Rob Hunter

The Technocratic Dream

Just a brief post to direct your attention to a discussion about liberalism and technocracy, occuring at The League of Ordinary Gentlemen and elsewhere (links contained therein). The disaggretation of empirical from normative questions that is so prevalent in policy discussions is deeply troubling. Furthermore, its rests on the conceit that facts trump values in discussions of politics - and yet somehow surveying the facts is sufficient to help us find the right answers, when presumably the rightness of such answers is appropriately discovered through the consideration of values.

Here’s the prototypically technocratic Ezra Klein: “At this point in my life, I don’t really think of myself as a liberal. That’s not the project I’m part of, which is to let the facts take me where they do.” For the technocrat, sovereign facts must lead us to the right policies, whose rightness somehow consists in being arrived at through the consideration of certain facts and nothing more. Left unconsidered is the possibility that policy decisions - affecting conceivably millions of people, who we might imagine have some thoughts of their own about the problems they face and how they’d like to see them addressed - might importantly depend on the consideration of the values they are meant to instantiate or honor. The technocratic dream is one in which elections, and the participation of mass publics in politics, are irrelevant; the messy business of what Max Weber called “the strong and slow boring of hard boards” can then be left by the wayside.

Lurking behind this, of course, is the fond hope that ideology can somehow be drained out of politics, and that disagreement - the fundamental currency of politics in a (notional) democracy - can be elided. The distrust of ideology that is regnant among left-of-center liberals is vividly illustrated by wonks’ insistence that they aren’t ideologues but honest brokers. This is, of course, the way in which austerity budgets are presented as accidents of nature rather than political choices, or in which “school reform” is presented as a “solution” to a contrived problem, rather than an attempt to divert public funds to private schools.

But hey - facts are facts. Leave values to the fringes and nutters.

Update: via Twitter, an excellent reminder that these sorts of debates are not helpfully framed in terms of a supposed conflict between empiricism and theory. You need both. (Normative arguments that are untethered to any kind of skeptical appreciation of experience can dive down deep rabbitholes pretty quickly.) But empiricists of a certain stripe are susceptible to thinking that empiricism is both necessary and sufficient, that the facts are their own justification absent a theory of justification. They aren’t.