The Case for Technocracy (and the Case for Democracy!)
International organizations are mostly technocratic institutions. Central banks are definitely technocratic institutions. Many national authorities responsible for supervision and monitoring are inherently technocratic.
It sounds like a bad thing, as technocracy means literally power in the hands of technicians or experts. And experts are selected after the evaluation of knowledge assets and experience. So, basically, if an institution is an example of technocracy, it is not an example of democracy.
Technocracy has old roots as among the most ancient civilizations the power was in the hands of those who had knowledge. It was an assumed truth that knowledge goes hand in hand with wisdom (and sometimes even with divinity!).
Nowadays, there are some good reasons to choose technocracy over democracy, even if it isn’t often the case:
- We want that our authority takes not the more legitimate or shared decisions, but the best ones.
This happens when decisions are just too difficult for non-experts, as it happens in the field of monetary policy: deciding which is the right amount of money to print or which is the correct interest rate to keep prices stable in the current circumstances is the result of a knowledge-based approach. Only few people are qualified enough to understand the difficult mathematical reasoning behind this kind of decision.
2. We want independent, impartial decisions.
An antitrust authority under political influence or pressure by public opinion wouldn’t do properly its duty. Similarly to the judiciary, monitoring authorities have to apply rules impartially, in good faith, after a qualified evaluation.
Some international bodies are similarly committed to super partes evaluation, to focus on the common interest which is not necessarly the interest of the majority. This is the case for the European Commission which interacts regularly with the Council of Ministers and the European Parliament, in charge to represent respectively the majority of states and the majority of populations, so the Commission offers a different perspective.
Conversely, there is a wrong reason to choose technocracy over democracy, it is the lack of trust in the political elite and the need for a radical change (I think of all the so-called “technical governments” we had in Italy in the past two decades, for instance).
It is a lie we tell ourselves: a minister plays necessarily a political role, no matter where he comes from or how he has been chosen. So, this is just a way to mistify or hide the reasons behind political decisions which are never simply “technical”.
All the organizations whose powers require political discretion, states in the first place (but not just states) cannot be managed as technocracies. Such a choice would turn back the clock to pre-democracy ages, while what we want is to improve our level of democracy.
Moreover, even if the activity of a technocratic authority is not, by definition, democratic, choosing the experts in charge for technocratic decisions – chief officers, board members, central banks presidents – is definitely a political decision, so we expect it to be democratic.
Some international organizations, which still obey to the technocratic model, increased their role over time and should introduce democratic elements to complement the technocratic ones – just like in the EU the technocratic body -which is the Commission- is complemented by the Parliament and the Council.
Finally, how can we trust a technocracy?
All the technocratic institutions show – or should show – two basic features to guarantee that their power will not be abused:
- a clear mandate
- an accountability framework
They don’t operate in a splendid isolation, they enjoy relevant powers for some good reason. It is up to them to deserve people’s trust using them properly or – if it is the case – to be held responsible for their misuse.
These two elements – a limited allocation of competences and a duty to be accountable- reconcile democracy and technocracy, so the two may be an useful completion one of the other.