Paul Pillar

Technocracy and Political Cop-Outs

The current issue of The Economist has a good essay about government by experts, a subject lately made prominent as financially stricken Greece has installed a central banker as prime minister and Italy has sworn in an entire cabinet of technocrats. The piece notes that technocracy has long fit more comfortably with autocracy, in which expertise does not have to take a back seat to electability, than it does with democracy. In democracies its use has been, and should be, limited to short tenures when, in the midst of something like the European monetary crisis, there appears to be no other solution.

Consider how the concept of technocracy might apply to the United States. Goodness knows there are many instances of policy making in this country that could have used less politics and more expertise. (Full disclosure behind that last statement: I am a retired bureaucrat who has never had any connection with electoral politics and is probably too slow to issue disclaimers when someone attributes to me expertise on this or that matter of public policy.) It is at least as frequent, however, that what is essentially a political issue and can only be resolved through a political process is treated as if it were instead a problem that can be solved through sufficient application of expertise. An issue might be treated this way because the political process is too dysfunctional to resolve it, because one side in the political contest wants to bias the debate by framing the issue as one for experts or simply because politicians are copping out.

We see this happen with the appointment of some blue-ribbon commissions to address issues that the regular political process has left unresolved. We see it even more often in the manner in which many activities of the executive branch are described. When in a debate about war policy, for example, reference is made to following the advice of military commanders, this disregards how, although the planning and conduct of military operations should be left to the generals, questions of why and at what cost wars are to be fought are political questions that should not be left to them. Another example is the tendency to refer to issues of homeland security and counterterrorism in terms of what is “necessary” to protect Americans, overlooking that there is no single established level of necessity but instead a question of how much security Americans want to buy and at what price. And when a politician says something about how we need to do a better job of negotiating a deal with a foreign government, the real issue is probably not negotiating skill but instead what sort of trade we are willing to make, and which of our own interests we consider most important, when bargaining with the other government.

Even if the political system fails to resolve a political issue, the issue does not go away. It continues to bedevil whoever is left to deal with the problem, whether those persons are technocrats or political leaders. Such bedevilment is often experienced by the professional ranks of the executive branch in the United States. Those now running the governments of Italy and Greece will be experiencing it as well.