By Ryan McMaken
Perhaps never before in American history have the unelected technocrats played such an enormous role in shaping public policy in America.
In recent weeks, members of Congress have been missing in action. Late last month, the House of Representatives passed the biggest spending bill in history while most members were absent. Member votes were not recorded and the legislation was passed with a voice vote, which required only a tiny handful of members.
Weeks later, the Senate refuses to even meet, and may finally get around to debating some legislative matters in May. As with the House, a handful of members assembled earlier to approve another enormous stimulus bill. Many Senators stayed home. This is “representative government” in modern America.
But if you thought this lack of congressional action means not much is happening in Washington in terms of policymaking, you would be very wrong. It’s just that the democratically elected institutions have now become a largely irrelevant sideshow. The real policymaking takes place among unelected experts, who decide for themselves—with minimal oversight or control from actual elected officials—what will happen in terms of public policy. The people who really run the country are these experts and bureaucrats at the central banks, at public health agencies, spy agencies, and an expanding network of boards and commissions.
The Rise of the Technocracy
This is not a new trend. Over the past several decades—and especially since the New Deal—official experts in government have gradually replaced elected representatives as the primary decision-makers in government. Public debate has been abandoned in favor of meetings among small handfuls of unelected technocrats. Politics has been replaced by “science,” whether social science or physical science. These powerful and largely unaccountable decision-makers are today most noticeable in federal courts, in “intelligence” agencies, at the Federal Reserve, and—long ignored until now—in government public health agencies.
Technocracy as a style of governing has been around at least since the Progressive Era, although it has often been restrained by traditional legislative and elected political actors and institutions. Globally, it has gained prominence in a variety of times and places, for example in Mexico during the 1980s and 1990s.
But the technocracy’s power has long been growing in the United States as well.
This may seem odd in a world where we are told democracy is among the highest political values, but technocrats have nonetheless managed to justify themselves through myths asserting that technocrats make scientific decisions guided only by The Data. These technocrats, we are told, care nothing of politics and only make sound decisions based on where the science leads.
Although that all may sound more reasonable or logical to some, the truth is that there is nothing nonpolitical, scientific, or evenhanded about government by technocrat. Technocrats, like everyone else, have their own ideologies, their own agendas, and their own interests. Often, their interests are greatly at odds with those of the general public that pays the technocrats’ salaries and is subject to the technocracy’s edicts. The rise of technocracy has only meant that the means of influencing policy is now limited to a much smaller number of people—namely those who are already influential and powerful in the halls of government. Technocracy seems less political, because the political wrangling is limited to what used to be called “smoke-filled rooms.” That is, technocracy is really a sort of oligarchy, although not limited to the financially wealthy. It’s limited to people who went to the “right” schools or control powerful corporations such as Google or Facebook, or work for influential media organizations. It’s branded “nonpolitical,” because ordinary voters and taxpayers are excluded from even knowing who is involved or what policies are being proposed. In other words, technocracy is government by a small exclusive club. And you ain’t in it.
So how does technocracy survive in a system to claims to base its legitimacy on democratic institutions? After all, technocracy is by its very nature designed to be antidemocratic. Indeed, as the Left has soured on democracy, leftists have taken to demanding that more technocratic methods be implemented to do an end run around democratic institutions. In a much-quoted 2011 article for the New Republic, influential banker and economist Peter Orszag complains that democratic institutions such as Congress aren’t implementing enough of his preferred policies. Therefore, he insists that it’s time to “jettison the Civics 101 fairy tale about pure representative democracy and instead begin to build a new set of rules and institutions.” He wants rule by technocrat through a system of “commissions” staffed by “independent experts.”
This is the new model of “efficient” government. But in many areas, this is already how the United States is governed. There is no shortage of boards, panels, courts, and agencies that are controlled by experts who function largely without any oversight from the voters, taxpayers, or elected officials.
We can point to several institutions in which the spirit of technocracy is both well established and highly influential.
One: The US Supreme Court
This tendency toward technocracy first manifested itself in the form of the US Supreme Court. The court, of course, had long been considered to be a body of legal experts, of sorts. They were supposed to consider technical legal issues apart from the vicissitudes of electoral politics. But this expertise did not come without limitations. The court was expected to limit its own power or risk charges of attempting to meddle in the workings of democracy. By the mid-twentieth century, however, these limitations had been largely abandoned. During the 1950s and 1960s, the Supreme Court created a wide variety of new “rights” that Congress had never shown any willingness to create. Roe v. Wade, for example, created a new federal legal right to abortion based purely on the desires of a handful of judges and regardless of the fact it had always been assumed by virtually everyone that abortion was a matter for state legislatures.
