Frequent readers of this blog know that I have a particular disdain for technocrats and the damage they do via government coercion. Just to make sure that I am not subject to the Princess Bride accusation of "You keep using that word -- I do not think it means what you think it does", I will define my terms.
In my parlance, a technocrat is someone who believes that individuals, either acting alone or in groups, are making the wrong decisions and that a few very smart people can make things better for everyone by overriding everyone else's decision-making.
Technocrats sometimes have a "macro" flavor, focusing on the broad sweep of the economy, seeing market failures everywhere that they feel they could override if only someone would follow their "plan". This hubris was of course one of the foundations for that juggernaut Soviet Russian economy, and was in fact the thinking behind America's closest brush with fascism, Roosevelt's NRA, which was modeled on Mussolini's economic work. My college roommate Brink Lindsey has a lot of background on the early 20th century roots of technocratic opposition to capitalism in his book Against the Dead Hand: The Uncertain Struggle for Global Capitalism.
Technocrats also can have a "micro" flavor, focusing on individuals who they feel are making bad decisions for their own selves. Classic examples are helmet and seat belt laws, where "smarter" people use government coercion for your own good. We typically call these micro technocrats nannies. I discussed governments overriding individual decision-making here.
Just the other day I mentioned in this post that I had had a conversation with a technocrat who was:
lamenting that allowing a company like GM to die is dumb, and that a
little bit of intelligent management would save all those GM jobs and
assets. Though we did not discuss specifics, I presume in his model
the government would have some role in this new intelligent design (I
guess like it had in Amtrak?)
I went on to describe why it was OK to let GM fail. In particular I noted that it was bad for everyone to artificially force quality assets (people and facilities) to remain in an under-performing corporate structure, which is what the government in effect does when it tries to override the market's decision that a corporation needs to die.
I bring this all up because I saw this classic example of technocratic statism from David Ignatius in the Washington Post.
Economist Philip Verleger was traveling in Asia last month when the news
broke that General Motors was slashing 30,000 jobs to try to reverse its death
spiral. A Japanese economist he had known for many years asked him a stark
question: "What great nation will allow its major manufacturing company to
The convulsions wracking GM are scary, but they're getting surprisingly
little attention amid America's sea of other troubles. Certainly, we've heard
barely a peep out of the Bush administration, which evidently worries more about
keeping energy companies happy than Rust Belt manufacturers. Commentators have
blamed GM management for being too shortsighted and its workers for being too
greedy. But few people seem to appreciate that the nation as a whole has a stake
in maintaining a dynamic industrial base, or that government policies could help
reverse our industrial decline....
But suppose we took GM's near-death experience as a national wake-up call and
decided to get serious about reviving the long-term health of the U.S.
manufacturing sector. What if political leaders treated this as a fundamental
national mission, equivalent to President John F. Kennedy's call to put a man on
the moon? Could government make any difference?
Try this thought exercise: Suppose a government plan could revitalize the
automobile industry and the rest of the transportation sector, encouraging it to
leapfrog several generations of technology; suppose this same plan could cut
U.S. dependence on foreign oil to zero; and suppose, finally, that the plan
could develop new technologies that would bump our economy to a higher growth
path and foster U.S. economic leadership in the 21st century. Would that idea be
Yes, good idea, lets hand over the automobile industry to the same folks who built and maintained the levees in New Orleans. It is interesting he quotes a Japanese economist chiding the US for letting its major companies fail. The author is basically advocating the Japanese MITI approach, making technology choices and managing industries and preventing large organizations in which national pride is somehow tied up from failing. Which, of course, has resulted in a 15 year recession in Japan. And Europe. Don Boudreaux at Cafe Hayek responds further:
I'm tempted to do a long riff here on all the details that Ignatius misses "“
such as, for example, the fact that it's simply not true that as goes GM so goes
America; such as the fact that there is
nothing at all special or inherently better about manufacturing and
manufacturing jobs over service-sector production; such as the fact that
infecting decisions about investment and production with politics will reward
political appeal at the expense of genuinely economically sound uses of
But it's late, so I'll just point you to Ignatius's closing paragraph:
I'm no technologist, so I can't evaluate the technical details of Lovins's
proposal. What I like is that it's big, bold and visionary. It would shake an
America that is sitting on its duff as foreign competitors clobber our
industrial giants, and it would send a new message: Get moving, start
innovating, turn this ship around before it really hits the
This paragraph reflects an attitude that is rich soil for totalitarianism to
take root. It ignores individual freedom; it ignores the possibility that the
admired Big Plan might be flawed, either technologically or economically or
both. Ignatius is all orgasmic simply because The Plan is centralized and Big
and (allegedly) will compel or inspire the masses once again to behave in ways
that promote national greatness.
