Excess Democracy? Citizen… ship & citizen… wreck
Liberal democracy is under fire. Crucially, and most dangerously, it is under fire from both sides of the political divide. The lead-up to the election of Trump and Britain’s vote to leave the EU captured one side of this, whilst the aftermath captured the other.
Liberal democracy under fire
It is difficult to add much to the discussion around the rise of populism. The literature on populist opposition to liberal democracy is extensive. The narrative generally goes that working-class disillusionment with the status quo created fertile ground for the Trumps and Farages of the world. Globalisation and inequality polarised society, and those who felt without a voice seized the opportunity to make themselves heard. Though this over-simplifies the issue by treating the “white working class” as one homogenous group and drawing a few too many parallels between the US election and the UK’s referendum, it generally holds that those who felt marginalised by the status quo sought alternatives.
Trump’s election and Britain’s referendum have revived fears, largely amongst discontented liberals, that society is suffering from an excess of democracy; a tyranny of the masses in which all are subjected to uninformed decision-making.
Populism is but one side of this attack on democracy. Trump’s election and Britain’s referendum have revived fears, largely amongst discontented liberals, that society is suffering from an excess of democracy; a tyranny of the masses in which all are subjected to uninformed decision-making. Fears of excess democracy are by no means new, with Francis Galton and Aldous Huxley amongst many expressing such concerns in the early 20th Century. “Democracy … must, in self-defence, withstand the free introduction of degenerate stock”, wrote the former in 1908. “If the bulk of people remain poor and uneducated, [is] it safe to entrust them, through the ballot box, with controlling the government of Great Britain”, asked sociologist Beatrice Webb in 1926.
The term “excess democracy” itself was first coined in The Crisis of Democracy (1975), published by the Trilateral Commission, a group started by David Rockefeller with pervasive influence even today. That report advocated a restoration of the prestige and authority of central government institutions, and the solutions proposed by many current demosceptics are not dissimilar. Calls for technocracy (rule by technical experts) and/or for epistocracy (rule of the knowers) have recently grown louder. At the extremes, epistocracy would limit the vote to those deemed qualified to participate, while technocracy would replace politicians with unelected, ostensibly apolitical social scientists. “We need [elites] to protect this precious democracy from its own destabilising excess”, writes political commentator Andrew Sullivan in New York Magazine.
Advocates of epistocracy argue that the masses keep getting it wrong, so only those who know what they are doing deserve the right to participate. Thinkers as early as Plato warned against democracy as rule by the ignorant, or worse, the charlatans that the ignorant fall for. The assumption that ordinary people are qualified to govern themselves is taken to be false.
Rule by experts and “those who know” may be intuitively appealing, but it is both morally and practically flawed as well as completely failing to address the challenges presently faced by liberal democracies. If alienation from politics got us here, converting feelings of disenfranchisement into literal disenfranchisement is certainly not the solution. As a challenge to radical populism, epistocracy and technocracy are at best unhelpful, if not actively counterproductive. Sheri Berman, Professor of Political Science at Columbia, decouples liberalism and democracy to neatly summarise the issue: populism and fears of excess democracy are not opposed to each other, rather both are an attack on liberal democracy itself. The former seeks to limit liberalism to save democracy, and the latter, to limit democracy to save liberalism. In Populism and Technocracy: Opposites or Complements? (2015), Bickerton and Accetti make a compelling case for this dichotomy.
In what follows, I will eventually argue that increased political participation, starting from local levels, may be democracy’s best defence against both threats. By way of full disclosure, I personally believe that, on balance, both Trump’s election and Britain’s vote to leave the European Union will be socioeconomically damaging for the US and UK, respectively. In being transparent about this, I hope to strengthen the conviction with which I argue against epistocracy and technocracy. Firstly, I explore these concepts further, before returning to examine how democracy retains superiority, but is in dire need of repair.
Epistocracy and technocracy: a crucial distinction
Voters are accused of nostalgia, sentimentally rooted in how things were rather than rational assessments of how things are or informed practical views on how they should be.
Though recent calls for both have stemmed from the same fear of excess democracy, the concepts of epistocracy and technocracy are similar in some ways and different in others. Unhelpfully, they are sometimes (wrongly) used interchangeably. In an attempt at clarity, I define three distinct ideas:
- Means-based technocracy: Technical experts (such as economists or engineers) who understand “the machine” are shielded from politics in order to best achieve democratically-decided objectives; technical rule over technical questions.
- Ends-based technocracy: Technical experts, shielded from politics, have the power to decide society’s objectives, ostensibly acting in the long-run interest of citizens.
- Epistocracy: Rule of the “knowers”, more broadly defined as those who know what is best for society. Most current advocates believe “politically-literate” citizens should be granted greater power over democratic decision-making.
