15 March 2012

Technocracy or Democracy?

"The big thing that's missing ... is this technocratic understanding of the facts and where things are working and where they're not working." So says Bill Gates while talking to Thomas L. Friedman about American politics today. As Friedman himself elaborates, the technocratic ideal is an informed state where political debates can be "driven by data, not ideology." Friedman and Gates are worried over whether the American model of "democratic capitalism," defined by Friedman as a balance of private and public interests, can survive in the face of competing global models. As usual, Friedman blames the two-party system -- to the rage of his readers, he always insists on assigning Democrats a share of the blame -- for failing to realize the "grand bargains" he deems necessary for national revitalization. He always includes Democrats in his critique because he believes, not that the government should spend less, but that it should be spent on more productive things than entitlements. In his utopia, presumably, the most productive use of tax money would be determined technocratically, and arguments against taxation in general would be rejected out of hand.

Ever since the term was first coined almost a century ago, technocracy has been an ideal and a bugbear for different Americans. For some it represents ideal rationality in government; for others it represents the end of democracy in some way or other. Would-be technocrats like Friedman and Gates most likely don't see an automatic contradiction between technocracy and democracy. Theirs seems to be a soft definition that doesn't require rule by experts but only decisions based on "data, not ideology." In other words, ideally democratic technocracy requires an informed public but not necessarily expert rulers. It does seem to require the exclusion of ideology, though technocracy is bound to be labeled an ideology itself through the usual postmodern jiu-jitsu. The real question is whether ideology can be separated from democracy. If it can be, it's still probably a more difficult task in any democracy with a revolutionary heritage like ours. If your country is founded on revolution, that means it's founded on an assumption that a previous form of government was wrong. Was parliamentary regulation of the colonial economy objectively harmful to the American colonists? Can it be said objectively to have oppressed the colonies? Historians still debate this, but the question is moot because the Founders determined ideologically that parliamentary regulation -- at least without colonial representation in Parliament -- was not merely mistaken but wrong. Ideological democracy claims for itself the right to make value judgments of at least equal priority to its practical judgments of any policy's utility. It doesn't accept easily the premise that any nation or any collective has an inherent objective interest independent of the will of its members. The tension between technocracy, or any appeal to objectivity, and democracy is most severe when people claim that the national or collective interest is whatever they say it is, and that democracy doesn't exist unless they (either the people as a whole or any faction) can define the collective interest to their satisfaction. From Friedman's perspective, both Democrats and Republicans are guilty of this attitude, the former for refusing (allegedly) to consider any retrenchment on entitlements, the latter for refusing (definitely) to consider the necessity of tax increases for an energetic public sector. Friedman claims that neither position is objectively sustainable, but he needs a responsive objectivity among the general public for his arguments to gain traction -- assuming, of course, that his arguments are themselves objective. That's how easy it is to play the postmodern game. It's that simple to say Friedman or Gates just wants the world to run a certain way that suits them. It makes you wonder whether we'd recognize objectivity when we saw it -- but if we did, what would we do with it?

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