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Technocracy and Millenarism: (Bad) Ideas Never Die

Technocracy and Millenarism: (Bad) Ideas Never Die

No. 2, Nov.-Dec. 2016 » Bridging News

Any resemblance to administrations past and present is purely coincidental. This is a work of academic fiction.

  • An analysis of the consistency of the perspective of the possible existence of apolitical governance;
  • Such a perspective, which is criticized herein, has been advanced by numerous political scientists, sociologists and economists who advance the belief that public administration can operate without making value judgments;
  • That means, without engaging in ideological debates;
  • The core philosophy of the present-day government in the Western World starts from such a belief; The image promoted is of a public servant and of an entire professional administration with no political bias;
  • The modern state is a “problem-solver” institution, a bureaucratic organism that “manages things” but does not “govern people”;
  • This is a utopian position. Political governance is fundamentally a political act that engages ideological options and which cannot be amoral.
  • The myth of apolitic technocratism, usually associated in the public discourse with extraordinary public choices, has the semblance of a milenarist faith;
  • Reviewing the international experience leads to the conclusion that the promotion of an independent technocracy is nothing but a step towards state aggrandizement and moral exoneration of public interventionism.

As the U. S. President John F. Kennedy once stated, “A man may die, nations may rise and fall, but an idea lives on. Ideas have endurance without death.” Maybe paradoxically, this is especially the case of bad ideas. The fact that some honest social scientists live with the impression that they succeed in evaporating a bad idea or argument usually ends with the condensation of such an idea into another form or recipe. Such is the circulation of bad ideas in society, like water into nature. That is also, according to my understanding, the particular case of the concept of technocracy. An idea as old as the state devised by Plato and run by philosophers-kings. And as new as the last Romanian government of 2015-2016 that just left the Victoriei Palace. Hopefuly, just to see the world in true colors again, the (un)philosopher kings are back. Let's welcome them and discuss politics again.

Technocracy – the civilized myth

The long-running 2008 financial and economic crisis, which some would argue has never ended, brought back into the gaze of the public the role played by a special type of policymakers involved in economic governance – the technocrats. In the two countries with the worst economic situation in the European Union– Greece and Italy – explicitly technocratic governements, run by “apolitical” persons, were called in to manage the national economies and the whole state apparatus during the crises. For the Troika, in its distance from both popular misery and explosive discontent, the difficulties stemming from over-indebtness and the state budget deficits called for a dramatic reduction in expenses and / or an increase in revenue. Politicians seemed unwilling to assume the responsibility of such decisions, whose deep unpopularity would spell political disaster. In more settled times, they had found cause to evade responsibility by blaming Brussels for some unpopular moves, but the anger they were faced with was far too serious. Consequently, Prime Ministers like Lucas Papademos in Greece and Mario Monti in Italy embodied, by definition, the quality of a technocrat. That they would play well with the perennially technocratic European institutions, especially the Commission and the ECB, was considered only natural and desirable.

In consequence, what could be called the “technocratic myth” spectacularly reentered the National scene of public policies in the Europe. Until now, the concept of technocrat was used on a wide scale to distinguish decision makers of a decidedly administrative bent in the periods of rapid economic development in some Third World countries or of transition from socialism to capitalism in Eastern Europe. Technocracy is, today, more of a creature of the developed West. This fact could be qualified as paradoxical as the academic world in the Western countries seemed to agree on the inconsistency of this qualification. But the apparent paradox still stands.

The maximum claim of those who support a technocractic government is that a technocrat is a specialist or a scientist chosen to make objectively correct decisions in public policy. But science itself is grounded in morality, while the act of political governance always implies moral choices. From this perspective, the moral dimension of government is preserved, even with the scientists in charge.

The neutrality of the state

The possibility of the existence of “neutral” public policies, with a “scientific” flavor, has a long and reputable history in social sciences. In the modern period, it coincides with the emergence of the political economy as a science, and its fundamental philosophy, utilitarianism, had such a claim. The idea of the welfare of the majority is implicitly – if not explicitly – based on the attempt to impose the subjective values of individuals who are members of the “majority” on those who are members of the “minority”. Even this attempt to ignore the subjective value of individuals which are negatively impacted by a particular public policy seems to render “objective” the process of decision-making in public policy. The classical utilitarianism did not have the claim of total neutrality as long as, for these philosophers, the welfare of the majority may be reached even by a sacrifice of the minority.