Heaven help us.
If you think he is exaggerating, as many people do, by invoking the threat of fascism, go back and read what the fascists of the 1930's were writing. It is nearly identical to Ignatius's words.
There are two lessons technocrats never learn: 1) Their grand plans never work and 2) The statist machinery they create via their grand plans is always taken over from the well-meaning by the power-hungry and corrupt. As I stated before:
Technocratic idealists ALWAYS lose control of the game. It may feel
good at first when the trains start running on time, but the
technocrats are soon swept away by the thugs, and the patina of
idealism is swept away, and only fascism is left. Interestingly, the
technocrats always cry "our only mistake was letting those other guys
take control". No, the mistake was accepting the right to use force on
another man. Everything after that was inevitable
And, in fact, you are seeing just this today, as technocrats on the left lament that the machinery of state control they created, from the FDA to public schools, is being taken over by their political enemies. Unfortunately, they lament the loss of control, not creating the all-powerful state in the first place. Much more on this topic here and here.
Postscript: I tossed off the statement above about letting the same organization that built the New Orleans levees fix the automobile industry. That quick joke makes a valid point, but I should mention that Ignatious does try to preempt this argument:
But then, who can expect individuals to act responsibly when we have an
administration that asserts, in apparent sincerity, that the proper response to
our massive deficits is more tax cuts that plunge us even deeper into debt?
We've become so inured to public-sector mismanagement that the idea of
government solving problems is almost laughable.
In effect, he is arguing that yes, the government has mismanaged things, but this is only because they did not let the really smart people run things. This is a particularly seductive argument for the left, where most technocrats reside, since it lets them say that government is inefficient only because that idiot Bush is in charge.
But this ignores the fact that the stupid and corrupt always take over the machinery of state. Technocrats love railroads, and think America is stupid for not riding the train, like those brilliant Europeans are. Many supposedly smart people, both Democrats and Republicans, have had their shot at Amtrak, and it still sucks and loses money. One reason among many for this failure is that incentives matter. The government has the incentive to patronize powerful voting blocks, not to run an efficient operation or serve customers well. That's why we get half-billion dollar bridges in Alaska to islands with populations of fifty people. That's why scientific decisions at the FDA get politicized. That is why have the government backing a technology ostensibly to reduce fossil fuel use (ethanol) that has been proven to actually increase fossil fuel use. In effect, government always turns smart people stupid. More on the specific dangers of government industry building here.
Another Postscript: By the way, people smarter than me do change industries all the time. The are called "entrepeneurs" and they raise capital from people voluntarily and they succeed or fail only if individuals choose to do business with them. I find it fascinating to compare Sam Walton with Mr. Ignatius. Sam Walton raised money voluntarily to support a different vision of retailing, and was successful because many, many people have chosen voluntarily to shop at his stores. Mr. Ignatius wants to change the automobile industry at the point of a gun, using government's coercive power to force companies to adopt certain technologies and build cars in certain ways, funding the effort with tax dollars taken unwillingly from productive Americans. Isn't it amazing that "progressives" will want to rally around Mr. Ignatius's vision while excoriating Wal-mart at every turn?
OK, another Postscript: At the heart of many of Mr. Ignatius's concerns, and of many people on the left, is that America is "losing" to other countries. Could someone on the planet please provide maybe just one single fact to support what they mean by this. I mean, I hear this all the time, but what is it referring to? Other than, of course, the lamentable fact that 43-year-old Ivy League educated men still can't stop ending sentences with a preposition.
