Thursday, December 29, 2011

Technocrats versus Democracy?

Two recent posts from Chris Dillow - one on the irrelevance of politicians and another on the reluctance of politicians to make the robust moral decisions deserve another look, and not just because they're mostly right.

In both cases, they seem to be based upon the settled view of what politicians should be, rather than the principled description of what they could - and should - be.

In both cases, Chris doesn't start from the most important observation here: Politicians have rivals. Nominally, parliaments are sovereign (with lots of global caveats - here's ours). Nominally, they derive that sovereignty from us - 'nothing about us without us.'

Yet, I doubt if anyone would try to push the fiction that we all have equal influence over our Parliaments. I don't mean the simple aggregate of direct democracy either. As that line from The Putney Debates put it, "the poorest hee that is in England hath a life to live" should expect his arguments to weigh as heavily with his MP as "the greatest hee".

Try it yourself. Knock up a few hundred words on Utilitarianism, the oppression of minorities, how parliaments should make policy and the question of who elected politicians should represent.

It's a surprisingly uncomplicated essay to write. Yet no-one would look at most democracies and say that this good balance isn't increasingly disfigured by burgeoning populism or distorted beyond recognition by pressure groups, bureaucratic interests or media owners.

There are clear parallels here with my last post here on the erosion of justice.

We knock politicians for their failure to regulate the finance sector, but I'd like to read the counterfactual history of Western democracies in which parliaments would have got away with calling time on that particular party. For all of my lack of understanding of the climate change debate, I suspect we'd be able to say the same about that one too.

If someone were to come before a court and was demonstrably incapable of making good decisions in their own interests because they had fallen under the influence of a bully, the court would appoint a someone with the independence to make those decisions. New Labour made an early admission of this kind when it make the Bank of England independent and Osborne has created his own ersatz version with the Office for Budget Responsibility.

There is nothing anti-democratic about a Parliament doing the same thing in other spheres - quite the opposite. The only point at which Parliament deserts its duties when it replaces a legitimacy-lite Prime Minster with a technocrat (and in our centralised modern states, that is all that has been happening) and then only gives them one task - to solve the problem that the bully has helped to create.

I'd go further. The most democratic thing a Parliament can do is to appoint someone who can make the decisions that they would make if they weren't under unbearable coercion.

This is not a defence of the current rise of technocrats though. Their mandate appears to be to solve the current crisis and then to restore the power relations that created it in the first place. If technocrats fail to create a long-term challenge to the forces that rival Parliaments, then they're no better than our increasingly centralised and presidential political leaders. But I don't suppose they're any worse than them either.

1 comment:

Sion Whellens said...

Paul, what would motivate a technocratic government to set about challenging the forces that delegitimise elected representatives? Are you saying that under certain circumstances it might be necessary to appoint 'good managers' to refurbish democratic systems? How would you go about identifying such a class of person?