Wooden Technocrats

By Ferguson, Niall | Newsweek, January 30, 2012 | Go to article overview

Wooden Technocrats


Ferguson, Niall, Newsweek


Byline: Niall Ferguson

We need a wonk in the White House. Too bad the 'experts' are so often politically clueless.

It looks as if 2012 could be the Year of the Technocrats. The fashion didn't really start in Athens or Rome, though it was the formation of new governments there last year that made "technocracy" a buzzword. What Lucas Papademos and Mario Monti have in common is not just that they aren't regular party leaders with governing majorities. The real point is that they're experts. They've spent their careers in lofty academic ivory towers, or in elite bureaucratic institutions like central banks or supra-national commissions, not down and dirty in the bear pit of democratic politics.

The ideal of technocratic rule isn't new. Between the wars Europe saw numerous "Cabinets of the Experts" when multiparty coalitions collapsed. Nor is technocracy a purely European phenomenon. In postcolonial Asia, Singapore was the principal exponent of wonkish government. These days, the world headquarters of technocracy is arguably in Beijing, where China's leadership is chosen through a wholly opaque process of inter-apparatchik machination.

Now technocracy has come to the United States. A large part of the appeal of Mitt Romney as a presidential candidate is that he is the quintessential American Technocrat. His educational resume couldn't do more to convey managerial competence: the guy has degrees from both Harvard Law and Harvard Business schools. He has ticked every box the United States has to offer a compulsive doer, going forward with laserlike focus on win-win execution (this is how technocrats talk). He has built from scratch a successful private-equity business, Bain Capital. He has turned around a major public event, the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics. He has been a state governor. I live in Massachusetts; not even his political opponents question Romney's aptitude. And despite some recent bad press and months of attacks by his rivals for the Republican presidential nomination, his campaign is running as smoothly as a McKinsey flow chart crossed with a BMW engine.

To the kind of people who spend their careers inside elite institutions, the technocratic turn is welcome. Decisions about economic policy, they reason, are too difficult to be entrusted to the people's elected representatives. And if it makes sense to entrust monetary policy to unelected experts at central banks, then why not do something similar for fiscal policy? …

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