Competing viewpoints on technocrats. First, Krugman:
I call foul. I know from technocrats; sometimes I even play one myself. And these people — the people who bullied Europe into adopting a common currency, the people who are bullying both Europe and the United States into austerity — aren’t technocrats. They are, instead, deeply impractical romantics.
They are, to be sure, a peculiarly boring breed of romantic, speaking in turgid prose rather than poetry. And the things they demand on behalf of their romantic visions are often cruel, involving huge sacrifices from ordinary workers and families. But the fact remains that those visions are driven by dreams about the way things should be rather than by a cool assessment of the way things really are.
And to save the world economy we must topple these dangerous romantics from their pedestals.
Second, The Epicurean Dealmaker:
The second point to realize is that the usual suspect scientific and technical conundrums which the techdysiasts would have us address are defined and constrained far more by their social and political dimensions than by the hard science issues at their core. Fixing climate change, poverty, or even global financial regulation is not merely a problem of finding the correct solution to a thorny technical problem. These big issues are big because they entail questions of philosophy, ideology, justice, the proper form of society, and even culture. The underlying science is almost trivial compared to the value questions at stake.3 Here, again, we find that the study of liberal arts and humanities prepares a student far better to come to grips with the thorny issues at hand than, say, one prerequisite bioethics course for a pre-med major. Do we really want to turn the keys to our global future over to a bunch of narrowly-educated, really smart, culturally and historically naive technocrats? I sure don’t. Give me someone who has read Herodotus, analyzed Shakespeare, or argued over Rawls instead.
This is tough. I am an economics and public policy major. Although you might call both of those soft-sciences, they both suffer from “physics envy.” That is, they wish dearly that all of our problems can be mathematized away. And both disciplines probably suffer for that. On the other hand, I’ve been implicitly trained to try to systematize problems into simple cost/benefit analyses. And I often catch myself wishing that governing was more of a science than an art.
It’s really fascinating to me that on the one hand, you have Krugman arguing that the very problem is that technocrats are not sufficiently influential. On the other, you have TED , who believes that narrowly focused technocrats are inherently ill-equipped for leadership.
I’d take issue with Krugman’s neat dichotomy of technocrat/romantic. Krugman hopes to define technocrats merely by how they think: “a cool assessment of the way things really are.” Maybe that’s how Krugman would want them to act. And surely cool cost/benefit empirical thinking is part of how we envision technocrats working. But it is an undeniable fact that the individuals Krugman writes off as hopeless romantics are unelected members of a technically skilled elite; that is to say, they are technocrats. Their knowledge runs deep and narrow.
So how can we synthesize the two opposing views, if we can?
What if we are living in a world where our technocrats are romantics, with all the naiveté that TED ascribes to technocrats trying to lead? The world just got a lot scarier.