Means-based technocracy is familiar. Politically-independent central banks are an example. Elected political representatives (the British Chancellor, the US Congress) set the statutory objective of stable prices or low unemployment, and the bank’s economists then pursue it. The knowledge of technocrats is brought in to establish how to achieve a predetermined objective. Many regulatory agencies also operate in this way. Of course, not all “how” questions are purely technical: whether to reduce teenage pregnancy through free contraception or abstinence campaigns requires normative value judgements. At least compared to the other two concepts, though, means-technocracy is relatively uncontroversial.
The culmination of the Greek bailout in mid-August is a reminder of a recent instance of ends-based technocracy: the 2011 Euro-crisis interim governments of Papademos in Greece and Monti in Italy. Monti’s cabinet was made up entirely of professionals, with not a single politician, while former European Central Bank Vice-President Papademos secured tripartite unity in the Hellenic Parliament. Both were installed to enact deficit reduction, designated by experts at supranational institutions to be in the long-term economic interest of the two member states. Protected from party politics, interest groups and the changing will of the electorate, the administrations were deemed best-placed to tackle fiscal imbalances.
The belief of citizens in the benefit of reducing their own influence is growing. A 2017 Pew survey studied attitudes towards different political systems in 38 countries. Though more than three quarters of respondents favoured democracy, only in Sweden was a majority (52%) strongly committed to representative democracy (defined as refusal to support any other type of government).
Had the objective of fiscal consolidation been decided by their respective populations, the technocracy at play could be described as means-based. However, the limited democratic consultation, exemplified by the proposed-then-cancelled Greek referendum in 2011, leans towards ends-based technocracy. Social unrest and demonstrations protested the influence of the European Commission and European Central Bank over national direction. Without arguing for or against Greek or Italian austerity, I am simply making the distinction between technocratic means and ends. Another example of ends-based technocracy, cited by many current proponents, is the success of Singapore under “benevolent dictator” Lee Kuan Yew. That said, our definition also describes the USSR. Indeed, 89% of Politburo members in 1986 were engineers.
Epistocracy is rule of “the knowers”. If implemented in ways that eschew the population entirely, this could very much overlap with ends-based technocracy. Current advocates envision a political system which retains elections but grants an enlightened subset of citizens greater (or exclusive) power to influence the direction of society. This could be achieved by granting multiple votes to more educated individuals, as first proposed by John Stuart Mill. In Mill’s day, selected universities had their own constituencies, allowing graduates to vote both where they lived and in their university constituency. Surprisingly, the UK did not abolish this until 1950. Other proposals include limiting the franchise to those who pass political literacy exams, an epistocratic council with veto rights, or an enfranchisement lottery which requires those selected to develop their political literacy.
Though not without its own limitations, I do not see means-based technocracy as an excess-democracy response, seeking only to best enact democratically-decided ends. I will focus on the other two concepts, as they seem fundamentally opposed to democracy, not least in how they justify themselves. Democracy is legitimised deontologically: from the input side of the political process, by a moral duty to respect the birthright of political participation. In contrast, justifications of epistocracy and ends-based technocracy are consequentialist: from the output side, legitimised by the superior outcomes they purport to achieve. The potential for suboptimal decisions in democracy is acceptable because voters are involved in both the choice and the outcome. Consequentialist alternatives ask: why live with our mistakes when we could prevent them altogether? I set out the arguments for each in turn, before displaying their flaws. Just like populism, both fail to address the issues at hand.
Thirty years ago, Francis Fukuyama stated that the proliferation of liberal democracy marked the end of history. Clearly, this is yet to play out.
Put bluntly, advocates of epistocracy argue that the masses keep getting it wrong, so only those who know what they are doing deserve the right to participate. Thinkers as early as Plato warned against democracy as rule by the ignorant, or worse, the charlatans that the ignorant fall for. The assumption that ordinary people are qualified to govern themselves is taken to be false. In Democracy and Its Critics (1989), political theorist Robert Dahl wrote that “in the absence of a very compelling showing of incompetence (…) everyone should be assumed to be the best judge of his or her interests”. Trump’s election and the UK’s referendum are taken as this “very compelling showing”. If the political influence of uninformed voters were reduced, or the power of politically-competent voters increased, champions of epistocracy believe outcomes would improve. In Democratic Authority: A Political Framework (2009), David Estlund posits that “other things equal, well-educated people will tend to rule more wisely”, owing to an ability to think critically and hold representatives accountable.
A deficit of critical thinking?
On critical thinking, proponents of epistocracy often cite evidence that voters are incapable of sensibly attributing credit or blame. In Democracy for Realists (2016), Achen and Bartels present evidence that politicians often suffer electoral losses for events beyond their control. In 1916, coastal New Jersey towns which experienced shark attacks gave President Wilson significantly fewer votes than inland constituencies. In a similar vein, voters are accused of nostalgia, sentimentally rooted in how things were rather than rational assessments of how things are or informed practical views on how they should be. On improved accountability, it is argued that an electorate made up entirely of the competent and engaged would discourage politicians from making false statements or short-sighted appeals as a means of consolidating power.
