Technocratic Meritocracy

Arguments in favor of technocratic meritocracy over other forms of government make no sense unless they have been meticulously clarified–and often continue to make little sense after that.

I know a person who claims that democracy lamentably promotes the middle of the bell curve to leadership. He longs for a “technocratic meritocracy”–rule by elites who are chosen and directed by some (presumably) scientific discourse. (It would make more sense to call this “scientific meritocracy,” but “technocratic meritocracy” or “techno-meritocracy” already seems to be what he calls it, so I’ll just go with that–but I won’t use the “technology” tag on this post.)

His lamentation belongs in the same category of frustrations felt by anyone who realizes that everything on TV is garbage, that advertisements consistently insult one’s intelligence, that discourse on social media always devolves to the lowest common denominator of bumper-sticker ideology, etc. In some ways it reflects a clash of expectations likely to be experienced by any individual one or two standard deviations above average intelligence: the desire for an orderly, rational society led by competent and wise rulers, versus the hard-to-swallow and alienating fact that society is mostly made up of people who seem mentally defective.

This is a frustration found among both the Left and the Right: the Left point to Trump as an example of what happens when you leave the selection of leaders to unwashed masses who are tribal, irrational, and anti-intellectual–and happen to be mostly white and conservative; the Right point to politicians’ politically correct pandering and cow-towing as an example of what happens when you make the attainment of leadership dependent upon appealing to cosmopolitan elites, prominent activists, union bosses, and others who have influence over the unwashed masses, lots of money, and/or some bitterness toward conservative Middle Americans.

(On the Right, support for techno-meritocracy seems to be much less widespread; one notable exception might be the Race Realists, many of whom wish we’d go back to segregated schools because Science Proves that black people are dumb and therefore shouldn’t be in the same classrooms as white people or something.)

Now, all forms of government (except perhaps for election-by-mandatory-universal-lottery or something) are meritocratic in some way: democracy especially so. Another way to describe the frustration mentioned above is an unhappiness with how exactly the meritocratic elements of democracy are configured. We end up with leaders (so the argument goes) who are good at fundraising and campaigning but not necessarily good at leading or creating good policy.

For me, this illusion is usually (not always, but usually) broken whenever I actually hear politicians describe their work in detail, without TV cameras pointed at them. It immediately becomes clear they have a set of skills that are for the most part highly specialized for leadership and solving problems in the civic realm, often in a way that is diplomatic and thoughtfully reasoned–even if I disagree with the decision or plan, or the underlying reasoning itself. (The question “Why aren’t things worse?” is usually valid.)

To my own surprise, I have just written a paragraph that could be construed as defensive of, or even flattering toward, politicians. But I have no illusions they are also flawed, biased, tribal individuals who in many cases, to at least some extent, are cynically trying to secure benefits for themselves or their organization by gaming the systems within which they work, often contrary or orthogonally to the interests of their constituents.

The thing is, politicians generally aren’t stupid people. The notion implied by the meritocrats is we ought to be ruled by Smart People because the Smart People are so smart they don’t succumb to the cognitive biases that lead to petty tribalism and corruption.

Suppose the techno-meritocrat concedes that our Philosopher Kings are capable of imperfection like other humans. The techno-meritocrats will fall back on the argument that it doesn’t matter, because in a techno-meritocracy the preferences of the rulers are taken out of the equation; policy is not made according to what the rulers think is best, but what the research data tell them is best.

Let’s skip over the problem of how to ensure that the suggestions of the research data are being faithfully carried out. We’ll go straight to the problem of how to know that the research data are providing suggestions that are 1) soundly based; 2) validly interpreted; 3) optimally conceived; and last but not least, 4) moral, ethical, in alignment with society’s values, etc.

  1. Even publication in a reputable journal doesn’t ensure the experiment was designed or conducted well. To know, you have to a) read until the end of the paper where they authors describe the limitations (most people don’t get past the abstract), b) wait a while for more scientists to respond to it, c) be able to find those follow-up studies, and d) be willing to trust them. Humans–including scientists–are susceptible to a whole category of cognitive biases that cause them to put undue credence in the first idea to which they happen to have been exposed.
  2. Generating good research data through sound scientific practices still doesn’t ensure that data will be interpreted in the best way. Humans suffering from cognitive biases–did I mention this includes scientists?–have many ways to distort findings in a way that suits their foregone conclusions, even when those findings are based on data that was collected perfectly.
  3. It is still at the discretion of the human scientists (a.k.a. cognitive-bias-sufferers) to determine what actions ought to be taken, even when this is based on perfect interpretations of perfectly collected data.
  4. And this brings us back to square one: are those actions moral, good, righteous, etc. Professional philosophers and ethicists can’t seem to agree on these questions, so even if a group of the very best of them was making policy–and managed to avoid any of their cognitive biases–we’d still have no way to know if they were making the right choices.

This is why we have Churchill saying “…democracy is the worst form of government, except all the others that have been tried.” I don’t think we’re necessarily doing democracy as well as we could be, but I agree with that quote.

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