Sunday, September 03, 2006

A Tyranny of Experts?

Atrios has a good post here about liberal "technocrats." Though the technocrat term has been thrown around for a long time, I realized that I didn't actually know what it meant. After a scant bit of research, I was left with the notion that it's a way of thinking that values data and scientific analysis over "populism," in the political sphere.

I've always been warm to such ideas. Heck, I grew up reading Isaac Asimov who wrote a whole series of novels based on the concept of psychohistory, a science that allows people to predict what will happen to a culture. I've just always been into this kind of thing.

But what it means, as Atrios points out, is that society should follow the ideas of a few experts, preferably folks with advanced degrees or folks who have been annointed with chairs at universities or think tanks. It means bowing to data as if it tells people what they should want, while ignoring what they do want.

I don't mean to dismiss it offhand. In some cases, this approach has a lot of utility. Sometimes people, even in groups, want very stupid or immoral things. The U.S. once had a war, after all, because a bunch of people living there wanted to own slaves.

However, what we've seen during globalization has revealed that a lot of choices made solely on data, without a lot of regard for popular will, have also wildly backfired or gone badly. Developing countries have privatized essentiual government services (really essential, like water delivery) to the detrmiment of their citizens. In the U.S. we've seen five years of record corporate profits and high productivity and yet, stagnant wage growth.

Sometimes, I think, the populists are just plain wrong. Currently, in the U.S., people have touted anti-immigration policies that are popular among the masses and are yet misguided. Others have pursued anti-homosexual marriage agendas that are just as misguided but that also play to large masses. Politicians on both sides have pursued job creation strategies and globalization without regard to whether or not their constituents like the jobs being created or are making enough money at them. On the Democratic side and, I think, the technocratic side, house members support a proposal to make college tuition deductible if students choose to major in sciences and engineering, which is a good thing, but that leaves out students who might have other goals.

Both populism and technocracy have their flaws and can lead to disaster. Neither approach can be fixed because their flaws are endemic. Radical populism leads to mob rule that can be unenlightened and dangerous. Radical technocracy leads to detached and possibly tyrannical government. Neither philosophy can be fixed. To do so would negate them.

What we need is a= larger philosophy to guide them both -- perhaps the notion that our society should exist in order to enhance individual freedom with the awareness that heading too radically in that direction can, in fact, fail. That's basically utilitarianism, a social philosophy I've always had a soft spot for, though I find it sometimes too coercive (one of its foremost proponents designed prisons, after all).

At the moment, I think that the U.S. has swung too far towards technocracy, on both sides of the aisle. Our economy has encouraged people to not only specialize, but to defer to specialists. That has its obvious benefits.

But it discourages broad thinking, almost across the board. Our jobs and lives have become focused on issues so granular that we're losing sight of our wider goals and how to achieve them. I'm pretty much echoing the complaints of early 20th century surrealists and dadaists by saying that it's frankly unnatural for people to be treated as data points or machines that are part of some grand design. A damned good part of modern and contemporary art, literature and music is devoted to the tension between being an individual and being a part of something larger.

What worries me is that we're no longer even having this discussion. The data-minded folk get to present themselves (again, as Atrios pointed out) as being beyond politics and somehow above it all while the populists seem to be courting whims, even if those whims are really unhealthy fears.

Sod it all -- my shorter, funnier posts play better to everyone who reads this but doesn't know me personally (those who do know me suffer through out of a sense of obligation). Maybe this is just what happens to me when I decide "It's time to reread Plato's "Republic." But I do think there are issues in all of this that we're collectively ignoring, to our detriment.


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home