Sunday, February 10, 2008

Technocracy Now!

Technocracy has come up a lot in my classes this semester, and it has a hell of an appeal to it. There are many definitions I could provide, but I'll go with the simplest:

Technocracy = Government of the Competent

Which, you know, just sounds like the exact best kind of government possible. How's the saying go? "... If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary..." (more of that wisdom here). Technocracy aims at creating such rulers, and any such government worth the name will have leaders who are all trained in the art of ruling, have been trained in such an art since childhood, and belong to a group that is destined to rule. This is, in part, the justification for royal lineages and the power of monarchs - they are trained for this their whole life, so of course they should be competent. Usually the training fell through, or the monarchs assumed innate ability, so it's a poor example.

A better example would be France, where one school has graduated all but three prime ministers since 1948, and where a political elite not only exists (as they kind of exist everywhere), but where the political elite derives a large share of their power from technical skill. For someone who places a high value on civil service, this is exciting, and it helps that in such a country the public sector attracts the best and the brightest. Prestige and skill associated with civic duty is something almost alien in the United States, and the idea of guaranteed competent bureaucrats and leaders is enticing.

Certainly, the program has success, and with political elite having all the technical knowledge they could need, their plans will be well-informed and effective. Technical skill, that fundamental guiding force behind Technocracy, is something everyone would want available to their leaders (if not an innate trait of the leaders themselves). The justification, however, that technical skill is all it takes is folly.

Technocrats, especially hereditary or entrenched or class-based, will still be human and hold human values. People without values are nothing we would want, but in the rulers-as-angels scenario we would hope that they would have our values, and be the shining pillars of what we hold dear. The same skill that can beautifully execute every program we can possibly imagine, creating that approaching-utopic vision of society, can just as easily lead to someone else's paradise, and the paradise of entrenched elites tends to be a far different world than that of any regular citizens. It may overlap in areas, but on the whole it is likely to be a vision detached from the populace. If angels ruled men, would they care for what men thought?

Certainly, we like to think they would, and we know that as angels they are our angels, the angels that agree with us on all the finer points. But that's an impossibility in society, and we cannot hope (nor should we) for a world where all values conform to one glorious vision. It is diversity of opinion that makes the world rich, and it is diversity of opinion that allows for compromise at the same time that it threatens stability.

Democracy, or stable democracy at the least, is a forum for compromise, for dissent, and for acceptance that though we do not hold all same values, what we do share can be acted upon. Technocracy involves a detached judgment of the "General Will" of the populace, without asking the populace what their general will is. It is a detached government for the betterment of all society made by those who are, primarily, outside of society, and it is inevitable that the technocrats will disagree with the populace at some point to completely void the consent of the governed.

Technocracy is not an ideal system, for the very reason that no system can ever be ideal. A dystopias have a tendency to be well executed, administered by those who know exactly how to use government, and engineered around some purpose that is forwarded as in the interest of the populace. Dystopias are scary stuff. The whole premise that those governed are not responsible enough to have a say in how they are governed assumes tremendous competence on the part of the governing and tremendous incompetence on the part of the governed, and so while it is a common belief among intelligentsias, I cannot help but feel it voids fundamental notions of human dignity.

This is not to say that there is nothing to learn from technocracy, or that leadership by the skilled is a terrible thing. Certainly, skilled leaders are ideal, and technical skill for the running of government is something to be sought out. That doesn't mean that training is the only requirement, and it doesn't mean that we should just trust the opinions of the trained. People change, values change, and without a system to reevaluate consent and remove or restore legitimacy skill becomes meaningless. A perfectly skilled administrator acting against the will of the entire populace should not be left in place just because they are skilled.

The first time that was tried the results were, well, hellish.


juxtaposer said...

Hmm . . . if only there were a U.S. Public Service Academy. Then we might have competent government without the elitist and dystopic disconnect between governed and governing people toward which technocracy inclines. Perhaps we could even have the experience of government Lincoln famously described as of, by, and for ourselves--the people.

Kelsey Atherton said...

Juxtaposer - I like the way you think.

Nora said...

"A perfectly skilled administrator acting against the will of the entire populace should not be left in place just because they are skilled."

I feel like I'm missing a reference here, unless your intention was for me to assume the administrator is God. Maybe I've had a bit of an overdose on His Dark Materials?

Anyway, while the idea of technocracy is an interesting one it strikes me as, to use a ridiculous phrase, anti-American. I think one of the fundamental parts of the American identity is that most kids think they can grow up and be the president-- technocracy has the potential to destroy that dream.

Kelsey Atherton said...

Nora - the metaphor running through this is about angels ruling men, and so that's an allusion to Lucifer and hell, where I can't imagine the populace is content. His Dark Materials is entirely appropriate context for that.

Technocracy certainly has the power to destroy that dream, and that dream is a very democratic impulse. Also, technocracy is a system that places the government above the individual, and the government as more knowledgable, both of which notions go against the ideal of "American". We revolted from detached government, and tend to resist it at every turn.

skip sievert said...

The Technocracy Technate design does not use money. Energy Accounting is used instead of a Price System.

The North American Technate TNAT which presents the information of the Technical Alliance defines Technocracy as the scientific social system outlined by the Technocracy Study Course - excerpted design chapters and links to the complete copy
Technocracy Study Course - excerpted design chapters and links to the complete copy.)
The ancients also had some
good advice for us, as in the Epic of Gilgamesh.

Thou, Gilgamesh, Let full be thy belly,
Of each day make thou a feast of rejoicing-,
Day and night dance thou and play!
Let thy garments be sparkling fresh,
Thy head be washed; bathe thou in water.
Pay heed to the little one that holds on to thy hand,
Let thy spouse delight in thy bosom!
For this is the task of mankind!

Money-history&energy accounting.