Technocracy

TECHNOCRACY….This is a bit of an airy topic, but indulge me. Responding to a Jon Chait essay suggesting that liberalism is fundamentally nonideological, Matt Yglesias says:

The brand of liberalism Jon is describing is committed to a technocratic version of consequentialism undergirded by some theory of the good. This poses some problems.

One simple problem is that technocratism has a pretty limited political appeal….

Actually, I don’t think that’s true. Local politics, for example, is famously concerned with fixing potholes and keeping the streets safe, issues that are usually framed as matters of competency, not ideology. Local constituents vote for mayors and city planners on this basis all the time.

More to the point, though, liberal technocratism was enormously popular in America for many decades starting with the New Deal. Sure, FDR offered up his own unique brand of liberal American ideology, but he mainly had a vision of government that worked ? something that it manifestly didn’t do during the first few years of the Depression. By the time Republicans finally took over after 20 years of Democratic rule, technocratism reigned so supreme that Eisenhower accepted it almost without blinking. His “Modern Republicanism” of 1958 and beyond was explicitly dedicated to solving problems instead of waging ideological wars, and practically everyone fell into lockstep behind this vision. There was a widespread belief ? barely remembered today by anyone who wasn’t alive at the time ? that the old ideological battles were over, relegated forever to the ash heap of history.

In other words, technocratic liberalism can have enormous public appeal. But there’s a catch: it has to work, and the 60s and 70s were not kind to it. Robert McNamara was the very soul of an efficiency expert and he brought us nothing but the misery of Vietnam. Henry Kissinger was an international realist, but he couldn’t stop the Arabs from embargoing their oil. Jimmy Carter was the ultimate technocrat by both training and temperament, but by the end of his term in office the country suffered from high inflation, high unemployment, a second oil shock, a Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and a seemingly endless hostage crisis in Iran. Technocratic liberalism had been transformed into malaise.

So, yes, technocratism has pretty limited political appeal today, but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible to ever restore its luster. What it needs is someone like FDR, who had the delicate judgment necessary to balance technocratic idealism and experimental risk taking with a hardheaded understanding of American culture that produced programs that ? mostly ? worked. Bill Clinton almost (but not quite) managed the same trick on a smaller scale. Unfortunately, he had a penchant for risk taking of a different sort.

My guess is that common sense will make a comeback one of these days. The modern Republican party is dedicated to an economic program so wildly out of touch with reality that they really don’t have much choice except to eventually either compromise their ideology (which will cause them to lose elections) or else watch the economy come crashing down on their heads (which will cause them to lose elections). The only real question is: how long will it take?

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