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The Enduring Allurement of Technocratic Competence

Sina Odugbemi's picture

The history of political thought has been, in a sense, a tussle between two ideas regarding who should govern: the idea that experts should rule and the idea that the people should rule themselves. It has been a never-ending tussle, and just when you think the idea that the people can and should rule has won, we see established democracies tossing out elected governments and installing rule by technocrats. The issue is important for this blog for a simple reason: in international development, the belief that experts know best and should shape public policy in developing countries is as difficult to kick as an addiction to cocaine.

So, let’s be clear: while the allurement of technocratic competence in a crisis is understandable it remains just a trifle absurd to suppose that technocratic competence can replace democratic politics rather than being its humble servant.  Experts have a huge role in a crisis, financial or otherwise, but to believe that finding a path out of a crisis is the sole business of experts is not only wrong but naïve. For, the response to a crisis is inherently and inescapably political. And this is true on at least two levels.

First, the policy responses to a crisis implicate a series of superordinate norms and values: norms and values around solidarity, equality and even liberty. Public debt is, for instance, a big issue in the financial crises that many countries are grappling with. There are different, often irreconcilable views, about how the burdens of paying off the debt should be shared in a given political community. What experts recommend will often hide vast ideological commitments, a vision of political community, and convictions about how life ought to be lived. As a result, lurking in the spreadsheets of technocrats is ideology, although they often use language calculated to obscure the impact of policy choices on flesh and blood citizens. For more on this, please see: ‘Have PhD, will govern’.

Second, arguing, bargaining and, sometimes, getting to agreement is messy – and technocrats are often impatient with it – but it is the only way of making sure that societies accept the pain of austerity without provoking a crisis of governability.  The burgeoning intensity of public activism in countries affected by the financial crisis is testimony enough. Unless citizens are persuaded that proposed solutions are ‘fair’ – a contested concept in each country – peace and stability will not return.  Public opinion cannot be ignored with impunity. For more on this, please see: ‘One professor to another: listen to the people or fail’.

As a result, for technocratic governments to succeed, they have to abandon the illusion that technocrats inhabit a realm so rarified the normal rules of politics will not apply to what they do.  To be successful, they have to deploy outstanding political skills and build public support. Without these, soon enough they will be the targets of the sulfurous denunciations of incensed citizens.

Picture credit: flickr user pix.plz

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