Welcome our expert overlords…?

magic beans? popular economic booksWith the various Eurozone happenings, there’s been a lot chatter around the word “technocracy” over the last week or so. I’m used to feeling a bit marginal in my obsession with the role, status and accountability of expertise in society, so I find this interesting. I do worry, however, if too much of this debate has placed an idea of experts against one of democracy.

A technocracy, if you’ve been puzzled by this term, is probably best understood as a society run by experts. It’s not a democracy, supposedly by the people, or a monarchy, by people who inherited or battled their way to a crown. It is, in a way, governance by people who know best, which may seem attractive. Or rather, it is governance by people who are thought to know best (or say they know best…) which is where it starts to get unstuck.

The FT’s Gillian Tett, in an interview with the Guardian last weekend, says we need technocrats right now, that “a rowdy democratic political system” isn’t really possible. Maybe she’s right, but it’s not a view that goes down well with everyone. Paul Mason (Newsnight), offers a very different response to the same question: “Don’t kid yourself these are technocrats”. I think he has a point here, this word technocracy could all be a bit of a red herring, a bit of a rhetorical appeal to a sense of knowledge, a neat way to obscure the usual business where various forms of politicians aren’t nearly as efficient or democratically accountable as they pretend to be. Still, I’m also inclined to say such politics is always there, “Don’t kid yourself about technocracy.” is maybe all we need to say.

Experts aren’t appointed or defined by God, as some might imagine a King or Queen. Or, more simply, experts aren’t born: they are made. People in power get to decide what counts as experts and there are various forms of political play that put one expert or another in a position of power. If someone appoints an expert to a position of power, you should always ask whose definition of expertise are they applying. This isn’t to suggest experts aren’t worth listening to – just because something is socially constructed with political connections and bias doesn’t mean it’s not real, useful and meaningful – but it doesn’t make them obviously or straightforwardly our leaders either.

Working out if we have the right or wrong experts is hard. Very, very hard. Even putting aside philosophical questions of “unknown unknowns”, the nature of the specialised expertise we all rely upon means a lot of us have to spend a lot of our time in ignorance of what other people know and do. A brain surgeon’s ignorance of quantum mechanics frees them up to be terribly clever about brain surgery (and vice versa), but such specialisation is also limiting. It creates some intellectual distance between us, making it hard to comprehend each other, which can be problematic when it comes to forming the group decisions of policy-making. That’s why I headed this post with a picture of some popular economics books. Much as I’m all for openness and sharing of specialist knowledge and like the idea that we could all be brought up to speed with things quickly, I don’t think a promise to learn economics in 30 second bites is going to do it. The world we’ve made for ourselves is simply too complex. Perhaps we have to sacrifice the benefits of specialisation for a more readily comprehensible society, that we simply shouldn’t do things if it can be understood by enough people to be democratically accountable. Or maybe we need this specialisation to get us out of the various messes we’ve made for ourselves (yes, I have read Ulrich Beck…). I don’t know.

To leave Eurozone aside for a moment, there’s an interesting related issue brewing in terms of House of Lords reform. The Lords has traditionally be a repository for a lot of research expertise. Make our second chamber more democratic and we might lose that. Or we might find a way to have democratically accountable experts. Again, I don’t know. I look forward to watching the huge bunfight it’ll inspire terribly clever ideas people come up with to deal with it.

6 thoughts on “Welcome our expert overlords…?

  1. Steven Hill

    Nice post, Alice. I agree with your point that the key is ‘who decides’ what expertise is valued and valid, and that is very much a political question.

    I have also been struck by the parallels with the Lords reform debate. I am very nervous of an argument that says we have to preserve an unelected body in order to bring appropriate expertise to bear. Surely we can get these expert views into policy-making without resorting to a system of patronage and privilege? And we also need to avoid the notion that expertise in one domain gives any special insight into other domains.

    1. alice Post author

      good point about over-extention of expertise – suspect that’ll be key in the Lords debate (as long as we have this debate, could easily flow through without much thought).

  2. Jack Stilgoe

    Nice post Alice. I attempted a similar critique of the New Labour trend rhetoric of ‘what’s right is what works’ in this thing http://www.demos.co.uk/publications/receivedwisdom (with Alan Irwin and Kevin Jones). In it, we made the point (contra Stephen’s comment above) that experts are hugely valuable, but not as technocrats. Their role, and the reason why occasionally they are a useful part of the Lords, is to challenge, to help us navigate our uncertainties. But this means putting the politics back into expertise, not using expertise to take the politics out of politics.

    In terms of the Euro debate, it seems to fly against everything we know about governance, as described beautifully by Maarten Hajer in this http://books.google.co.uk/books/about/Authoritative_governance.html?id=kL5lEL6wRAcC

    We can also look to literature about technofixes. (pdf here http://thebreakthrough.org/blog/Sarewitz-Nature%20tech%20fix.pdf) What is being suggested is a technical solution to a political problem. Massive mistake. Technocracy is like squashing a ballon. The attempt to suppress politics it in certain places will make it spring up in others.

  3. Oli

    I wonder if the appointments of ‘technocrats’ to head governments in Greece and Italy is more about finding non-party-political figures who are respected and supported across the spectrum, and who can therefore command support for difficult political decisions, than it is about bringing in special expertise.

  4. Oli

    A further thought – one government that was imposed on the basis that it was led by an economics expert was the Estado Novo in Portugal. That didn’t end very well.

  5. Pingback: Welcome our expert overlords…? | through the looking glass | Secularity (under construction)

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