The maximal claim of the “neutrality” of the state which is advanced by utilitarianism is that public intervention does not have any impact on the welfare redistribution on the population. In consequence, the Pareto criterion which is advanced in the discipline of economics highlight the idea that the policy measures could be “optimal” if the public intervention does not negatively affect the welfare of anybody but there is somebody whose welfare is increased (Rothbard, [1956, page 23]).

Such a Paretian perspective on public policy ignores the fundamental fact that there is no amoral public policy. Any policy measure always implies the final use of coercion throught the legal system of the state. The state has been defined by the German sociologue Max Weber as the “territorial monopoly of violence. Even if we could imagine situations where public authorities formulate “recommendations” and trace policy objectives to be followed voluntarily by the population – such as the recommendation that during high temperatures one should avoid exposure to unlight – what defines the quasi-totality of public interventions is their “legal” form, which implies the potential use of violence in case of non-compliance. Or, the simple existence of the threat of using violence could imply for some individuals – those who alter their behavior specifically because of the existence of the law – certain psychic costs, impossible to value in an objective, scientific, way.

Moreover, beyond the moral dimension of the legal instrument of the state, the impact of public regulations is powerful with regards to the general and individual welfare in that society. The existence of certain social groups which are positively impacted – their welfare increases – but also of other groups whose welfare is negatively impacted – their welfare decreases – means that any policy measure implies a trade-off of welfare among groups or, in others word, a redistribution of prosperity in that particular society. The choice regarding the welfare of others implies a fundamentally moral and ethical decision as it is based on a vision regarding what is good and what is right in that society.

Scientists and the value-free state

In this context, the involvement of some scientists in the public policy formulation implies the assumption of a particular set of ethical norms. A large number of analysts in social sciences have apparently agreed that the claim of moral neutrality in policy formulation is erroneous. Haller and Gerrie [2007, page 142] state that:

The technocratic view is conceptually flawed. Although science can inform policy-makers, it cannot make the decisions, because the decisions are essentially ethical and political, not factual”.

The conclusions of Rothbard [1997, page 98] regarding the recommendations on public policy made by economists are, also, without compromise:

While praxeological economic theory is extremely useful for providing data and knowledge for framing economic policy, it cannot be sufficient by itself to enable the economist to make any value pronouncements or to advocate any public policy whatsoever”.

From this perspective, even if a scientist is 100% focused on the objective of knowledge, at the moment when he is placed in a decision-making role, he would not be able to implement a public policy that could be qualified 100% scientifically, in the sense of amoral and apolitical. Even in the narrow field of “politics of science”, that is, the prioritization of the themes or fields of research, there is a redistributive effect and a favorization of certain groups of researchers at the expense of others.

The definition of technocracy

First of all, the concept of technocracy designates “a scientifically planned and administered society”.
Second of all, starting from the technocracy as a political-economic societal system, the term has later been used to designate the elite – or the individuals – called to implement such a social project.

The concept of technocracy has many understandings in social sciences and has registered a dynamic metamorphosis in time. Interestingly, the concept of a “technocrat” has also been used in the case of the Soviet Union and other communist states to include those leaders who reached the top decision posts not as a result of the political career – as political activists – but as a result of their technical education. Some authors such as Wormack [1990, page 5], argue that this is, in fact, the first systematic use of the term.

First of all, the concept of technocracy designates “a scientifically planned and administered society” (Beauchamp, [2009, page 25]). Obviously, for those who imagined such a societal project, the core issue remains the objective around which the society’s energies are marshalled. Science could offer the optimal and most efficient means but cannot supply the goal that a society should follow. Russell noticed such a fact when he stated that “no society can be regarded as fully scientific unless it has been created deliberately with a certain structure in order to fulfill certain purposes (Russell, [1931]).

Maybe the most important discussion regarding a technocratic project is the relation between “the social machinery” and the free will of the individual members of the society. The technocratic project sees the society as functional mechanism, which fulfills the functions for which it has been created, and not as a sum of individuals who interact in an ethical way.

Second of all, starting from the technocracy as a political-economic societal system, the term has later been used to designate the elite – or the individuals – called to implement such a social project.

