In defence of technocrats

The appointments of non-politicians Lucas Papademos and Mario Monti in Greece and Italy has caused much ink to flow. But on the continent, experts have often played a positive role in politics in times of deep crisis, points out a Guardian editor.

Published on 17 November 2011 at 14:51

Leafing through the British press over the last week, you can’t but notice the increased sightings of a rare political subspecies: the “technocrat”. Prominent technocrats include the Italian prime minister, Mario Monti, and the Greek PM, Lucas Papademos, who have been parachuted into the top job, the papers say, in order to act out diktats of their “paymasters” in Germany and France. In the Telegraph, Christopher Booker has revealed that “EU architects never meant it to be a democracy“: technocracy was always the plan. In the same paper, Charles Moore has proclaimed that “left and right should agree that this is not the time for technocrats and Frankfurters”, but real democrats.

And largely they do. On these pages, there have been a number of comment pieces and editorials pointing out Europe’s “democratic deficit”, questioning whether the “rise of the technocrats” is wise (“economics is not engineering”) or even effective. Even the sober FT has a concerned editorial entitled “Enter the technocrats” – no less than 10 months after proclaiming the “strange death of technocracy“. I counted at least half a dozen articles that saw glaring parallels to European appeasement a la Munich ’38; the Telegraph is already pondering sending Spitfires across the channel.

Well, when the Guardian, the Telegraph and even those arch-contrarians at Spiked Online are in agreement over something, some alarm bells should go off. So let’s at least try to see if there might be another side to the story here.

The word “technocracy” comes from the Greek words “tekhne”, meaning skill, and “kratos” meaning power. Technocrats thus literally promise to be “problem solvers” – politicians who make decisions based on their expertise or specialist knowledge of a particular subject, rather than to please a particular interest group or political party. The term is commonly attributed to the engineer William H Smyth of Berkely, California in 1919, though the idea that a country should be organised and spiritually led not by the church, feudal landowners or the military but by industrial chiefs and men of science, goes back to the early socialist thinker Saint-Simon. Read full article in The Guardian


Democracy has been put on stand-by in Europe

“We don’t need elections here, but reforms”, said the president of the European Council Herman Van Rompuy last week during the opening of the academic year at the European University Institute (EUI) in Florence, talking about the eurozone crisis and Italy’s troubled outlook. “A tough little sentence, when you come to think of it”, according to a political scientist of Belgium’s University of Ghent, Hendrik Vos in De Standaard.

When an average African leader says a thing like that, it generally doesn’t take more than five minutes before we hear the first reactions of indignation from the European Union. The European index finger is raised, followed by a lesson in democracy and a laudatory speech on elections (…) If of all people Van Rompuy makes statements we normally associate with banana republics and their corrupt or chaotic leaders, it says a lot about the seriousness of the situation Europe has ended up in.

Nor is Vos not convinced about the competence of Italy and Greece’s economic technocrats

The truth is that democracy today has been more or less put on stand-by in Europe. It’s a shame, but for the moment there is no alternative, is the argument of the European leaders. […] But the point is, that it’s not so sure the leaders still have a good insight into the situation. For this crisis there is no screenplay. […] Not only are things complex, but also the economists, people we should have faith in, are contradicting each other. […] Some economists say the collapse of the euro might at the most generate a small wrinkle in the world economy, whereas others warn of a return to the stone age. And there they are, your ordinary chancellor, prime minister, or president: Which economist should they trust?

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