The Rise and Fall of Technocracy

Cover image for The Rise and Fall of Technocracy

Centralized, top-down government control takes many forms. Some are more obvious, while some are more subtle. Technocracy—AKA rule by experts—is baked into much of the governance all over the world today, yet it falls into the latter category. Our official leaders are rarely experts, but experts are nonetheless a fixture of every part of elite society, shaping government policy.

In fact, it can be pretty hard to believe there was ever a time when experts weren’t so influential. But our current status quo is actually a fairly recent one.

Experts, experts everywhere, yet everything’s a mess.

World War II was a game-changer. The first truly “scientific” war, where the outcome was determined by the expertise of physicists and much as generals. And from the ashes of this devastating conflict, a new class of elites emerged: the technocrats.

Unfortunately, this informal but very real technocracy has not resulted in a perfectly rational, “scientific” system. Quite the opposite. Rather than testing policies before implementing them, the technocrats assume their expertise and good intentions must guarantee the outcome. And, as with all guesswork, some efforts succeed and some fail—but mostly by chance.

This is partly due to the issues inherent in extremely centralized systems. However, it’s also because of the nature of “experts” themselves.

The Problem With Experts

An expert is by definition someone with specialized knowledge in a very specific field. Someone with expertise on the ecology of wetlands, for example, will have nothing especially useful to say about linguistics, and an expert on linguistics will not have anything especially useful to say about geopolitics.

The thing is, humans are not wired to see experts as particular. In our ancient past as hunter-gatherers, the prestige that came with wisdom and competence would often earn someone a place as an elder with real political power. And in a world of generalists—in a small community where everybody knows each other—this is completely understandable.

However, we see this same psychology playing out in our extremely complex and anonymous modern societies. A successful expert will increasingly be perceived as somebody who is competent generally. When an expert gains prestige for excellence in one field, this comes with a boost in public prestige and trust across the board. They will be invited to opine on a large range of topics by news organizations, corporations, and governments. They will attract large followings on social media, who will often expect this expert to share their insights on topics well outside their area of expertise.

There’s just one problem: an expert becomes just an ordinary person the moment they venture outside of this very narrow corridor. A smart ordinary person, perhaps, but still just an ordinary person, sharing an opinion based on extremely limited and even incorrect information.

Of course, all centralized institutions suffer from a “knowledge problem”. But technocratic institutions have something far more dangerous than a lack of knowledge: they have the delusion of superior knowledge. That is, that they can create models of reality to extrapolate the future. And human social instincts, which often elevate experts in narrow fields to all-knowing gurus, only feed into this delusion.

This is further compounded by the structure of technocratic institutions.

Atomization

The mode of production in Capitalism 1.0 is one that maximizes efficiency, meaning an ever-greater division of labor. Breaking up the production process into many small, discrete steps means that large, complex tasks can be accomplished more quickly, and repeated with predictable outcomes.

And in our current technocratic model, this mode of “optimized” production has been applied to government bureaucracies as well. There’s just one issue: top-down governance is not a process that can be divided up this way, since a successful “assembly line” requires a process that’s predictable and more or less unchanging. This is about as far from the conditions that governments face as anything could possibly be!

So what we have is a highly centralized but atomized system. Experts with very deep knowledge of very narrow subjects are caught within institutional bubbles, communicating with a central hub but not with each other. And as the saying goes: when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. This results in a bloated bureaucracy, filled with experts applying their expertise to matters where it simply doesn’t apply, and often doing so with a sense of righteousness and superiority.

The Center Cannot Hold

Such a system was always doomed to be extremely dysfunctional and corrupt. Although it may seem meritocratic and “scientific” on the surface, what it really creates is a class of largely well-meaning but useless people getting paid to run massive social experiments on unwilling participants. Sometimes these experiments yield positive results, but all too often they fail miserably, and even make things considerably worse. And yet, the technocrats themselves are rarely held accountable.

This has also become a self-reinforcing system. As experts have become a mainstay of our political elite, the political elite have naturally become more and more insistent on the infallibility of experts.

So on the one hand, we have an almost slavish devotion to the value of expertise from the political, managerial, and academic classes, and on the other, a loss of trust in the value of expertise from pretty much everybody else—reflected in the rise of populism around the “developed” world, and a backlash against “globalism”. A large number of people are understandably getting sick and tired of having elites who are entirely too sure of themselves enact policies that fail to yield the promised results. They’re getting tired of being told what’s good for them by those who live extremely privileged lifestyles and often see them as “lesser”.

Technocracy, it seems, cannot hold on for much longer.

Unfortunately, this backlash may prove to be just another kind of sickness, rather than a cure. The root problem, after all, is extreme centralization. Replacing the technocrats with populist strongmen will just swap out one form of dysfunctional top-down management with another.

We need to find a third option. A bottom-up, decentralized option, that will allow people to come to a consensus based on the facts on the ground with members of their own communities, rather than being subject to the dictates of those who think they know better.

As the technocrats continue to fall from grace, we can seize the opportunity to usher in something truly revolutionary.