The Technocrat’s Burden

Elias Isquith

Elias Isquith is a freelance journalist and blogger. He considers Bob Dylan and Walter Sobchak to be the two great Jewish thinkers of our time; he thinks Kafka was half-right when he said there was hope, "but not for us"; and he can be reached through the twitter via @eliasisquith or via email. The opinions he expresses on the blog and throughout the interwebs are exclusively his own.

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19 Responses

  1. Renee says:

    Great Post!

    I think one of the interesting aspects of the technocrats’ attitudes that often goes overlooked is generational.  I like to read for insight on this.  (The site is a little over the top, but he does a great daily post on foreign news items).  The author argues that it is no coincidence that much of our financial and economic problems started at the same time that those of the greatest generation retired and left the top management positions of industry and government to be replaced by boomers (whose middle management positions, in turn, became dominated by gen Xers).  Having never lived through a real depression or global war and having gone through decades of relatively incredible economic growth, the boomers convinced themselves (and us) that ‘this time is different’, that they knew how to handle the business cycle, etc.

    I don’t buy that generational differences explain everything (as the site author seems to) but I think it is an interesting piece of the societal puzzle when looking at this.Report

    • Murali in reply to Renee says:

      though I find it disturbing — even horrifying — in nearly as many

      is it the mere fact that the sentiment is anti-democratic that horrifies you?

      The implication is that Smith and his ilk — the self-styled technocrats — are little short of martyrs. Citizens are people, after all; and technocrats are people, too. If to care about the economy, taxes, capitalism, and all the sundry aspects of democratic self-governance is to waste our lives, whose lives are more wasted than the technocrats’?

      I didnt interpret his statement that way. Rather, what I think he is getting at is that people only think of economic issues when there are  widespread economic problems. If there were no economic problems, then people would not be thinking about the economy all the time. Even though we think we have gained from thinking about economic problems today, that we wouldnt think about it if we didnt have problems indicates that there are better things to think about and do. The mea culpa then is just this. As a technocrat, my failure to do my job has caused you to spend time in less than optimal ways. (Also since most lay persons do not get economics, their thinking about it is all wrong and a waste of time anyway. But that’s just me not Smith)Report

      • Elias Isquith in reply to Murali says:

        It’s the paternalistic more than the anti-democratic nature of his comment that’s creepy.

        But as to things being “better” for people to think about — you’ll have to do an extraordinary amount of work, I think, to convincingly construct a hierarchy of Things We Think About.Report

      • Patrick Cahalan in reply to Murali says:

        There’s a similar analog to systems administration.

        If I’m doing my job, you don’t realize it (indeed, if I’m doing my job correctly, in the long run, you generally think I don’t do anything for most of the day).Report

      • Dan Miller in reply to Murali says:

        Yeah, but who gets to decide what counts as a problem? For example, income inequality might or might not be–and whether or not it is is a political issue that should be subject to democratic deliberation, not settled by unelected men in gray flannel suits.Report

  2. Burt Likko says:

    I’m not seeing the link between the democratic delegation of policy formulation to subject matter experts (“technocrats” in Smith’s parlance) and the rise of the transnational elite. These seem to me to be different, and generally unjuxtaposed, groups of people.

    I do see that both have a significant effect on how democracies function. The rise of technocracy is a century-old phenomenon tracing back to figures like Chancellor Bismarck and President Wilson. It takes day-to-day decision-making out of the hands of the democratic process. There is in theory a democratic override and balancing of competing policies effected by representatives accountable to the electorate, but at the end of the day it’s government by regulation rather than government by legislation.

    The rise of a globalistic class represents a migration of economic elites away from nationalism. Really, how could a class of transationals arise amongst any stratum of society but economic elites? But while these people may not feel any loyalty to any particular nation, they retain citizenship within at least one nation, and therefore will exercise political power there both as voters and as economic elites. This will steer the democratic portion of the policy-making process towards advancing the interests of the transnational elites, meanng that the (economic) world will flatten.

    But these are confluences of events, events which have been a long time coming and which are not done playing out. Not all economic elites are transnational in their loyalties even if they explore money-making opportunities beyond their own countries’ borders. Nation-states aren’t going to go away and neither is democracy. Democracy remains a bedrock principle of governmental legitimacy, even in a heavily technocratic regime and even when the elites of a particular society are visibly cosmopolitan rather than nationalistic.Report

    • I don’t think there’s much distance, on the whole, between the highly educated and the highly affluent — certainly not in politics. To that point, the only stratum I could see becoming transnational the way the superrich are is the intellectual class — and, again, I think you see this playing out as technology flattens the academic world just the same as it does the economic.

