with democracy” (Subtitle: “Democracy was the most successful political idea of the 20th century. Why has it run into trouble, and what can be done to revive it?”). I don’t necessarily agree with some of their proposed solutions, but their diagnosis seems largely correct (to me). I highly encourage people to read it. There were many, many hundreds of words I wanted to highlight, but I decided I could break up some of the great excerpts across various posts whenever I had my own things to say about specific themes it covered.


Since, as outlined and quoted above, I already covered the topic of technocracy in depth on my own in March, I figured I would start by quoting the relevant passages about technocracy from The Economist essay on threats and opportunities facing democracy in the 21st century:

Nor is the EU a paragon of democracy. The decision to introduce the euro in 1999 was taken largely by technocrats; only two countries, Denmark and Sweden, held referendums on the matter (both said no). Efforts to win popular approval for the Lisbon Treaty, which consolidated power in Brussels, were abandoned when people started voting the wrong way. During the darkest days of the euro crisis the euro-elite forced Italy and Greece to replace democratically elected leaders with technocrats. The European Parliament, an unsuccessful attempt to fix Europe’s democratic deficit, is both ignored and despised.
From above, globalisation has changed national politics profoundly. National politicians have surrendered ever more power, for example over trade and financial flows, to global markets and supranational bodies, and may thus find that they are unable to keep promises they have made to voters. International organisations such as the International Monetary Fund, the World Trade Organisation and the European Union have extended their influence. There is a compelling logic to much of this: how can a single country deal with problems like climate change or tax evasion? National politicians have also responded to globalisation by limiting their discretion and handing power to unelected technocrats in some areas. The number of countries with independent central banks, for example, has increased from about 20 in 1980 to more than 160 today.

From below come equally powerful challenges: from would-be breakaway nations, such as the Catalans and the Scots, from Indian states, from American city mayors. All are trying to reclaim power from national governments. There are also a host of what Moisés Naim, of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, calls “micro-powers”, such as NGOs and lobbyists, which are disrupting traditional politics and making life harder for democratic and autocratic leaders alike.
Self-denying rules can strengthen democracy by preventing people from voting for spending policies that produce bankruptcy and social breakdown and by protecting minorities from persecution. But technocracy can certainly be taken too far. Power must be delegated sparingly, in a few big areas such as monetary policy and entitlement reform, and the process must be open and transparent.

And delegation upwards towards grandees and technocrats must be balanced by delegation downwards, handing some decisions to ordinary people. The trick is to harness the twin forces of globalism and localism, rather than trying to ignore or resist them. With the right balance of these two approaches, the same forces that threaten established democracies from above, through globalisation, and below, through the rise of micro-powers, can reinforce rather than undermine democracy.

Again, the massive article this is quoted from is worth reading to get a sense of what’s going on with global democracy since its apparent high tide around 2000, even if some of the arguments raised are debatable. (But that’s the point: they should be debated. Whereas technocracy doesn’t effectively allow the public do that.)

Bill Humphrey

About Bill Humphrey

Bill Humphrey is the primary host of WVUD's Arsenal For Democracy talk radio show and a local elected official.
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