What is a technocrat?

Last week I was chatting with a friend of mine at the Tax Foundation and he made a bold claim—I was a technocrat.

At first, I was taken back. How could I ever be construed as a technocrat? I didn’t believe in technocracy at all. I asked him a couple of days later to define exactly what he meant and he said, “if you are having any constructive role in designing (implementing or suggesting the design) the specific institutional arrangement employed by the State, you are a technocrat.”

Of course, I am part of no branch of government, so at the end of the day I will never implement, vote or judge policy, which limits, I think, my ability to be a technocrat. This aside, his statement can only be assessed when first considering the priors and in this case, the term the State requires a good unpacking.

Interestingly, there are few books dedicated to the creation of premodern governmental institutions and the Sate. Or, to say it another way, most of political science/theory takes it for a given the legitimacy of the kinds of national territorial states we have now. Even though I am no anarchist, the legitimacy of the State is taken as unflinchingly axiomatic. Moreover, the contractual view of the State (i.e. that we contract out of the state of nature), which was especially important to Locke, Hobbes and the classical liberals, clearly does not describe what actually happened. It could be that the contractual view is a good philosophical theory, describing the Humean ought, but we should not fool ourselves. Governments have risen to power through war or conquest.

Franz Oppenheimer’s use of the term is helpful here, as he distinguishes the State from government. The State, Der Staat, is the public private cabal that works to coerce an individual into certain kinds of behavior while government includes those necessary functions that allow people to live their lives to the fullest expression. Though I have hardly done justice here, there is something to Oppenheimers definition. Government is necessary for the function of society but the State is a kind of administration that aims to control exact outcomes. This is what most people would say a technocracy is, and by extension, the kind of world that a technocrat desires.

Thomas Sowell also made a similar argument when he compared the Unconstrained Vision to the The Constrained Vision. Those with an Unconstrained Vision distrust decentralized processes and instead aims for ideal solutions for each problem, whereas those with the Constrained Vision prefer the systematic processes of the rule of law and experience of tradition. Compromise is essential because there is no ideal solution. Again, what most people would say is a technocrat seems to align with the Unconstrained Vision.

Moreover, the problem at the core of my friend’s thinking is that if you advocate for less government, then you are a technocrat, which does not seem to pass the smell test. Technocrats are united by two things, a position within the state and a position on the role of the state. Both he and I are trying to define the term, so this is truly a war over words, but just to be clear, being a technocrat requires a) you have to have a vision of highly administrative government that aims to control exact outcomes and b) be in a position to enact them.

First published Aug 30, 2012