One of the big dilemmas regarding technocracy is its compatibility with democracy. If we approach the logic of ends – means, democracy could allow that the ends should be chosen by the majority through an electoral process and the organization of means should be reserved for the technocracy. We should also mention that, in certain cases, the supporters of “technocracy” also take into consideration the possibility that the ends should be chosen by the technocrats. In this scenario, it is obvious that technocracy becomes an anti-democratic system as any scientist – and especially the public decision maker – cannot, through science, choose the goals of society. He cannot choose in a democratic way those ends and means only on the argument of strict science. As Russell affirmed, “if there would be any scientific experimentation with the construction of new types of societies, the rule of oligarchy … is essential”. In other words, technocracy becomes synonymous with oligarchy, a minority obtaining the political power through their access to knowledge.

Bureaucracy versus technocracy

These two categories of specialists which are commonly associated with the act of governance have numerous common traits but are also differentiated through several aspects. Even if, from time to time, they are used interchangeably – and there could also exist technocrats from the bureaucracy as there may be technocrats who become bureaucrats – the two categories remain autonomuous.

We could point to several characteristics that unite the two qualities of “bureaucrat” and the “technocrat”:

● they both possess an apolitical flavor;
● they are both considered “experts”.

The core differences between the two qualities are:

● the subordination of bureaucracy to the political governance. Bureaucracy implies an exoneration of the means: the bureaucrat just executes orders, he/she obeys the orders. Bureaucracy accepts the ends of the government while remaining political;
● technocracy has more claims than bureaucracy. Even if it seems to remain in the field of apolitical means, it sometimes gets a higher claim, trying to be a substitute to political government. From time to time, technocracy has the pretention of the moral exoneration of the ends, at least those which are intermediary;
● bureaucracy is usually associated with the pure act of administration, that is, the conformity with the rules. It has, fundamentally, an a-theoretic claim. It does not have the pretention of “scientific truth” of what is good for society (maybe only in the “science” of administration) but only of the knowledge of how to execute the orders of political deciders;
● technocracy implies administration but also the attempt to implement a scientific perspective, at least in what regards the means. It is theoretical in the sense that it masters the science of the means.

Technocracy during a crisis

It is now an interesting intellectual challenge to explore the frequent decisions made in contemporary political life for choosing allegedly technocractic personalities for positions in government, especially in the context of the political and economic crisis.

This phenomenon could be explained by two reasons:

● an intellectual error: the political establishment is not aware of the problem of value judgements in public deicions and truly believes that certain policies are purely and simply “neutral” from an ideological point of view;
● the use of the technocracts in a deliberate way in order to exonerate the political responsibility for the negative effects of different decisions of public policy.

In the first case, the intelectual challenge to the consistency of such positions comes exactly from the choice in the crisis period. If the political establishment does truly consider that technocracy is the best way to navigate through the crisis, why is such a choice not a permanent option? That is, to delegate the executive arm of the government to a technocratic elite even in “normal” periods, without a crisis. In such a political arrangement, the executive branch of the government would implement as “efficiently” as possible the measures needed in order to reach the objectives of the legislative branch of the state, the parliament. While in the logic of democracy, the two branches are independent, the ideological overlap is obvious during history.

From this perspective, it is relatively manifest that the population ascribed the overall performance of the society – and, in particular, the economic one – to the entire political governance. In this sense, the independence of the legislative branch from the executive is utopian as, for example, the poor performance of the executive has major costs for the members of the legislative. In a democracy, a government with abysmal performance in economic matters will count on a shared responsibility with the parliament. It is rational for the members of the legislative branch taken as individuals, but also as a collective, to attempt to disassociate themselves from the executive branch.

In the second case, the option of choosing the technocrats is understandable as a political calculus and not as an intellectual error. Taking into consideration that the crisis periods imply decisions of public policy with significant social costs, the choice for the delegation of the executive decisions to independent “technocrats” can be perceived as an attempt to “insulate” from the responsibility during such times. As Eggertson and Le Borgne [2006, page 2] notice, the difference between a politician and a technocrat is that the politician is subject to elections while the technocrat is not”.

Any political decisions, especially during crisis, have major political costs:

● the decision to reduce the public expenses: layoffs in the public sector, moratoria on public hiring, reductions in wages and other benefits, reductions in subsidies and other facilities offered both to the population and to the business environment;
● the decision to increase the public revenue: increases in the level of taxation, introduction of new taxes, inflation and so on.

