Technocracies Are Cool, but Are They Effective?
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I was on a Discord chat the other day and someone exclaimed, “man substack is like too much content”. When he said that I knew exactly what he meant. At the moment when I’m writing this I have three substack newsletters waiting to be read in my inbox. Two are 4500 words and the “short” one is 3900 words. They all arrived today. Given that the average page of a book is 250 words, that’s over 50 pages of material which has arrived just today.
(Before we get any farther, let me be clear. I realize that I often publish stuff which is that long, and I am infinitely grateful that anyone reads it. But you will notice that my newsletter is always less than 750 words and only comes out once a month. So while I am a hypocrite about many things, this hypocrisy does not extend to newsletters.)
The newsletters are not merely “too much content” they might also be “too much” to digest. Recently the value of technocracies seemed to be having their moment in my corner of the zeitgeist, and these same newsletters were holding forth on the value of that construct. One writer, somewhat in contradiction of previous comments he had made, was saying they were good. Another writer was also arguing that they’re good, but only so long as their policies are legible. And yet a third was saying that the first two have merely defined technocracies as governments that implement policies they like without describing what principles unite those policies.
As if that weren’t enough I’m reading or have recently finished several books which would appear to weigh in on the topic. There’s: Seeing Like a State, which seems to be on the anti side of the technocracy debate. Secret of Our Success, also anti. The follow up to that book, WEIRDest People in the World, which so far also seems anti. (Representative quote, “What doesn’t happen is that rational parties sit down, put their heads together, and hash out effective institutional design.”) Island of the Blue Foxes, the story of mid-18th century Russia spending 1/6th of their annual budget on the ill-conceived mission of sending three thousand interpreters, laborers, mariners, surveyors, scientists, secretaries, students, and soldiers on a scientific expedition across Siberia. (Though with that many people invasion may be a more appropriate term than expedition.) Reviews for the latter two books will be coming soon, but once again both seem to make a powerful argument against big top down programs of the sort we imagine coming out of a technocracy.
Finally on top of all of this, there’s the position I’ve taken on this subject already in my various posts. How do these newsletters (Presumably written by people whose opinion I admire, otherwise why would I subscribe?) and these books serve to update my old beliefs? Is anything I’ve read strong enough to overturn one of my beliefs in its entirety? To make me recant one of my previous posts. Unlikely, though I should be careful not to rule that out. But short of reversing my position I still should be updating my beliefs based on this new evidence, but that requires understanding what all of these multitudinous claims are evidence of. I’m sympathetic to the argument presented by the third newsletter that they don’t really represent arguments for or against technocracy, because no seems quite able to agree on exactly what technocracy is. Still the arguments are probably evidence of something, but already it’s obvious that we’re travelling through a complex intellectual landscape.
Furthermore, if this is the situation I’m in, as a bona fide pseudo-intellectual, imagine the situation of someone without such mastery of facts and reasoning? What are they to make of these various arguments? You may accurately assert that most people, even if they’re familiar with the word “technocracy” have very little interest in debates over its efficacy as a system. But the argument I’ve been describing is taking place as part of a larger discussion, one which they are interested in. A discussion that has been front and center since November 3rd:
How do we come together as a people and enact long term, beneficial policies?
Years ago, a very wise friend of mine made the assertion that the crisis of modern politics was a crisis of epistemology. His politics are very different from mine (though they appear to be converging in weird ways recently) and I suspect that my bias against those politics made me overlook the prophetic character of his words. But I’m paying attention now because everything he has foretold has come to pass. But before we go any further, we should define epistemology for those few who are unfamiliar with the term. This is not the first time I’ve brought up the topic. The last time around I defined it as: the investigation of what distinguishes justified belief from opinion. Which is a pretty good definition (and one I stole from Wikipedia). But recently, I encountered the idea that epistemology can be broken up into three questions. And this may be an easier jumping off point for the discussion I want to have. These three questions are:
What is knowledge?
Can we have knowledge?
How do we get knowledge?