      As to the idea that things are as they are and as they’ve been and as they always will be: I guess. The question to me isn’t whether or not “democracy” will go away; I don’t think we need to get into such sweeping and definitive rhetorical territory. The question worth asking though is whether the democracy of the near-future will be commensurate with what we imagine democracy to be. I doubt Smith fashions himself an anti-democrat.Report

      • Patrick Cahalan in reply to Elias Isquith says:

        I don’t think there’s much distance, on the whole, between the highly educated and the highly affluent — certainly not in politics.

        You need to spend more time among the highly educated.

        Hm; this might be a function of how one defines “highly educated”.Report

        • Yes, yes, I know that if you have a PhD youre more likely to be a hippie.

          But to have a BA or MD or JD or MB is to be highly educated, too.Report

          • Kolohe in reply to Elias Isquith says:

            But it does not follow that one is going to be of the highly affluent, as you define the term.  (Affluent, yes, for the most part).

            Moreover, these people in fact *are* the technocratic rank and file that run things in a society – and always have.  (Back in the day they were they were the various scribes and astrologers that could tell when the Nile would flood)

            And when they fish up, (which they always will eventually, because they are humans in human institutions) and it causes a populist revolt against the existing order – that’s when civilizations collapse.  And that is what Smith is concerned about. 

            Sometimes it’s the witches, sometimes it’s the Jews, in the future its may be technocrats.  Scapegoating, *that’s* Smith’s worry, because it always happens eventually.Report

      • Burt Likko in reply to Elias Isquith says:

        I don’t think there’s much distance, on the whole, between the highly educated and the highly affluent — certainly not in politics.

        The affluent tend to be better-educated than the financially distressed, it is true; and in politics, power does seem to coincide with affluence. I suspect that a correlation-causation confusion is very easy to make given only those facts. Education does not necessarily lead to affluence or power — part of the frustration that seems to fuel #OWS.

        Speaking for myself, I’m well-educated, as I hold a graduate degree. But while I’m financially comfortable, I’m hardly part of “the 1%.” If I am, no one’s been inviting me to the meetings. I suspect that’s true for a lot of people here, both the credentialed and the autodidacts.Report

        • Speaking for myself, I’m well-educated, as I hold a graduate degree. But while I’m financially comfortable, I’m hardly part of “the 1%.” If I am, no one’s been inviting me to the meetings. I suspect that’s true for a lot of people here

          That’s what makes it the 1%, no?Report

    • MFarmer in reply to Burt Likko says:

      It started in earnest in the 20s with Benjamin Strong, Montagu Norman, Emile Moreau and Hjaldar Schacht — the central bankers from the US, Britain, France and Germany — who controlled behind the scenes. A great book to read is Lords of Finance by Liaquat Ahamed. The book shines a bright light on what’s happening today.Report

  3. wardsmith says:

    My problem with technocrats is expressed most eloquently here:

    Technocratic discourse ‘ventriloquates’ scientific discourse [15, 77] to claim
    rational objectivity and to promote action supposedly based on reason and fact:
    ‘economists, political scientists and sociologists in particular have attempted to imitate
    scientific analysis through the accumulation of circumstantial evidence, but, above all,
    through their parodies of the worst of the scientific dialects

    The language of technocracy is a closed discourse that treats opposition as
    incorrect propaganda [16, 80]. Because “incorrect” oppositional discourses are often cast as naïve “common sense”, they are pervasively denigrated by technocrats, and are tacitly supposed to defer to the more intelligent scientific knowledge generated by the technical elite [15, 71]. In this way, the pseudo-scientific language of technocracy legitimises its claims to power in matters that are uniquely social in nature, simultaneously silencing “common-sense” opposition by their claims to expertise.Report

  4. Joecitizen says:

    I perceived Smith on a different angle, nearly appliance based. When you hit the on button on the coffee maker you expect it to work as advertised. There is nearly a appliance cultural phenomena of expecting an unwatched pot to boil.

    Complacency to the point of being mechanical. Strange daysReport