Society and Culture

Beware the new technocrats

The coronavirus lockdown has brought to the fore a socio-economic divide that in normal times goes often unnoticed. It is not the obvious one between the rich and the poor. Rather it reflects by analogy John Stuart Mill saying that not only should there be no taxation without representation, there should also be no representation without taxation. If you have a class of people who pay no tax, they will have no disincentive to promote as much government expenditure as possible.

Under lockdown the divide is between those who get paid anyway and are unlikely to lose their job, whether they are working or not, regardless of the lockdown, and those who do not. People in the former category are typically public sector employees (PSE), people in the latter category are more likely to be private sector employees and employers (PSEE).

PSEs comprise government and quasi-government employees – nurses, doctors, teachers, civil servants, local government staff, police officers, university academics – and they are either paid directly by the government, or their salaries are underwritten by a subsidy raised from taxation. Both are often tied to and made yet more secure by the service they offer being a government statutory requirement, such as compulsory education. One might add on this general criterion pensioners receiving state pensions. PSEEs whose work is not underwritten by the government, nor subsidised by it, nor rests on a statutory requirement to purchase their services, include plumbers, shopkeepers, shop workers, publicans, restaurant owners and staff, businesses of all sorts providing goods and services. The case of politicians and where they fit into this is more complex and will be returned to. The pertinent characteristic of PSEE is that crudely speaking if they fail to deliver goods or services then they will in return receive no income and might become unemployed. PSEE usually make a living through voluntary exchange, and if there is no payment, they are unable to make a living in this way. In the case of PSE this relationship is hedged with no direct relationship between the goods and services offered and their getting paid.

The purpose of the account here is to highlight a worry that the lockdown has created an appetite for controls that serve monadic putatively desirable outcomes, laden with judgemental language such as ‘key’ and ‘inessential’, guided by some set of assumed values. In a free society such monadic engineering should be kept to a minimum. While a liberal society is not value-neutral as to how one ought to live, it seeks to maximise the diversity of those values while still holding the society together. The lockdown is archetypical of a far-reaching pervasive coercive action taken for some collective end which is said to trump value-decisions made by individuals. In a liberal society one errs on the side of opposing such things given the destructive unintended consequences and the ineradicable lack of knowledge concerning complex systems possessed by societies.

The issue here is about the people who are most influential in making the decision about when and how something like a lockdown should occur. It turns out that the group in the form of advisors or those in direct power is those who have most likely nothing to lose in terms of their being paid and having a job, that is, they are among PSEs. Recent events have been driven by experts, and putative experts, working with politicians, who find easy support among others in the PSE group. Their decisions fall with greatest weight as far as getting paid and having a job are concerned on those who have the least say, that is those in the PSEE group.

Of course, if economic catastrophe befalls us they will suffer too, and the government itself will run out of taxes and borrowing to pay wages to PSEs. But this is a far more distant and unlikely outcome.

We have seen a succession of academics and medics advising and strong-arming the government into steps for which they pay no price beyond that which everyone pays.

Politicians themselves in the last resort, theoretically at least, by due process, make the decisions. They have most of the characteristics of PSEs except for one vital feature: they are accountable in that they can be removed by the electorate, that is, lose their job. The link is circuitous but at least the threat is there. Or they may be removed from office and find themselves in opposition.

If there is a new ruling class of technocrats whose decisions have little direct economic impact on themselves – a version of representation without taxation – this may lead one to wonder whether their judgement is impaired by that.

The danger to personal liberty is now perhaps from a form of technocracy where once it was from religion or ideology. Though technocrats often go hand-in-hand with ideologies that would impose themselves on how people live their lives, there is the additional danger of presenting something as a mere matter of value-free science and technology while it harbours an underlying but unspoken collectivist value-laden ideology. A new ruling class of economically cocooned technocrats in thrall to the ‘rational conceit’ as Hayek termed it, with nothing to lose from putting grand social engineering plans into place. Coercion need not always be required as many people may start thinking compliantly that they have to look to the technocrats to decide how they should conduct their lives rather than looking to themselves.

The main protection against a slide into a technocracy, apart from open discussion, is politics and the unceasing attempt to influence the politicians and who the politicians are. The danger is a technocracy imposing assumed collective values displacing the resultant values of individuals.




Dr John Shand is an Honorary Associate in Philosophy at The Open University. He is the author of Arguing Well (Routledge, 2000) and Philosophy and Philosophers: An Introduction to Western Philosophy Second edition (Routledge, 2002), alongside numerous other publications.

1 thought on “Beware the new technocrats”

  1. Posted 26/01/2021 at 11:41 | Permalink

    A thought provoking read. Should we also be worried that the challenge goes beyond the worry that the “… group in the form of advisors or those in direct power is those who have most likely nothing to lose …”? I fear that their advice is also motivated by what they have to gain. Many of the academics advising the government are beneficiaries of government research funds for COVID. As just one example, the lead academic of the £2.5M “National consortium to study threats of new SARS-CoV-2 variants” is a member of SAGE. It is difficult to imagine that their advice is not influenced, consciously or sub-consciously, by the knowledge that the financial support for, and media interest in, their research, depends upon ensuring that the perception of threat from COVID remains high.

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