A common Republican talking point in the United States is a fear of “becoming like Europe” with its purportedly omnipresent “European socialism.” As someone who actually pays attention to the politics and economics of Europe, I dismiss that as a pretty absurd view of the world, for any number of reasons. But lately I’ve had a different question: What if the (negative) way that the United States is “becoming like Europe” is actually the adoption of its technocratic governance trends?
In part one of this two-part essay, I’ll examine what technocracy is and what it looks like in the modern European democracies. In part two, I’ll examine how it is starting to manifest in the United States.
What is 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.
The most common use of technocrats around the world is a logical and reasonable one: Many democratic countries, mostly in the developing world, will hand the government over to a temporary cabinet of nonpartisan technocrats — called “caretakers” — to run the country during a very brief period during which new elections are held. That way, someone is still “at the wheel” during campaign season but the ruling party can’t control the power of government offices, the security forces, or election officials. This is particularly useful in countries with relatively young and sometimes unstable democracies, to help build ongoing public confidence that a system of elected government can be trusted and will turn over periodically as expected. If the ruling party loses the election and rejects the outcome, they can’t cling to power because they already had to vacate office to the technocrats before the start of the campaign.
But in the past quarter-century, the rise of the European Union has introduced an entirely new form of technocracy, though.
Rise of the post-national technocrats
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. Voter turnout in EU elections tends to be pretty low relative to national elections because people aren’t exactly sure what the EU “government” (which barely exists as a formal thing) does or how it relates to them. A hugely diverse range of national parties are elected to the European Parliament with all kinds of disparate goals, which makes it hard to work together on anything in the way a national-level representative democracy would do.
Plus, for many years, the Union and its preceding organizations were far more of an economic union than a political one anyway. Economics, with its mathematical and quasi-scientific appearance, seemed like a good place to introduce a lot of nonpartisan technocrats, experts who could just do their job quietly to help the European economies grow in harmony. They would simply figure out, through research, what policy would best promote growth and then hand it off to be implemented by national governments. The “data” would dictate the policies, in theory, so who could disagree? The elected European parliamentary members aren’t a major factor one way or the other in this arrangement. (Additionally, the low-profile political electeds in the EU parliament aren’t in a strong position to fight “experts” who spent their careers trying to identify the policies that work best.)
Unfortunately, in those nearly 25 years since the Union’s creation and rapid expansion, it soon became evident that the job being undertaken by the EU technocrats was much bigger than simple execution of narrow policies to drive things forward. Harmonizing the economies — now up to 28 from the founding 12 — required a lot of shared regulations to be adopted across national borders.
Some kinds of regulations like that are great. Think of standardizing electrical outlets so electronics can be sold and used across the Union. But others involve implementing policies that infuriate certain constituencies at the national level, whether because “we’ve always done it the other way” or because it genuinely caused them some short-term harms (or even permanent harms by exposing them to significant competition from other countries in the EU).
Well, once your policies are causing major disruptions and backlash that’s not just science and math anymore; that’s regular old politics, whether or not you’ve kept the politicians around. These politics can come in the form of social disagreements or economic disagreements (Croatia’s regulatory harmonization experience ahead of gaining membership highlights the latter well), but in the end they all had to yield to the experts handing down the “best practices” from Brussels. (The electeds there still weren’t a factor.)
The Second European Consensus
So, there was a tremendous amount of momentum behind the concept of “the European project” by 2005 or so. Everything had been converging for a half century, it seemed, and it was far too late to turn back. So the center-left parties and the center-right parties, both of whom accepted this contention in every country in the European Union, continued to push ahead in concert. Even if they had different priorities and disagreed with each other at home, the central consensus outside the home front was clear: the European integration project had to go forward and that’s just what was going to happen, come what may. When such a policy conflicted with something at home, the European project’s needs were paramount and took precedent under both the left and the right. Moreover, it freed up those major party leaders to blame vague and distant “the powers that be” for domestically unpopular consequences of European-wide policies, while taking credit for the favored developments.
