Teaching Comparative Government and Politics

Friday, December 02, 2011

Technocrats and democracy

The new governments in Greece and Italy have been described by journalists as led by technocrats.

The concept of technocrat is not well described in most textbooks. Often, the concept only comes up in discussions about the rivalries between the political dinosaurios who ran the old version of the PRI and the technocrats who want to take power in the party.

So, what's a technocrat? If having technocrats in charge in Greece and Italy is a good idea now, are there disadvantages? Are there similar disadvantages for Mexico as the new PRI is poised to return to power? And why does no one talk about the technocrats who run most of the modern parts of Iran's economy (like the nuclear industry and the military)? Are there technocrats in other countries? Who are they? How do they affect governance and politics?

The Economist published an article about Greece and Italy, but it sheds light indirectly on the countries your students are studying. It might be worth their attention.

Technocrats, Minds like machines: Government by experts sounds tempting, especially in a crisis. It can work. But brief stints have the best chances
EVEN before Plato conceived the philosopher-king, people yearned for clever, dispassionate and principled government. When the usual run of rulers proves cowardly, indecisive or discredited, turning to the wisdom and expertise of a technocrat, as both Italy and Greece have done in recent days, is particularly tempting.

Part of the attraction of the term “technocrat”, however, is that the label is so stretchy. Does it mean just any expert in government, or one from outside politics? How many technocrats, and in which positions, justify a government’s “technocratic” label? Does such an administration operate within the political system, or supplant it? For how long? Can a technocrat evolve into a politician and vice versa? The answers are imprecise and shift over time…

When political power is not publicly contested at all, electability is irrelevant and expertise can give the ambitious an edge. In China all but one of the nine members of the Politburo Standing Committee are engineers. This marks a shift… And it may be temporary. Li Keqiang, likely to take over from Wen Jiabao as prime minister in 2013, has degrees in law and economics….

It is not only one-party states that like technocracy. Military officers justifying a coup may use technocratic parlance when they highlight their independence of lobbies and their focus on the national interest…

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