It is assumed that if we can identify knowledge and acquire it, that we can then go on to apply that knowledge to our various problems in the form of policies, and all epistemological frameworks are designed to bridge that gap. But as we’ll see the chasm between facts and policies is wider than people realize, and this even if we assume that we actually can reliably acquire facts, which is by no means certain.
This is clearly a place where some examples are in order. My first example is from a previous post on the topic. While I included it there as something of an aside—an idea that occurred to me while I was writing, but which I hadn’t given much thought to—it has since grown to seem more and more germane. This is the epistemological framework of national greatness.
For this example I want you to picture old school patriotism. The kind one would have experienced during World War II, or in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. But also the lower intensity form that was ubiquitous in the 50’s. This is the framework that prevailed in my primary education up at least though High School. It was a civic religion where the Revolutionary War was the creation myth, the Constitution the tablets of Sinai and the Founding Fathers its prophets. With that picture in your mind let’s return to our questions and see how this framework treats them.
What is knowledge? Knowledge consists of the principles that went into the foundation of this country. The way those principles were used to do good things and improve the world.
Can we have knowledge? We can not only have this knowledge, it is our duty as good citizens to acquire a good civic education. To understand the Bill of Rights and the Constitution
How do we get knowledge? By studying the history of the country. Noting the throughline of principles from the pilgrims to the founders through to the present day. And how all of this makes the United States unique and special.
When it came time to translate this knowledge into policies, that was relatively easy. Not because specific policies are obvious but because it acted as a religion, and in so doing encouraged belief and unity. This provided a foundation for agreement between various policy makers and had the power of creating a united front out of the entire country, for example the one presented to Russia during the Cold War. The benefits of this framework are less about getting everything right than in acting together.
Our second example is more recent, it’s the epistemological framework of all the Trump supporters who believe the election was stolen. While this isn’t entirely accurate, for the moment let’s label this framework as Trumpism. Being more nascent, it’s contours have not quite come into focus, but you have the same process going on:
What is knowledge? Knowledge consists of the things those in power don’t want us to know—the methods the elites use to retain power, and oppress the common man.
Can we have knowledge? Yes, but not by listening to the mainstream media. We have to actively seek out the truth, which is only available through people on the fringe, who are constantly being censored.
How do we get knowledge? By diligent search; by looking at the facts behind the scenes; by putting together the pieces of the conspiracy.
When people use this framework, the knowledge thus acquired translates into knowing “what needs to be done”. These are policies but they are necessarily of a desperate and radical nature because this epistemology encodes the idea that we are already at war. Or that in any case if we’re not at war with the elites they are already at war with us. That this is a life or death struggle, an existential crisis, requiring extraordinary measures.
The final example is of course a technocracy, which at least as I understand it, looks something like this:
What is knowledge? Knowledge consists of things we have uncovered using the scientific method.
Can we have knowledge? Yes, but “we” should be construed fairly narrowly. This is not populism. We’re not aggregating the knowledge of the masses. We’re relying on the knowledge of experts.
How do we get knowledge? By funding research; by collecting sociological data; by studying what other countries do.
Advocates of technocracy assume that their methodology results in purer knowledge than the other two examples, and that the purer the knowledge the better the policies which derive from that knowledge. I think this often leads its advocates to be lazy, to assume that pure knowledge will naturally lead to good policies without much in the way of additional effort, which leads them to emphasize some things and neglect others. But of course the other frameworks do the same thing, each choses something different to focus on.
Technocracies seem to focus on the input. If we just make sure that we have truth going in the one side, then good policies will automatically come out the other side. This is why I was so impressed when Matthew Yglesias pointed out that policy has to be legible. Impressed enough that I wrote a whole post on it. Because this is one of the key weaknesses of a technocracy, it’s not enough to just work on the inputs into the system you have to polish the outputs as well. Implementation matters. And while I say this is a key weakness it’s not the only weakness or even the biggest weakness, it may just be the most obvious. No, the fatal weaknesses of technocracy are far more subtle, and often in the areas that look like strengths to its practitioners. As the first example of this, they emphasize measurement and accuracy, but by limiting themselves to what can be easily measured it fatally undermines both the inputs and the outputs. But as they emphasize inputs, let’s start there.