Political philosopher Jason Brennan’s Against Democracy (2016) is at the forefront of the epistocratic movement. He defines “low-information voting” as rational ignorance: an individual’s vote is so unlikely to make a difference that voters have little incentive to be informed or control deep-set partisan biases. He presents low-information voting as worse-than-random, since these biases are often exploited by populist demagogues. Many votes are driven by an emotional connection with the proponent of a policy, rather than a dispassionate assessment of its effectiveness. In Uncivil Agreement (2018), Professor Lilliana Mason appears to confirm such behaviour. She writes that political partisanship in America has recently strengthened, playing a greater part in individual identity. Even in social activities outside politics, people associate primarily with others who share their political views. Such echo chambers constrict political debate. Further, Mason finds that even when Democrats and Republicans can agree on policy outcomes, they tend to view one another with distrust, working for party victory above all else. Emotive manipulation of this divide is often more effective than evidence-based reasoning. As advertising entrepreneur John Kearon put it, analysis is not enough; the public must feel that you are right.
Teovanović finds that intelligence is only weakly correlated with rationality or practical wisdom. In other words, intellectuals are not necessarily any better at discerning their own flaws, blind spots and biases. In Democracy for Realists (2016), Achen and Bartels also warn that highly educated individuals are just as susceptible to groupthink. Moreover, they may be more prone to virtue-signalling, rationalisation or ad-hoc hypothesising to make evidence fit within their existing frame.
Ethics of voting
Because society frames voting as both an important part of citizenship and as a morally neutral act, the majority of citizens vote despite lacking an informed opinion. Brennan takes issue with this moral neutrality, arguing that our votes influence the lives and opportunities of others, so we have a duty to vote “well”. Voting differs from other liberal rights: whereas free speech enshrines power over oneself, the vote gives power over others. Incompetent voting is a harmful attack on the rights of informed citizens which damages the legitimacy of democracy. Indeed, in his Ethics of Voting (2011), Brennan goes as far as to suggest that uninformed, irrational voters should voluntarily abstain. He compares uninformed voting in universal-suffrage democracy to air pollution. The conscientiousness of the enlightened few is insufficient to counter the negligence of the many, and the cost of shirking duty is spread too widely to keep any one malefactor in line. On these grounds, the rules of the game need to be changed. Brennan is not short of metaphors. Just as a licence demonstrating competency to drive is required to limit the risk to pedestrians and other drivers, voter competence should be required to prevent incompetent citizens exercising political authority over others.
Epistocracy does not necessarily exclude citizens from politics, he continues, it just forces them to be informed and rational. It is not that knowledgeable people deserve to rule, but that ignorant citizens do not, as this would subject others to their incompetently-made decisions. The political influence of children, convicts and the mentally infirm is restricted on similar grounds, why should these principles not be applied more widely? Herein lies an important distinction. In a democracy, it is the state’s prerogative to prove citizens’ incompetence; in epistocracy, the burden is on citizens to prove their own competence. Champions of epistocracy argue that this is not unfair.
If the Overton Window, defined as the spectrum of positions acceptable in public discourse, narrows so much that policy is not up for debate because certain subsets of society will always “know better” or veto subjects on the grounds of blasphemy or taking offense, suspicion and disillusionment take hold.
Why ends-based technocracy?
It is worth affirming that, at least in the West, there are few advocates of expert rule to such an extreme. Nonetheless, arguments surrounding this idea provide useful food for thought in the growing debate around democracy. Justifications of ends-based technocracy draw on many of the same criticisms of “low-information” voters, but lean further towards removing the public from the political system. The aim, as described by Italian sociologist Luigi Pellizzoni, is to suitably protect elites from the rest of society, allowing them to perform their tasks effectively. These tasks would not just be steering the ship (as under means-based technocracy) but also choosing its direction, in the public interest. The meritocratic long-termism which ends-based technocracy facilitated in Singapore, where “the only ideology is pragmatism”, is often cited. Technocracy also played a key role in China’s progress during the Deng Xiaoping era, when academic competence, pragmatism and a strong preference for the hard sciences were finally allowed to influence policymaking. Finally, while reserving judgement on the European Commission as a whole, there can be long-term benefits to institutions with the capacity to enact unpopular corrective measures.
It would be scaremongering to suggest that there is a worryingly strong push for ends-based technocracy in the UK or US. That said, increasing numbers around the world are entertaining the idea that reducing citizens’ influence over policymakers might improve outcomes. In other words, the belief of citizens in the benefit of reducing their own influence is growing. A 2017 Pew survey studied attitudes towards different political systems in 38 countries. Though more than three quarters of respondents favoured democracy, only in Sweden was a majority (52%) strongly committed to representative democracy (defined as refusal to support any other type of government). Similarly, in “Democratic Discontent” (2016), Foa and Mounk find that only 30% of the millennials (1980s birth cohort) surveyed believe it “essential” to live in a democracy, compared to half of those born in the 1950s and three quarters of those born in the 1930s.
