Technocracy vs. Liberal Democracy

Upon return from Singapore, Bryan Caplan writes:

Singaporean bureaucrats are less afraid to criticize their government than American bureaucrats are to criticize theirs.  Neither group would be afraid of legal punishment; but the Americans would be more worried that saying the wrong thing would hurt their careers.

Why is that? Commenter Devin Finnbar writes:

I believe it. Tocqueville noted that American democracy had less free speech than the European monarchies, because of the overwhelming social pressure to say the right thing.

I find this fascinating. Let me see if I can flesh out this idea a bit more.

In a democracy, policy shifts due to shifts in public opinion. Random changes in public opinion won’t do. They have to be coordinated. Opinion is coordinated through signaling and sanctions, both subtle and unsubtle. So, in a democracy, stating an opinion is a move in a delicate coordination game. There is a lot of pressure to be on the team. Coalition democratic politics is largely about trying to sabotage the other side’s attempts at solving the opinion-coordination problem. If you are a bureaucrat, you will be especially sensitive to the demands of conformity and solidarity in producing policy change, so you will tend to toe the line. You probably won’t think about this strategically. People whose sincere opinions tend to track the needs of their political coalition will be trusted within political coalitions, and will tend to get assigned to desirable government jobs.

In a Singapore-style technocracy, public opinion is just one of many constraints to take into account in formulating policy. But then public opinion can’t serve as the basis for a sense of the legitimacy of a policy or a policymaker. If the technocrat actually cares about legitimacy, then she probably cares a lot about effectiveness. The reason its okay to go over the heads of the people is that what you’re doing actually works to make them better off. Additionally, if you’re a bureaucrat, have a good idea, and can argue for it, it just might become policy. Especially if you are willing to let your boss take credit for it. In a well-functioning technocracy, status accrues to people who produce new ideas for effective policy.

So bureaucrats in a technocracy will be motivated to explore ideas, while bureaucrats in a democracy will be motivated to signal and recruit fidelity to the coalition’s pre-assigned ideas. Free-thinking exploration could spell defeat! 

Some related thoughts:

  • The glacial nature of shifts in democratic public opinion are part of what kept the U.S. from adopting more heavily socialist policies mid-century. 
  • Implementing the policies best supported by the social-scientific consensus once meant “economic planning,” and that is bound to fail for familiar reasons. But the fact that those reasons are familiar explains why technocracy is now less likely to fail.
  • Milton Friedman claimed that capitalism and freedom are inextricably linked. If this is an empirical and not a conceptual claim, we could find that this is false if politically free people again and again choose against economic freedom, or if the rulers of politically unfree countries show some tendency to choose policies of economic freedom.
  • In principle, free-market technocracies seem dangerously unstable in ways liberal democracies do not. But that doesn’t imply a free-market technocracy can’t have a good run before becoming captured by malign forces. How much will it matter to people in democracies that their liberties are more secure in the long run if it comes to pass that a technocracy on a heater is actually producing 3x the democracy’s per capita income?
  • In that scenrio, “Canadian citizen living in Singapore” will dominate “Canadian citizen living in Canada” or “Singapore citizen living in Singapore.” Why not live in the richest jurisdiction as long as you can always retreat to the freest if things go south? 
  • Singapore can’t absorb a ton of Americans or Canadians, but China could. If China becomes a huge Singapore, do liberal democracies develop a brain drain problem? Could this push democracies toward freer market policies and vindicate Friedman in the end?