Recovering the promise of technocracy

SINGAPORE • The prevailing mood nowadays is one of pessimism. After a year in which Mr Donald Trump was elected president of the United States and Britain voted to leave the European Union, many people are anticipating more populist victories - and damaging policies - this year. Add to this slow global economic growth and rising geopolitical tensions, and it is easy to conclude that the world is headed down the same path of nationalism and protectionism that sparked World War I.

But this misses the point. The rise of populism is merely a symptom of political leaders' failure to address voters' economic grievances. Instead of obsessing about the degeneration of democracy at the hands of political leaders who cannot fulfil their promises to frustrated voters, we must define a better form of government that can address those grievances. I propose a direct technocracy.

As I explain in my new book, Technocracy In America: Rise Of The Info-State, a direct technocracy would ensure that regular public consultation shapes decision-making by committees of accountable experts. This approach combines the virtues of direct democracy with the benefits of meritocratic technocracy, which leverages data to make long-term, utilitarian decisions. Simply put, a direct technocracy marries good ideas and efficient execution.

This system is not entirely hypothetical. Both the hyper-democratic Switzerland and the ultra-technocratic Singapore apply its principles effectively. And their records are impressive: Both countries boast good health, ample wealth, low corruption, high employment, national military and civil services, and massive state investment in innovation. They respond efficiently to citizens' needs and preferences, apply international experience to domestic policymaking, and use data and alternative scenarios for long-term planning.

Combining the best elements of these two regimes would produce an ideal system - the kind of system that could actually respond to the demands of the disillusioned US voters who elected Mr Trump. But progress towards implementing such a system would require the American political mindset to change substantially.

The American narrative tends to confuse politics with governance, democracy with delivery, and process with outcomes. But the "will of the people" is not just to repeat their desires over and over without results. Good governments are equally focused on inputs and outputs. Their legitimacy comes both from the process by which they are selected and the provision of what citizens universally proclaim they want: solid infrastructure, clean air and water, ease of doing business, good schools and decent housing, freedom of expression, and employment opportunities.

Clearly, the problem that the US faces is not too much technocracy, but too little. And it is not just the US. Britain's once-vaunted civil service has also atrophied since the 1970s.

Americans also tend to view meritocracy and technocracy as "rule by elites" - and, specifically, liberal elites. But technocracy is not a liberal phenomenon.

The pedigreed intellectuals from liberal think-tanks and universities who occupied positions of influence in then President Barack Obama's administration would not necessarily qualify as true professional technocrats. If they did, the Wall Street bailout engineered by then Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke and Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner would have been accompanied by an equally robust and unconventional policy for Main Street.

In contrast, in countries like Sweden and South Korea, technocratic fiscal-transfer programmes have ensured that the bottom 20 per cent of earners maintain a disposable income that keeps pace with inflation, and therefore enables them to continue to participate economically. The governments of Switzerland and Singapore can hardly be called liberal, but they have undertaken similar measures on wages and subsidies.

Liberal or not, the "elites" to whom Trump voters delivered such a strong rebuke in the US presidential election were not technocrats. On the contrary, many of them - on the left and the right - are self-serving and out-of-touch political operators.

Whereas the American system allows for frequent near-shutdowns of government, a genuine technocracy would keep government functioning, even when elected leaders do nothing. It would also be marked by high levels of bureaucratic autonomy and impartial hiring and promotion - areas in which the US has been backsliding.

Moreover, a real technocracy would boast a robust civil service trained in bureaucratic management techniques that use data to measure and optimise welfare. But the US federal civil service has steadily been weakened over the years, especially since a Republican-controlled Congress implemented deep cuts in the 1990s.

Clearly, the problem that the US faces is not too much technocracy, but too little. And it is not just the US. Britain's once-vaunted civil service has also atrophied since the 1970s, and technocratic leaders would have seen immediately that Europe's inhumane and counterproductive post-crisis austerity policies could not create jobs, raise incomes, generate taxes, or boost consumption.

Instead of allowing politics to masquerade as meritocracy, we must demand utilitarian governance. Tossing out self-serving elites will not work, if we replace them with clueless populists peddling "alternative facts". The real solution is to increase our reliance on actual facts and genuine expertise; we just have to ensure that we are listening to real experts, to professional technocrats who have advanced in their careers on the basis of merit.

For example, in the US, reliable technocrats would push through the worker reskilling programmes that were promised as long ago as the early 2000s to train the labour force to meet the changing demands of the economy. Such programmes, not individual deals to save a few hundred manufacturing jobs for a few more years, will prepare American workers to improve their economic lot in the long term.

In Europe, forward-looking technocrats would pursue further integration and mutualise euro-zone debt. They would reject the current painful unravelling, which will neither jump-start growth nor enable Europe to remain competitive and influential on the world stage.

Just as there is no perfect democracy, there is no perfect technocracy. But, in an increasingly complex world, meritocratic and utilitarian technocracy is likely to produce far better outcomes than today's divisive and fact-averse populism.


•The writer is a senior fellow at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore, and the author of Technocracy In America: Rise Of The Info-State.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 07, 2017, with the headline 'Recovering the promise of technocracy'. Print Edition | Subscribe