Well-known development economists Acemoglu and Robinson argue that there is no such thing as “pure policy”, since policy cannot exist outside politics and power relations.
In the Pew study, technocracy was the only nondemocratic form of government to attract a majority in some, primarily developing, countries. Over two thirds of respondents in Lebanon, Hungary and Vietnam would prefer authoritarian rule by experts to representative democracy. Granted, not all countries surveyed were themselves liberal democracies, but one might hope for evidence that democracy had greater appeal. In 2016, a Thai referendum backed a permanent role for the military junta which ousted preceding democratic leaders. This probably says more about past experience of flawed and fragile democratic experiments, but it also shows that the West is currently doing little to restore confidence. Indeed, it appears that the US has retreated from its global role as paragon and advocate of democratic institutions, not least freedom of press. Thirty years ago, Francis Fukuyama stated that the proliferation of liberal democracy marked the end of history. Clearly, this is yet to play out.
Arguments against epistocracy
Of the different ways to implement epistocracy, Brennan pushes most strongly for the restriction of the electorate to those who can pass a test of political competence. Such proposals beg countless questions. As Brennan himself identifies, the “major question is what counts – and who decides what counts – as political competence”. Ilya Somin, Professor of constitutional law at George Mason University, is sceptical that any real-world government could be trusted to implement an unbiased test. The temptation to skew the system in ways that overrepresent supporters or exclude opponents would be too great. Beyond cynicism and the risk of voluntary malicious misrule, the potential for involuntary misrule is in many ways even more dangerous. Even the most well-intentioned test will embody assumptions and values held by its creator. Unconscious bias in such tests could hamper some groups from signalling their needs to those in power, as well as reducing the incentives for those in power to heed these signals. If processes are biased in ways people cannot identify, these biases cannot be corrected. Citizens would, rightly, be deeply suspicious of the system, worsening already-problematic feelings of alienation. Participation would likely fall “on principle” before the test even began to disenfranchise low-scorers.
If technocratic assertions of “what works” are not followed by questions of “for whom?”, policies can have perhaps the most dangerous unintended consequences of all: reinforcement of dominant groups and/or the weakening of frail ones.
Even if a completely objective authority were established, pitching the difficulty and specificity of the test would be another practical minefield. Too narrow and it risks excluding valuable viewpoints, too broad and it is insufficient to root out the uninformed. Ethicist Marko Ković neatly highlights further challenges to setting or changing epistocratic thresholds. Without a test to select the threshold-setters (herein “Group A”), the threshold lacks epistocratic legitimacy. An epistocratically-selected group to set the test which selects Group A is required. This regresses ad infinitum. Further, if an epistocratic threshold had (somehow) been legitimately set, it could never be changed. If the status quo threshold is deemed insufficient for rational decision-making, the group selected on the basis of the old criteria lacks the epistocratic legitimacy to set new criteria. The only solution is de facto authoritarianism around who decides.
For the sake of argument, let us set aside all these practical challenges and assume that a legitimate test has been set, at the right level of difficulty and specificity. Would outcomes improve? For a concept proposed mainly by libertarians, epistocracy is surprisingly at odds with Adam Smith’s invisible hand. Libertarian economist Friedrich Hayek emphasised Adam Smith’s notion that the price mechanism pools all available information into mutually-beneficial collective wisdom. Does democracy not have the potential to do the same? Granted, it could be argued that voter biases are not randomly distributed, so might skew collective wisdom away from its “true” optimum. But will it not still be closer than if only certain groups have a say?
As Yale’s Hélène Landemore puts it, the cognitive diversity of a representative group is more likely to succeed. Tests of formal education exclude alternative sources of information, such as practical experience, which also deserve consideration. Examinations also definitionally select for candidates who think like the examiners, curtailing heterogenous thought. Disregarding some beliefs and values reduces the likelihood of exposure to information which might update and improve one’s evidence base. Epistocracy is epistemically irrational. Indeed, in Individual Differences in Cognitive Biases (2015), Teovanović finds that intelligence is only weakly correlated with rationality or practical wisdom. In other words, intellectuals are not necessarily any better at discerning their own flaws, blind spots and biases. In Democracy for Realists (2016), Achen and Bartels also warn that highly educated individuals are just as susceptible to groupthink. Moreover, they may be more prone to virtue-signalling, rationalisation or ad-hoc hypothesising to make evidence fit within their existing frame.
It is wholly false to believe that the empowerment of technocrats would mean questions of value judgement would simply no longer need answers. Values are always involved, and technocratic expertise often does not grant legitimate power to make these value judgements. Knowledge of the “machine” is insufficient for setting policy direction.