Since 1990, the US economic growth rate has dusted that in most of Europe and Japan. Only developing nations like China have growth rates that outpace us, and I guess that is what these folks are worried about. But this is what is never said: If you don't want countries like China to "catch up" with the US in technology and economy, then you have to be willing to consign billions of people to eternal poverty. It is amazing to me that "progressives" who ostensibly care about the poor get so upset when countries like China develop real capabilities that can finally pull themselves out of poverty. Inevitably, as they do this, they will do some things better than we do. Over time, our economies will shift, as we do the things we are good at and vice versa. I know this is kind of novel for some - its an idea that has only been around for 200 years or so. Having other people get wealthier is only a threat if you believe economics are zero-sum, another urban legend popular on the left that can be demolished with about 5 seconds thought.
One of the virtues of being a bit older is that you can start personally observing history repeating itself. In the late 80's and early 90's everyone was running around screaming that we were "losing" to Japan and we had to imitate their statist technocratic approach. Fortunately we did not. Only in politics could you hear people like Mr. Ignatius being taken seriously when they scream "our economy is losing - lets go out and imitate the people losing even worse"
Update: Sorry this is getting so long, but I can't ignore Virginia Postrel on the same topic of technocrats:
Competition provides not only useful criticism but a continuous
source of experiments. It gives people...the ideas with which to create still
more progress and encourages them, too, to come up with incremental
improvements. By picking winners, stasist protectionism eliminates this learning
process, which includes learning what does not work.
"Premature choice," warns the physicist Freeman Dyson, "means betting all
your money on one horse before you have found out whether she is lame."
Protecting established interests from new challengers is one form of premature
choice. But technocratic planners also sometimes kill existing alternatives to
force their new ideas to "succeed." To protect the space shuttle, NASA not only
blocked competition from private space launch companies, it also eliminated its
own expendable launchers. Such pre-emptive verdicts often mark public works
projects. Planners pick an all-purpose winner, squeeze out alternatives, and
eliminate any real chance of experiment and learning.
Consider the infamous Denver International Airport. Aviation officials touted
the $4.9 billion project as essential to keep up with the region's growth. They
promised it would be a vast improvement over the old Stapleton Airport, which
was often socked in by bad weather. But its sponsors foisted DIA on unwilling
customers. The airport is 25 miles outside Denver, pretty much in the middle of
nowhere, while Stapleton was just 15 minutes from downtown. To make matters
worse, there are no hotels near DIA. And the new airport's cost per passenger is
somewhere between $11.75 and $18.14, depending on how you count--substantially
more than either the $4.59 at Stapleton or the $9.91 promised by former Mayor
Federico Pena. Frequent travelers resent the inconvenience and the generally
higher ticket prices. "I liked Stapleton better," one told The Denver Post. "You
could literally leave about 45 minutes before your plane departed. With DIA, you
have to leave an hour and a half before." A flight attendant expressed a common
sentiment: "It's a beautiful airport. But we hate it."
On the airport's first anniversary, journalists had trouble reaching a simple
verdict on DIA. There were complaints all right--lots of them. But some
passengers liked the spiffy new airport, with its marble floors and inviting
shops. And flight delays had in fact dropped dramatically. The first-anniversary
stories were confused, lacking a central theme.
The reporters had missed the main problem: The city had eliminated the most
obvious source of feedback--competition from the old airport. It had made DIA a
protected monopoly rather than an experiment subject to competitive trial. By
shutting down Stapleton, DIA's political sponsors had made it impossible to rule
the new airport a definite error. No matter how many complaints passengers
lodge, officials can always point to other advantages. At the same time,
however, DIA's monopoly keeps it from becoming an accepted success. Without a
genuine trial, we simply have no way to tell whether travelers (or airlines)
would rather trade a convenient location for fewer weather-related delays. One
airport must fit all: Love it or hate it, if you're flying from Denver you don't
have a choice.
Technocrats often decry competition as wasteful, and always use examples of failed companies and poor private technology choices (e.g. dot com bust companies) as an example of inefficiency of a competitive marketplace that technocrats could avoid. As Postrel points out, though, these individual failures are not failures of the system, but rather are triumphs. In the immortal words of the Microsoft tech center, they are a feature, not a bug, and a critical feature at that.