It would be nice to imagine that by using the epistemological framework of science that we can extract pure Truth and that having done that we can filter it through the medium of experts, generating perfect policies on the other end. But of course for all it’s strengths science does generate pure Truth, it generates a collection of insights with various levels of confidence, and these insights are only those which can be gathered using certain methodologies, in narrow domains while working under obvious limitations.
As an example of how this operates we need merely look at how the pandemic was handled. We can measure the number of deaths, hospital capacity, and the rate at which the disease spreads, but we can’t measure the psychological toll of isolation, non-standard schooling, and a hundred other second order effects which will only manifest years later. So we focus on what we can measure, deaths. This is good and proper, but no one should pretend it’s perfect or that we have somehow arrived at an optimal solution to the problem. And of course it’s worse than that. Because as it turns out the technocrats have not even been particularly good at managing the problems they’re supposedly good at. You can blame Trump all you want, but it was technocrats who told people that masks weren’t effective, that travel bans were a bad idea, and possibly the least technocratic state in the country, West Virginia, is doing the best on vaccines (Wait, scratch that, my own home state of Utah apparently passed them recently… But WV is still second.) And don’t even get me started about the slow vaccination rate in Europe.
This problem becomes even more difficult when you move from hard sciences like epidemiology to the social sciences. At least with the pandemic you had deaths to track and a virus to sequence. Tracking polarization is significantly more difficult and error prone, and there is no gene we can sequence which will allow us to target the source of the despair and anger which has been on display recently.
All of the foregoing is indisputably true, but proponents of technocracy will still argue that it’s better than Trumpism at solving this despair and anger. But is it? First there’s an argument that technocracy created those problems in the first place. Under a very narrow definition of technocracy it may be possible to argue that it didn’t, but expand it out a little bit and it’s hard not to see a correlation (even if causation is difficult to prove). Perhaps you remain unconvinced, but one still has to ask, “Better in whose estimation?” It would be unsurprising if the technocrats thought it was better, but what about the people actually experiencing the despair and anger?
If we take the people who stormed the Capitol as a representative sample, 60% of them, according to data compiled by the Washington Post, had prior financial troubles. Why would they blame technocrats for these troubles? Well let’s look at other data, this time from the RAND Corporation who found that if the income trends which existed from 1945 to 1974 had just continued to the present day that the bottom 90% would have ended up with $47 trillion dollars more in aggregate taxable income. Instead that money ended up with the top 10%. If you were going to apply a label to the top 10%, “technocrats” is as good a description as anything else. Certainly the voting pattern of the top 10% would skew heavily technocratic.
Interestingly technocracies are very good at taking numbers like this and inputting them into their system. We hear all about rising inequality, but under technocracy how do those inputs turn into outputs which actually end up reducing despair and anger? So far there doesn’t appear to be much evidence that they do.
All of this is not an argument to switch from technocracy to Trumpism. I’m making a point about the blind spots of both frameworks. The blindspots of Trumpism are easy to spot. The blindspots of technocracy are less obvious, but they are even more consequential. Trumpism has really never been the law of the land, even while Trump was president. The same can not be said of technocracies, which are in power all over the world, including the US.
Having covered the problems with the inputs, what about the outputs?
It’s easy to imagine that if you just have all the information about an issue that the policies for dealing with that issue will be obvious. But it’s also possible that there is no connection between facts and policies. In one sense this is just the old saw that correlation does not equal causation. In a larger sense we’re talking about making a connection between how things are and how things ought to be, what’s often referred to as the Is-ought problem, or Hume’s guillotine. It’s called that because Hume was the first to point out the impossibility of logically deriving a morale system from a starting point completely lacking in morality, for example, raw facts. That no matter how good the inputs into a framework, if they didn’t come with some morality attached, no morality will emerge out the other side.
