The Rise of the Technocrats

by Henry on November 10, 2011

I’m at a workshop, unable to blog properly, and saving my eurozone energies for revisions to a piece for _The Nation_ (the ending of which has changed dramatically twice, and which is likely to change dramatically again before its Friday deadline). But this “piece in the FT”: is not very far from what I would be writing if I had the time.

bq. Apparently, the answer to the huge problems of the eurozone is the replacement of elected premiers with economic experts – approved officials dropped from European institutions. In Greece, Lucas Papademos, a former vice-president of the European Central Bank, has been pushed hard for the job; in Italy, Mario Monti, another economist and a former EU Commissioner, is much mentioned. They may lack a democratic mandate but they’re fantastically well regarded in Frankfurt. It remains to be seen if either will clinch the role. But what exactly is the great attraction of technocrats?

bq. If ever modern Europe needed brave, charismatic leaders to carry their nation through turbulent times, it would seem to be now. Instead, it is as if the crew of the Starship Enterprise had concluded that Captain Jean-Luc Picard is no longer the man for the job and that it is time to send for the Borg. Efficient, calculating machines driving through unpopular measures across the eurozone with the battle cry “resistance is futile” are apparently the order of the day. Faced with a deep crisis, once-proud European nations are essentially preparing to hand over power to Ernst & Young.

Nudge and Democracy

by Henry on November 10, 2011

Cosma Shalizi and I have an article on “Thaler/Sunstein and democratic politics”: in the current issue of _New Scientist._ The title is a bit misleading (our problem with nudging isn’t that it’s coercive; it’s that it doesn’t have much in the way of feedback), but we’ll stick by the main text.

bq. “Nudging” is appealing because it provides many of the benefits of top-down regulation while avoiding many of the drawbacks. Bureaucrats and leaders of organisations can guide choices without dictating them. Thaler and Sunstein call the approach “libertarian paternalism”: it lets people “decide” what they want to do, while guiding them in the “right” direction.

bq. …This points to the key problem with “nudge” style paternalism: presuming that technocrats understand what ordinary people want better than the people themselves. There is no reason to think technocrats know better, especially since Thaler and Sunstein offer no means for ordinary people to comment on, let alone correct, the technocrats’ prescriptions. This leaves the technocrats with no systematic way of detecting their own errors, correcting them, or learning from them. And technocracy is bound to blunder, especially when it is not democratically accountable.

bq. … democratic arrangements, which foster diversity, are better at solving problems than technocratic ones. Libertarian paternalism is seductive because democratic politics is a cumbersome and messy business. Even so, democracy is far better than even the best-intentioned technocracy at discovering people’s real interests and how to advance them. It is also, obviously, better at defending those interests when bureaucrats do not mean well.