Then came a bigger bone of contention: the 2008 global recession and the ensuing Euro crisis. The consensus response from the technocrats, initially at least, was that budget cuts were going to have to happen all over most of the Union. Very deep cuts. Suddenly, “the European project” wasn’t just changing electrical sockets or the size of chicken cages. Now it was affecting millions of people’s livelihoods in a very noticeable way. And, dramatically, it was beginning to target the even more longstanding left-right political consensus — on the necessity of expansive social democratic programs — that had survived since World War II. But in most countries, the mainstream center-right and center-left parties had later arrived at a second political consensus: They continued to agree with each other that the success of the European project was still the top priority, when in conflict with any other priority, and so they continued to push hard on the reforms requested by the technocrats in Brussels.
However, in some countries, things started breaking down in the political system at this point. Regulating cheesemongers and vintners creates far smaller waves than fundamentally altering the national pension or healthcare system does, yet the mainstream parties were treating the new backlash as essentially the same as the old (more ignorable) kind. Fringe anti-European Union parties, the only other “side” in the debate for or against “the European project,” surged to prominence or even power. Other parties, while ostensibly not opposing the EU, arose to oppose the specific policies of the austerity demanded by the technocrats in Brussels. Worryingly, the “backbenchers” and local affiliates of the mainstream national parties also began revolting against the demands being placed upon them to implement and defend these policies while people were in the streets screaming at them.
Rise of the national technocrats
And finally the third tier of technocrats emerged: the national technocrats. No third world guardians of an election transition or executors of European Union bureaucracy, these unelected national technocrats were charged with taking over the management of entire national economies because the traditional parties were apparently incapable of producing anyone via normal elections to get the job done. In many cases and countries, they served in the cabinets, acting in positions of power but not the spotlight.
But in the most famous, crystallizing example of the overall trend, in November 2011, Italy installed Mario Monti — an Italian ex-EU technocrat — as Prime Minister of Italy, their chief executive and head of government. He was “nonpartisan,” but, more importantly, also not democratically elected in any capacity. The largely ceremonial President of Italy appointed Mr. Monti a Senator-for-Life, to give him a constitutional position somewhere in the existing system from which to lead, and then asked him to form a government of other Italian technocrats, who were charged with putting the country’s interests ahead of any party’s interests and assembling the relevant legislation to ensure Italy’s compliance with European Union requests about its budget and other national-level issues. He served until losing the 2013 election decisively.
Remember: no one in Italy elected him to the position back in 2011 — or even to any other — yet he had a specific mandate, coming from wholly outside the democratic system, to fundamentally reshape the country. Not small tinkering at the margins, but sweeping change. And it was all constitutional. Just not democratic.
Who died and made you king?
Now, one might ask what the harm would be, if Monti (or any technocrat) was doing what was best for the country and for the people. But that’s the big if. Because he was not elected by the country, who had expressed or determined what is best for the country? The experts, of which Monti was already one. And who made them “experts” or determined that their “nonpartisan” vision was actually the best direction? The data and research.
Data and research which can — though I’m not alleging it has been — usually be manipulated to prove the preferability of whatever policy outcome or direction you want, if you’re determined enough. Thus, there is no such thing as a government truly freed of politics to do what is “best,” because the definition of “best” is itself inherently a values decision that forces a tradeoff between that and other options.
Policymaking is all subjective and political in some sense, which is why in a representative democracy we put things to a vote and campaign on them, either with direct referendum questions or via candidates running to pass specific things. Which, in turn, is not to say that the people always pick the right course for themselves either when given the chance at the ballot box … but at least they get to pick their own destiny in a democratic government, which is not true under unelected government by experts.
Undermining the good ideas too
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.
Europe is in a very different stage of development of its technocracy than virtually anywhere else, but elements of it have begun to creep into the American political landscape and polity as well.
As I argued in a 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).”
In part two, I return to this point to explore it further.