I am not advocating “uninformed” voting, rather highlighting that those who might pass a political competence test are also far from perfect. For example, many advocates of the economic benefits of immigration tend to discount evidence that immigration can reduce social cohesion and trust. My personal belief is that the former far outweighs the latter, but an awareness of both is helpful when thinking about the challenges faced by some groups in society. It seems intuitive that, more often than not, hearing out all opinions will lead to the best outcomes. If the Overton Window, defined as the spectrum of positions acceptable in public discourse, narrows so much that policy is not up for debate because certain subsets of society will always “know better” or veto subjects on the grounds of blasphemy or taking offense, suspicion and disillusionment take hold. For a conversation to be taken off the table in this way should contrast with the basic principles of epistocracy’s liberal proponents.
Reducing the franchise as a means of mitigating the perceived “excess” of democracy could leave a system that is neither liberal nor democratic. Columbia’s Professor Berman warns against the risk of special interests and wealth exercising (even more) disproportionate political influence in such a system.
Nevertheless, it is crucial to consider the values and assumptions underpinning technocratic policy, which are shaped by individual views of what society should be. Experts with other values and assumptions may offer different advice.
This is a concern because, despite Brennan’s insistence that political-literacy tests are inherently fair, exponents of wealth and privilege (including pre-existing) would be overrepresented in an epistocracy. The systemic bias may not be partisan, but it would be socioeconomic, which Peter Turchin’s theories on “elite overproduction” suggest would amount to roughly the same thing. In other words, the political left and right may lose just as many votes, but these would come from low income segments of the majority population and from underachieving minority groups. The required credentials are not equally available to all demographics; is it fair to omit views and values on these grounds? The defence that turnout in modern democracies amongst these groups is already low brazenly ignores the problem. Whether incidental or intentional, such exclusion is socially dangerous and ethically unacceptable, clashing with ubiquitous modern ideas of autonomy and self-governance. In addition to restrictions to suffrage based on the wealth and income dating back to the beginnings of the US, ballot restrictions were used in several states after the Civil War settled the question of slavery to circumvent the Fifteenth Amendment of 1870 which enfranchised African Americans, thereby preventing them from voting. After decades of universal suffrage, any limitation of the electorate would rightly be seen as regressive, potentially leading to uproar or civil unrest.
As popular and often easy as it is to deride politicians, the judgement, clout and personal stature required by the role should not be underestimated. Balancing lobbies and loyalties, electoral pressures and ethical concerns, party lines and personal values is not easy. Economic models usually ignore or assume away such practicalities of policy implementation.
To Brennan, the right to vote has as little to do with justice as a driving license, but this is easy to say when so confident in being granted this metaphorical license. In reality, political participation is beneficial and meaningful even without the practical impact of tipping an election outcome. Contribution to the group decision is constitutive to membership in that group, and universal suffrage implies equal membership in society. Few anthropological innovations have done more for economic development and living standards than the organisation of individuals under a state. At the logical extreme, the incentive for such organisation only lasts as long as individuals believe that the state adequately protects against the domination that might occur without it. In reality, anarchy would not ensue, but social cohesion would certainly take further damage as existing divides widen. Defence of epistocracy based on the anti-authority tenet (it is not that informed voters deserve power over others, it is that uninformed voters do not) is insufficient to reconcile its injustice.
Brennan argues that the improvement in outcomes resulting from epistocracy is worth more than the “hurt feelings” (a reference to a blog post by Brennan entitled “Hurting Low-Information Voters’ Wittle Feelings”) resulting from changes to the political process. Most other appraisals of epistocracy conclude that the latter is too great a cost for the former. I argue that the improvement in outcomes is at best not guaranteed and at worst non-existent, while the damage to social cohesion is morally unacceptable.
Arguments against technocracy
Let us now consider, for the sake of argument, full-blown ends-based technocracy, as in Lee Kuan Yew’s Singapore (which nevertheless went through the motions of multiparty elections). We are faced once again with the question of who decides the criteria against which the enlightened subset is selected. When choosing a technocratic panel to rule a state, this question becomes even more important. An epistocratic exam might rule out the 40% of the population who fail it, whereas selecting a cabinet of technocrats needs to rule out all but twenty of the population’s most enlightened experts. The same problems of infinite regress and inability to legitimately change selection criteria arise, amongst others. To maintain the momentum of discussion, however, let us assume that a valid, objective and universally-accepted means of selection were found, and move on to exploring the numerous problems that remain.
Coupling high-calibre analysis with raw political methods, Greenspan grasped the importance of cultivating allies and building political capital. Doing so, and dealing with the press, empowered the Fed with an understanding of society that economic modelling alone could never provide.
An often-cited benefit of technocracy is that it would allow society’s problems to be approached apolitically, focused on solutions rather than ideology or electoral gains. In Democratic Legitimacy (2011), the “legitimacy of impartiality” is at the centre of French historian Pierre Rosanvallon’s endorsement of technocracy as “a system of government in which experts organize and control the nation’s resources for the good of all”. Philosopher Slavoj Zizek has stated in interviews that he would prefer the appearance of a free decision, discretely guided by a discerning elite, to a genuinely democratic referendum.