The lack of popularity of such measures leads to the rational choice on the part of the political elite to nominate so called “technocrats” as policy makers. Further considerations could be discussed in this context.

First of all, the decision to reform the government activities means a loss of political popularity. In this case, the technocrats are a substitute for political personalities as they are ready, in order to ascend to political office on short term, to assume the loss of their political image. Such a readiness could be explained by:

● the high time preference of the technocrats as opposed to the political men: while the technocrats have sometimes an aura of “sacrifice” as they are called to office to save their nation in times of distress, we should point out that they could always refuse the office. The fact that they accept the public tenure means that they prefer holding the office so they manifest a high time preference for these jobs;
● the lack of income dependence. As opposed to the political men whose main legitimate income derives (or should) from their public office, the technocrats are usually specialists who come from specialized agencies of the state or even independent entities outside the public sector, such as the academic environment. If they fail in their reform, they will retire to the same institutions they came from, with the added benefit of having occupied a lofty position;
● the attempt of the technocrats to acquire political fame, in case their public office is succesful. In this case, the technocratic period is just a preparation for political life.

Second of all, it is the case of appeals to mysticism that can be found in the rethoric about technocracy. The inability of the political men to solve the crisis (or assume the political costs associated with the reforms) determines either a reform of the system (which means further political costs for the political elite and the possibility of disappearance) or a call for individuals “outside the system” to solve the crisis. Or, in this case, the technocrat acquires a mystical allure.

The new technocratic millenarism

The idea of millenarism is associated with the Christian belief in the return of Jesus Christ. Pre-millenarists await the second descent of Jesus for Judgment Day and the establishment of eternal life. Post-millenarists attempt to establish the Heaven on Earth in anticipation of this event. They hope to establish a human society that would function perfectly. Murray Rothbard [2006, page 299] is the social scientist who associated different socio-political experiments (such as communism and socialism) to different visions crossing over from the religious field. He argued that the egalitarian ideologies are sometimes a form of secular faith (anti-Christian) exactly because of the lack of a rational consistency behind the theories that explain the operation of such societies. In the face of rational arguments which are impossible to block, socialism (and communism) survives only as a form of mysticism, as a secular faith that the system could eventually work.

The perspective that despite the logical counterarguments, individuals or even the majority continue to believe that a certain form of organization of human society could operate and maximize welfare (both psychological and material) could be applied also to the role of technocrats during crisis. The mystical image of the technocrat is enhanced by:

● the image of “descent from heaven”: in his case, these “heavens” are the academic environment or the legitimizing institution, “specialized”, “initiated”, standing apart from mundane politics as well as from the population in the street;
● the aura of “initiatic knowledge” as an individual who possess a knowledge inaccessible to common people;
● the implicit promise of establishment of the “heaven on earth”. In the case of the technocrat, it is at least the case of exiting the crisis, if not universal and permanent prosperity;
● the quality of “sacrifice” and lack of “self-interest” usually manifested by the technocrat who is almost always a “monk of economics / science”.

Such a mystical or even messianic image of technocrats confers on them an aura that political men can only hope to emulate. From this association, at least in the crisis periods, the political elite attempts to discharge the responsibility of the programs for reform of the state towards the technocratic elite. The latter is willing, by its definition and condition, to assume such costs.

The delegation of executive power from political men towards technocrats is, in consequence, a rational choice of the former. Eggertson and Le Borgne [2006, page 4] advance the term of “constitutionalism” through which they show that “issues are taken off-the-table in everyday policymaking in order to insulate policymakers from short term pressure of public opinion”.


The reemergence of the technocratic decision-makers in public policy formulation in the economic governance of the countries experiencing the contemporary financial crisis or any other structural crisis is a rational choice on the part of the political elite. It is an attempt to discharge the responsibility associated with the necessary reform programs of the state that sometimes imply massive social costs that translate into political and electoral costs. Such a rational choice is even more encouraged by the favourable but irrational perception of the population towards such types of “specialist” in society. Their image acquires a millenarist aura as the hope of the majority is that this type of policymaker will bring “welfare” to society due to his initatic knowledge.

Note: Article derived from paper presented at ACUM 2011, a conference organized by the Faculty of Sociology and Communication of the Transylvania University in Brașov, Romania.


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OEconomica No. 1, 2016