To Kill a Technocrat

Samuel Duncan is a second year Economics and International Security Studies Student, he is also a member of the Australian Labor Party.

As the populists rise out of the ashes to come for the perceived failures of globalism, moderates must form an effective strategy to counter the anti-technocratic strain of thought that has weaved its way into everyday political discourse. A large part of this counter-strategy, however, must begin with self-reflection: asking why economic experts have been unable to communicate their successes to the wider populace. How can they better respond directly to the problems – perceived or otherwise – of the ‘ordinary people’?

One of the main issues that technocrats – experts within a scientific or technological elite – face in communicating their message is structural. Economic experts are almost entirely made up of career academics whom when confronted with an administrative hearing, don’t have the charisma to compete with populists on the left and the right, such as Alan Grayson and Nigel Farage respectively. When faced with questions at Senate enquiries that often require complex answers, technocrats will respond in nuanced ways that are often difficult to understand for regular people. This allows populists to further their narrative despite it being counterfactual to what experts say.

Take Ben Bernanke, former chairman of the US Federal Reserve, having to explain to Democratic Party populist Alan Grayson how central bank liquidity swaps – essentially providing liquidity in U.S. Dollars to overseas markets – strengthened the global financial sector during the Global Financial Crisis. Despite Grayson being unable to engage with what Bernanke was saying, he came away from the interaction having gained public support through his charisma and anti-elitist sentiment.

Another structural issue with policy wonks gaining political influence is that it leads to a centralising of power and a move, albeit slight, towards authoritarianism. This raises the question as to how this increase in expert influence can be reconciled with the democratic process. Part of this reconciliation must come from those who have been branded establishment politicians, making the case to the public as to why the decisions that their experts make are provide a net benefit to society.

A large issue with conveying nuanced economic information is that in the public eye, the representatives of technocrats are often politicians, who have a tendency towards simplifying complex issues to the point of sounding condescending or elitist. Given a choice between supporting free trade or protectionism, for example, many establishment politicians will choose to support free trade with flimsy rhetoric, saying it ‘strengthens ties’ and ‘provides opportunities’. The reason they do this is because in most cases they don’t fully know all the intricate details of individual free trade agreements – they have merely surrendered themselves to the advice of experts around them. Another issue with politicians not knowing exactly what the benefits of a strategy of free trade will be is that they can often be subject to political lobbying. They can easily be convinced that adding a particular provision into a free trade deal is a good idea, even if that provision is just beneficial to corporate lobbiers, rather than the majority of their constituents.

Populists have pounced on the flimsy slogans that politicians give in place of economic communication, displaying it as proof that the elites aren’t on the side of ordinary people and have grown out of touch. But, because technocrats and establishment politicians lack the charisma of populist leaders such as Marine Le Pen and Nigel Farage, they have been unable to form an effective counter-strategy, leading to a continued rise in populism.

There is, of course, another aspect to countering the rise of populism and it starts with the public gaining humility and admitting that, in most cases, they don’t know the slightest thing about the financial sector or the intricacies of macroeconomic policy. This anti-expert attitude only seems to transpire in certain areas of policy making and often looks ridiculous when applied to another. Take climate change policy: you wouldn’t find someone who is broadly left on the political spectrum that doesn’t justify their belief in climate change with reference to the overwhelming evidence that has been gathered through the modelling of climate scientists. So why is it that so many more people take positions outside the realm of what economists deem to be reasonable when it comes to macroeconomic policy?

Some would say that the reason for this is that economics, broadly speaking, isn’t an exact science – however, modelling-wise, climate science isn’t exact either. Climate scientists can’t predict with 100 percent accuracy what the weather will be two days from now, yet their modelling is good enough to form a consensus for the overall existence of climate change. Similarly, economists can’t predict certain financial shocks, but the modelling is still precise enough to create consensus on what the impacts will be of policy decisions.

It’s difficult to say with any certainty how far the populist resurgence will go, and what impacts it will have on the world economy, however, the continued acceptance of the idea that experts don’t know what they’re talking about is a dangerous political force. There is some truth to the idea that political elites have grown out of touch with people’s day-to-day lives and that they need to begin listening to the people again. Equally, however, there needs to be a change in mindset for those in the public who think that they know better than those who have devoted their lives to understanding very complex topics. This attitude only results in experts being disillusioned with their involvement with the public sector, leading them to move into private financial institutions and corporate lobbying bodies, which seek to open loopholes, rather than close them. This chain reaction creates a vicious cycle that perpetuates bad policy results, and a more divided, politically polarised society.

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