President Emmanuel Macron has invoked Article 49.3 of the French Constitution in order to push through his pension reform bill without putting it to a vote in the National Assembly. This is the hundredth time that the French government has invoked this article since it was introduced in 1958. The tense stand-off between Macron’s government and ordinary citizens is a vivid reminder of the inevitable tension between democracy – rule by the people – and technocracy – rule by the experts.
One the one hand, democratic governments claim to honour the will of their constituents, broadly speaking, rather than ruling like enlightened monarchs who look into their hearts to know what is best for the country; on the other hand, governments must make hard choices in accordance with the information and advice they have to hand, and these choices do not necessarily track popular opinion, nor should they.
A balance must be struck between a slavish form of populism, that just gives people what they want at any given moment, no matter the cost, and an authoritarian form of technocracy or “expert” rule, that treats the people like children or even cattle who must be prodded this way and that “for their own good.” Sadly, the pendulum is swinging ever closer toward the latter extreme, with the emergence in the West of a form of unaccountable expert rule that is demeaning toward citizens and destructive to the very notion of self-government.
It is one thing for a government to take advice from people with experience and training in a particular field, be it healthcare, industrial relations, finance, economics, or law, and to do its best to bring people around to its informed views; quite another to use the opinion of experts to rationalise policies and laws that completely disregard or override citizens’ own judgments and choices about how to live and how to cope with the problems they face individually and communally.
There was always an element of technocracy latent in representative democracy, but this element has been greatly enhanced with the consolidation, especially over the course of the 20th century, of technologies of persuasion, policing, surveillance, taxation and currency control that would have made a medieval king envious.
When the capacity for advanced technocratic rule is in place, the only thing standing in its way, apart from the law, is a culture of restraint and the good will of rulers. But we have already seen that law, culture, and the character of political leaders are sufficiently fragile in Western democracies to permit the evisceration of informed consent and the introduction of mass surveillance of healthy people, in the face of a virus with a survival rate of over 99.8%.
The philosophy of technocracy is a philosophy that views ordinary citizens as unenlightened and fundamentally incapable of governing their own lives. The attitude of the technocrat toward citizens is eminently paternalistic: “either get with the program or you’re not worthy of citizenship” (to use a term Macron applied not long ago to unvaccinated citizens) This attitude is justified by the rather problematic assumption that “experts” know much better than citizens what’s good for them.
Technocracy is typically invoked in response to complex problems that do not admit of pat answers, such as climate change, international terrorism, food shortages, inflation, and public health. The underlying assumption appears to be that in the face of a complex social problem, there is a society-wide answer that can be conceived by philosopher-kings (“experts”) and imposed on everyone from the top down.
But the uncomfortable reality that technocrats rarely admit is that there are very few complex social problems that can be solved in this way, and historical attempts to do so, from communist Russia to the suburban ghettoes created by the mid 20th century city planning movement in the United States, do not have an encouraging track record. Typically, complex social problems require complex and multi-lateral solutions, of a sort that require both independent and cooperative behaviour by a wide range of diverse actors.
To the extent that technocrats defy the will of citizens or strong-arm them into compliance with their edicts, they erode the legitimacy of our democratic institutions and set themselves on a collision course with democracy. The more they erect themselves as a “scientific power” that stands aloof from the democratic will, the more they will have to have recourse to coercion, manipulation, or “incentives” to push citizens in the direction that they want them to go.
In a technocratic world, in which “experts” dictate public policy and micromanage an increasing proportion of citizens’ day-to-day lives, citizens will have less and less of a say over their own future and that of their communities. Some citizens will feel betrayed by technocracy because they have been robbed of the freedom to decide the future of their own lives. Others will feel betrayed because technocracy has not delivered on its promise to make their life happier, safer, and more enjoyable. The net result, in either case, will be a progressive delegitimation of technocratic regimes.
I suspect that people who rule in a technocratic spirit, such as Emmanuel Macron, think they can just push their way through, because they cannot or do not want to see their own limitations, or are too intoxicated by their own intelligence and their own power to see the wood from the trees. Yet by forging ahead with the technocratic project of creating a society in the image and likeness of a special enlightened class of rulers, technocrats are preparing the way for their own demise.
For the erosion of political legitimacy will create an environment propitious to a rise in public disorder, violence, and contempt for the law. And the more a regime needs to rely on coercion to get its policies implemented, the closer it is to collapse. So the architects and high priests of technocracy should take a long, hard look in the mirror and ask themselves, do they want to delegitimate their own regimes? How is that even in their own interest?
You might think pension reform is long overdue, as I do. But it makes a big difference how such reforms are implemented. Abuses of democratic procedure cannot be judged on their short-term results alone: we must consider the precedent they set. Let us not forget that the very same Macron that felt entitled to ignore the usual procedures of democratic rule in the case of pension reform, had previously invoked a public health emergency to set French citizens’ rights on their head by excluding unvaccinated citizens from public amenities.
And he was not alone. Macron’s government was just one of many Western governments that endorsed the evisceration of citizens’ civil rights, the confinement of healthy people to their homes, and the use of QR code technology to exclude unvaccinated citizens from restaurants and coffee shops, on the basis of false “expert” judgments concerning the supposed efficacy of lockdowns and vaccines at stopping the transmission of disease.
That was just a little taste of things to come, should we sit back and allow technocracy to keep gathering momentum.