Prior to this period any changes of such magnitude would have required a constitutional amendment. That is, prior to the rise of the modern supercharged SCOTUS, it was assumed that major changes to the Constitution required a long public debate and the involvement of many voters and legislators. But with the rise of the Supreme Court as expert creators of new law, it became the norm for the judges to dispense with public debate and electoral decision-making. Instead, the experts would “discover” what the Constitution really meant and create their own new laws based on legal “expertise.”
Two: The Federal Reserve
A second building block of the technocracy has been the Federal Reserve. Since its creation in 1935, the Federal Reserve Board of Governors has increasingly acted as a policymaking board of technocrats who function outside the legislative process, yet enact regulations and policies that have enormously large effects on banking systems, the financial sector, and even fiscal policy.
The Fed policymakers are quintessential technocrats in that they allegedly make decisions based only on “the data” and unbent by political concerns. The sacrosanct nature of these technocrats’ decisions has been buttressed by years of implausible claims about the Fed’s “independence” from political pressure from the White House or Congress.
In reality, of course, the Fed has never been an apolitical institution, and this has been shown by a variety of scholars, many of them political scientists. Fed Boards have always been influenced by presidents and others. (Most economists are too willfully naïve to understand the political dimensions of the Fed.) Nowadays, it has become painfully obvious that the Fed exists to prop up the regime and the financial sector through whatever means necessary. The idea this process is guided by a dispassionate consideration of “the data” should be regarded as risible.
Three: The Medical Experts
A new addition to the growing ranks of the technocrats in America is the legion of medical experts—at all levels of government—who have attempted to dictate policy during the COVID-19 panic of 2020. Led nationally by lifelong government bureaucrats such as Anthony Fauci and Deborah Birx, the public health experts have taken on the typical persona of the technocrat: they are guided only by “the science,” they insist, and it is claimed that only these experts have the ability to correctly implement and dictate public policies that will address the risks posed by various diseases.
As with the Federal Reserve and the Supreme Court, those who oppose the medical experts are said to be sacrificing apolitical objectivity—a virtue enjoyed only by the technocrats (and their supporters)—on the altar of gaining political advantage.
Four: The Intelligence Agencies
Since 1945, the United States government has built up an increasingly large network of intelligence agencies, composed of more than a dozen agencies staffed by career military officers. As we have seen in recent years though a variety of scandals at the CIA, NSA, and the FBI, these technocrats have no qualms about attempting to undermine the elected civilian government in order to assert their own agenda in its place. These bureaucrats at the so-called deep state in many cases regard themselves as unanswerable to the elected government, and even seek to override foreign policy decisions it has made.
Why Elected Politicians Empower Technocrats
In all of these cases, elected officials could intervene to limit the power of the technocrats, yet they choose not to.
In the case of Supreme Court, Congress could limit the jurisdiction of the appellate courts—and thus the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court itself—simply through changes in legislation. Similarly, Congress could abolish or heavily limit the powers of the Federal Reserve. Again Congress chooses not to. And, of course, Congress and the state legislatures could easily intervene to roll back not only the powers of medical technocrats, but the emergency powers of the executive branch itself. Yet this has not happened.
The reason is because politicians like to “outsource” policymaking to unelected technocrats. This makes it easier for elected officials to later claim that they were not responsible for unpopular measures implemented by technocratic institutions. By putting more power in the hands of technocrats, elected politicians can also later claim that they were respecting the “apolitical” nature of these institutions and that they sought to respect the “expertise.” “Don’t blame me,” the politicians will later claim, “I was only trying to respect ‘the science’ or ‘the data’ or ‘the law.'”
Empowering the technocracy is a useful way to spread blame around in Washington, and it’s also a way to, as Orszag suggests, get around legislative institutions that do what they’re supposed to do: prevent government actions when there aren’t enough votes.
But with technocracy, a lack of votes in Congress isn’t a problem: just hand everything over to a dozen technocrats who will decide what to do. It can then all be done outside the public eye, and with the added advantage of being the decision of nonpolitical “experts.”
Unfortunately, this scheme has worked. Voters are inclined to “trust the experts” and polls often show that the public trusts unelected “experts” more than they trust Congress. This is a great victory for the bureaucrats and for those who push for an ever more powerful state.
Ryan McMaken (@ryanmcmaken) is a senior editor at the Mises Institute. Send him your article submissions for the Mises Wire and The Austrian, but read article guidelines first. Ryan has degrees in economics and political science from the University of Colorado and was the economist for the Colorado Division of Housing from 2009 to 2014. He is the author of Commie Cowboys: The Bourgeoisie and the Nation-State in the Western Genre.