Now this is not to say the technocracies have zero embedded morality but, if you think back to the epistemologies of the three different frameworks, it’s clear that it has the least built in morality of any of them and the morality it does have is pretty sterile. On the other hand Trumpism is essentially a moral crusade. I think it’s pretty embryonic and poorly considered, and while Trump himself was able to get it started, and in fact proved fairly adept at it. He seemed unable to hammer it into anything effective. Which is to say, it doesn’t appear that either technocracy or Trumpism has a great plan for getting unity back. This leaves our third framework, national greatness. Thus far I haven’t spent much time talking about it, but it also has quite a bit of embedded morality, which provides interesting lessons for our current crisis, and those lessons are even more pertinent when we contrast it with a technocracy.
It might be most useful to start with a discussion of why we largely abandoned the framework of national greatness. After 200 or so years of using this framework as our default what made us decide that it was inadequate? As far as I can tell it was because of the morality embedded in its epistemology. In putting together its knowledge base it was decided it would be better (i.e. more moral) to overlook some inconvenient facts. For example the treatment of Native Americans; the restriction of suffrage to white, land-owning men; and most of all slavery, including the fact that most of the founders were slave owners. But that was part of the point, whereas technocracy emphasizes increasing the accuracy of the inputs, national greatness emphasized the efficacy of the outputs. This framework sacrificed accuracy for unity. But by embedding moral decisions in the inputs they were able to more easily output morality on the other side. Put more simply they created a civic religion, this is more important than it seems, since historically religions have always been the best place to put moral content.
Contrast that with a technocracy which mostly eschews morality, and the morality it does put forth is limited to material issues, issues which are unavoidably competitive. (As much as self help gurus might preach otherwise, most people still have a zero sum mindset.) Accordingly not only is it a weaker morality than that put forth by a framework of national greatness, what morality it does contain serves to divide rather than unite.
This finally takes us to the biggest weakness of a technocracy, it is not a religion. This is obviously a controversial assertion. Particularly since its supporters view this as one of it’s greatest strengths, but it is nevertheless true.
Even if you accept that some form of religion is the only way out of this mess—even if it’s an ersatz one like the civic religion of national greatness. We’re still a long ways away from anything approaching a concrete solution. And I’m already a couple of days past my self imposed deadline for this post, so we’ll have to explore what that might mean in our next post. But obviously I can’t just leave it here. So allow me to briefly toss out some thoughts to give you a sense of where I’m headed.
I imagine that some of you are still a long way away from believing that religion is the answer, so any post on this subject is going to have to spend at least some time creating that foundation. But I think there are plenty of books that make this exact argument. Just drawing on books I’ve reviewed there’s Clash of Civilizations, A Secular Age, Marriage and Civilization, Sex and Culture, Secret of our Success and the one I’m currently working on The WEIRDest people in the World.
A quote from that last book seems particularly appropriate at this moment:
...throughout human history, rulers needed religions much more than religions needed rulers.
However important some sort of religion might be, our options are limited:
It seems difficult to imagine that we could go back to a unifying ideology of national greatness, and arguably that’s what Trump was trying to do. It’s possible to imagine that someone other than Trump might have been able to pull it off, but now that we’ve had Trump I think he might have burned that bridge.
It seems equally difficult to imagine some large scale return to an existing religion, however much some believers might wish for this.
If we can’t retrace our steps is there some new religion we’re travelling towards? This is an interesting idea and one I’ve covered already in this space, and which I’ll certainly return to in the next post. But for now let’s just say that even if we can make such a transition it’s likely to involve serious upheaval if not actual bloodshed. (And perhaps this is what’s already happening.)
Everyone agrees that the country is sick. This might seem like a radical (not to mention underdeveloped) proposal for its cure, and in some respects it clearly is, but on the other hand I’m merely suggesting that we should look another look at what worked for thousands of years.
I have a framework as well, I input books on one end of things and spit out posts on the other. This is just one of many possible frameworks. Other people input sanctimoniousness and spit out judgement. Still others input hot takes and spit out even hotter takes. If you think my framework is better than those and worth supporting consider donating.