It is of course wholly naive to believe that anyone, even our most exalted experts, could be completely apolitical. Casual references to “most experts” ignore the significant disagreement that exists between expert social scientists on positive issues, let alone normative ones. These disagreements are often themselves fundamentally political. In their recent paper “Economics vs. Politics: Pitfalls of Policy Advice”, well-known development economists Acemoglu and Robinson argue that there is no such thing as “pure policy”, since policy cannot exist outside politics and power relations. Humans introduce often unpredictable complexities into a policy’s intended course of action, and policies which are eminently sensible in theory can fail in practice because of unintended consequences. As the divide between elite experts and the general public widens, the former seem increasingly underqualified to understand and pre-empt this.
If technocratic assertions of “what works” are not followed by questions of “for whom?”, policies can have perhaps the most dangerous unintended consequences of all: reinforcement of dominant groups and/or the weakening of frail ones. US financial deregulation and post-Soviet privatisation, conceived by well-intentioned technocrats seeking to improve economic efficiency for the common good, had a profound impact on the influence of already-powerful elites. If winners are concentrated among a dominant minority, it is important for democracy to empower the dispersed interests/stakes of the losers. Even in failure, technocrats often claim to be best-placed to understand what went wrong, though this often consists of shifting blame to governments or the uneducated masses. Refusal to acknowledge failure to pre-empt unintended consequences can create counterproductive echo chambers. The best barometer of whether public behaviour will align with a policy may well be public consultation through democratic channels.
Frank Laird notes the technocratisation of public discourse and the growing importance of knowledge in society which has since accelerated. Political language, communication and policy formation have become increasingly technical.
Further, it is wholly false to believe that the empowerment of technocrats would mean questions of value judgement would simply no longer need answers. Values are always involved, and technocratic expertise often does not grant legitimate power to make these value judgements. Knowledge of the “machine” is insufficient for setting policy direction. As essayist Caleb Crain writes in The New Yorker, the notion of an objective truth is not always suitable. “In debates over contentious issues such as abortion rights or religious freedoms, appeals to the truth are incendiary. Truth precludes debate by peremptorily claiming to be acknowledged”. Through party alignment, politicians of all stripes are open about their ideological stance, acknowledging that their positions are one of multiple options. In contrast, by priding itself on having no ideology at all, technocracy often presents itself as the only option that works.
Such framing is dangerous because it precludes the possibility that politically-empowered expertise could ever give partial advice. I am far less cynical than Tim Worstall of the Adam Smith Institute, who argues that technocrats are single-issue-fanatics with a vested interest in steering society in a particular direction. Not for nothing, the initial modern usage of the word “meritocracy” was in the form of satire, in Michael Young’s dystopian novel The Rise of the Meritocracy (1958). Nevertheless, it is crucial to consider the values and assumptions underpinning technocratic policy, which are shaped by individual views of what society should be. Experts with other values and assumptions may offer different advice. We return to the conclusion that hearing out as many viewpoints as possible will usually lead to the best possible policy.
The IMF, which helped with Greece’s bailout loans, has since admitted underestimating the side effects of austerity and the scale of the recession that would ensue. Most damning, actually, is the recent report by the IMF’s Internal Evaluation Office, which describes a “culture of complacency” with a significant bias in favor of the interests of its Western European members in whose favor unaccountable decisions on long-standing policy were taken regarding the ultimately harmful treatment meted out to Greece to shield the former from harm. The report describes “groupthink” which discounted the likelihood of a Eurozone crisis and was therefore unprepared for systemic threats, while also discounting the political aspects of the currency union. Some economists, such as CEPR’s Charles Wyplosz, argue that quantitative easing could have significantly reduced the extent of required cuts by providing liquidity, as occurred in Ireland and Portugal. Despite Greece’s obvious need for extra liquidity, it was the only Eurozone country excluded from the ECB’s 2015-2018 quantitative easing program. Perhaps without insulation from political pressure, different outcomes may have prevailed. This just emphasises the rarity of expert consensus on a unique truth. Particularly in the eyes of the public, many experts’ singular belief that theirs is the aforementioned truth exacerbates the growing disillusionment with “expertise”. The management of the Euro crisis by the Union’s institutions weakened public confidence in apolitical, technocratic decision making. Citing the uneven distribution of weak economic growth since the financial crisis, Sebastian Mallaby argues in The Guardian that “if the experts’ legitimacy depends on delivering results, it is hardly surprising that they are on the defensive”.
We refer to the apparent success of Singapore and independent central banking as technocracy, but to the failed USSR as administration by unqualified ideologues. Such ex-post categorisation risks mispresenting rule by economists and engineers as only having ever been successful.
An intervention’s expected impact might, all things being the same, suffice in an introductory textbook, but it is inadequate when making real choices that affect real people. Experts cannot exist outside values and power relations, and they must acknowledge these key societal forces. As popular and often easy as it is to deride politicians, the judgement, clout and personal stature required by the role should not be underestimated. Balancing lobbies and loyalties, electoral pressures and ethical concerns, party lines and personal values is not easy. Economic models usually ignore or assume away such practicalities of policy implementation. The guidance they provide, indispensable though it is, is usually constrained to existing and unchanging power relations. Only when coupled with representative politics and critical assessment of society can these models provide the best advice.
The tyranny of experts
Central banks are often touted as the high watermark of successful technocracy, and it is true that decoupling monetary policy from electoral cycles or the whims of sovereigns has yielded unquestionable benefits. That said, successful central banking cannot confine politics to a box, as the celebrated Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan knew all too well. Despite de jure independence, Greenspan’s predecessors were still harassed by presidents and politicians. It was only with his unique approach, combining an understanding of power with a willingness to wield it, that the Fed truly prospered. Coupling high-calibre analysis with raw political methods, Greenspan grasped the importance of cultivating allies and building political capital. Doing so, and dealing with the press, empowered the Fed with an understanding of society that economic modelling alone could never provide. Expertise is most effective when aware of its place in the bigger, constantly-shifting picture.
William Easterly, another titan of modern economics, is a strong advocate of this view. Writing in Foreign Policy, he argues that a singular concern with inputs to produce measurable outputs has left experts incapable of self-defence when their values are challenged. The problem, once more, is a failure – or worse, an unwillingness – to tackle value judgements. Easterly recalls feeling the need to apologise when mentioning values to an audience of economists, a sign of just how technical the discipline can be or tries to be. As he puts it, this technicality “has deprived us of the moral weapons we need to defend the core values of democratic society”.
This persistent alienation often leads people to identify with leaders who claim to represent the silent majority. To combat populism, politics must listen, answer questions and reconnect. Framing discussions in the same technical language that created the divide will be ineffective, and it is in the common interest that experts place greater importance on the role of values in society.
As experts move ever-closer to technicality and further from values, the general public is pushed further from meaningful political debate. Writing in Industrial Crisis Quarterly in 1990, Frank Laird notes the technocratisation of public discourse and the growing importance of knowledge in society which has since accelerated. Political language, communication and policy formation have become increasingly technical. As Frank Fischer wrote in Citizens, Experts and The Environment (2000), this new mode of inquiry has shaped our thinking about public problems and become implicitly embedded in our institutional practices. Crucially, policy issues framed in this way are likely to disempower those lacking in the information and expertise to participate in discourse on these terms. These trends and their political consequences of alienating the general public from the specialised decision makers that must manage this society were described by Kenneth Galbraith as the “technostructure” and by James Burnham as the “managerial revolution”.
Ends-based technocracy cannot be the antidote to populism. Whether or not the financial crisis was a technocratic failure, it is certainly perceived as one, leading to criticisms that rule by experts is at odds with the principle of self-determination. Technocracy’s claim to authority is expertise, and proof of expertise is success. We refer to the apparent success of Singapore and independent central banking as technocracy, but to the failed USSR as administration by unqualified ideologues. Such ex-post categorisation risks mispresenting rule by economists and engineers as only having ever been successful. The moral connotations now attached to “politician” and “technocrat” are problematic. Ardent proponents of technocracy view the former as definitionally self-serving while the latter is definitionally virtuous. Both should be viewed as definitionally neutral, with the potential for both righteous and dishonourable individuals to occupy either station.
In his history of Technocracy Inc., an early-1930s movement which sought to replace politicians with engineers in the wake of the Wall Street Crash, W.E. Akin concludes that “the asking price was too high”. The potential benefits of pure technocracy “could not be achieved without the sacrifice of existing institutions and values”. Almost a century later, I reach a similar conclusion. Indeed, the many technocratic experiments which have since been attempted also show that the purported benefits were rarely as great as expected. For socially optimal policy, politics, expertise and popular sentiment must coexist.
Neither epistocracy or ends-based technocracy guarantee improved outcomes, nor would these come at an acceptable cost. Both fail because they are approaching the wrong problem. Contemporary socio-political issues are not flaws of democracy, far less an “excess” of democracy, rather flaws of the way in which democracy has come to be practiced. It is these problems, and their solutions, which will abate growing concerns. These concerns result from large and growing subsets of citizens feeling disillusioned with and disconnected from the political system. “Remedies” which exclude them further wholly ignore, and therefore exacerbate, the problem. Further insulating policymaking from the general public will increase support for populism, not diminish it, argues Professor Berman. Patronising statements that “it is unfair to thrust onto unqualified simpletons the responsibility to take historic decisions of great complexity” (Richard Dawkins, writing in 2016) only widen existing divides. As I have alluded to throughout, the solution is not pitting the self-styled righteous against the “deplorables” who do not share their views, it is inclusive politics.
The aim of representative democracy is for representatives to act in the interests of the demos, Greek for the populace. The distance between the former and the latter is growing at an alarming rate, and it is this lack (not excess) of democracy which must be resolved. Policymakers, educators, the media and the public, all share the blame. It certainly feels like political self-interest (electoral, personal or otherwise) has dominated the recent past. The teaching of civics is profoundly lacking. The media often does more to hinder than facilitate informed, impartial decision-making (recall the Fox coverage of the Trump campaign, Clinton’s much-publicized 99% victory chance as predicted by the Princeton Election Consortium or Vote Leave’s £350m-per-week NHS campaign bus). Many voters are therefore ill-equipped to make the most of the empowerment which democracy supposedly offers them. Moral outrage at populism does not promote or expedite a better understanding of what is happening in society, and the advocates of epistocracy and technocracy would do well to acknowledge this. Individuals in the thrall of populism are not morally corrupt but concerned about their place in the world, and a growing feeling of helplessness to influence it.
Social unrest is often a last-ditch attempt to intervene in processes in which citizens may otherwise have little input. Greek riots over austerity are one example of this. Similarly, LSE sociologist Dr Lisa McKenzie finds that rather than adopting extreme views, many working-class citizens feel pushed out of the political process entirely. Turnout for the 2017 by-election in Stoke-on-Trent (dubbed “Brexit Central” for its overwhelming Leave vote) was just 38%. This persistent alienation often leads people to identify with leaders who claim to represent the silent majority. To combat populism, politics must listen, answer questions and reconnect. Framing discussions in the same technical language that created the divide will be ineffective, and it is in the common interest that experts place greater importance on the role of values in society.
The citizenist approach
Democratic institutions must become more responsive and representative in order to encourage greater participation. Crucially, it is also on individuals to participate more frequently. Widespread and meaningful election-time engagement would itself represent huge progress, but true accountability of representatives can only be maintained by constant acts of informed citizenship. Powerful lobbies and economic interests engage with politics throughout the electoral cycle; citizens should too.
This is best achieved through refocusing efforts on education, the driver of public ability (and, often, desire) to make informed political decisions. Brennan suggests some kind of algorithm to simulate what individuals would have chosen if they possessed knowledge required to make an informed choice. It goes without saying that this would be a dangerous stopgap, and its assumption-laden design could not possibly be free of substantial bias. The only remedy is genuine education. As Citizen University founder Eric Liu emphasises in an astute TED lecture, too many citizens are profoundly illiterate in power. Successful democracy requires widespread understanding of what power is, who has it and how it operates. Without this, the motivation to engage is often eroded into civic fatalism and disillusionment.
Liu’s Citizen University aims to improve the teaching of civics in America and equip citizens to seize the power which their political rights grant them. Vitally, its focus is at the local level, encouraging individuals to research, negotiate and conceptualise, practicing citizenship year-round in fora focused on local issues that directly impact their lives. Characterising the public as too ignorant or apathetic to participate in political affairs ignores the success of these civic functions. Nicholas Tampio, Professor of Political Science at Fordham University, agrees that smaller structures like these can re-incentivise participation and encourage similarly dedicated engagement with national politics. Making one’s case for extending the public transport schedule on week nights, for example, will combat growing sentiments of apathy. Exposure to the views of others will break down the viscerally partisan echo chambers observed by Lilliana Mason in Uncivil Agreement. Boarding a midnight bus that one helped push through the local council will tackle disillusionment and powerlessness. The fight for universal suffrage concluded decades ago, but the battle for universal participation wages on.
Examples of localised direct democracy at the local level, many of which harness mobile technology, provide a useful blueprint. The CitySwipe app in Santa Monica, California, asks voters simple binary questions about urban plans. Maptionnaire empowers Helsinki residents to express views on the directions in which their city should grow. Swiss cantons gather to deliberate as often as twice a month. More widespread implementation of such mechanisms at local level would bring disconnected citizens back into the fold, encouraging more informed and engaged interactions with democracy at every level.
In his seminal Democracy in America (1835), Alexis de Tocqueville wrote that the brilliance of US democracy is that it resides in civil society as well as formal government structures. A return to a system about which this observation could be made is long overdue. Another of de Tocqueville’s observations is highly relevant: more fires get started in a democracy, he argues, but more get put out too. In the nineteenth century, democracy’s ability to peacefully self-correct could not be overstated; two hundred years of historical amnesia later, it is profoundly undervalued.
By assuming no settled answer to any question and drawing on the input of all, whether through formally accredited expertise or practical experience, democracy has the potential to produce socially optimal outcomes. When one believes that it has failed to do so, it is important to commence a genuine investigation of why, rather than retreating to arguments of “excess” democracy and the deplorable masses. At this particular point in time, the “why” owes to public disillusionment with an increasingly distant political system in a rapidly changing world. The advent of this interconnected, information-driven world has coincided with (or perhaps caused) increasing public disdain for intellectualism. The solution is civic education and localised fora for civic engagement, not further exclusion.