The Smokescreen of Technocracy?

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Do politicians use the rhetoric of dispassionate decision making to sugarcoat the ideological?

The European Parliament in Brussells (image: Wikimedia Commons)

The concept of technocracy, a government managed by experts insulated from public opinion, is one that has enjoyed a certain appeal as of late – particularly considering its direct conflict with the central purpose of democracy. As the “Euro-crisis” continued, there was much excited media talk about the “technocrats” who were to take over from the governments that purportedly plunged the continent into crisis. This piece is not an attempt to opine about such talk specifically, but rather to look at the broader phenomenon of whether the rhetoric of technocracy, this holy grail of rational, cost-benefit based decision-making, is used to conceal what really are ideologically motivated policy changes and budget cuts.

At its core, this sort of rhetorical sleight of hand is just a particularly noticeable form of the old political game of targeted messaging, tailoring rhetoric to different slices of the electorate. A great example of this sort of dual messaging is the recurring debate in the United States over the funding of public broadcasting. Every so often, some in the Republican party threaten to remove federal government funding from NPR and PBS. Most recently, this debate was triggered by a promise Mitt Romney made at the first presidential debate this cycle to cut federal funding for PBS.

Here we can see him targeting both groups. He said that  while he “love[ed]” Big Bird, a reference to an iconic character on the PBS children’s staple Sesame Street, “I’m going to stop borrowing money from China to pay for things we don’t need.” On the one hand, the reference to China is a clear attempt to paint the ending of the government subsidy as a necessary move to cut the budget deficit. On the other hand, we hear a slight nod to the underlying ideological underpinnings of opposition to public broadcast funding by saying that PBS is something “we don’t need”. The ensuing debate followed the same template as previous debates over public broadcast funding, with those on the left pointing out that public broadcasting composes a vanishingly small part of the federal budget (0.014% to be exact) and those on the right arguing that it still is not something the government should be funding.

This sort of dual rhetoric is not limited to the American political scene. In Canada, Toronto mayor Rob Ford has become a polarizing figure through the course of his mayoralty, which he has held for just short of 2 years. Ford ran on a campaign based largely on taking back the city for the taxpayer, tapping into voter grievances about government waste and a perceived inability of the previous mayor to stand up to union demands. A particular phrase he leaned on during the campaign was the idea of the “gravy train” – that bureaucrats had become fat at the direct expense of the taxpayer. By all accounts this framing succeeded with a surprisingly wide cross section of voters in the city.

An obstacle to productivity? (image: Wikimedia Commons)

Ford’s actual time in office, however, has struck a different note. One of the major controversies during his tenure involved the funding of the Transit City project, an attempt to expand bus and light rail service. A major plank of Ford’s campaign centered on ending the project entirely and replacing the light rail lines with two subway lines. While he cited cost reasons for stopping the plan, a major theme of his opposition was that Transit City represented a part of the “War on the Car” that needed to be stopped. In the ensuing controversy, it became clear that the budgetary justification for eliminating the light rail lines was far from clear cut, leaving it as little but a fig leaf for the underlying ideological opposition to forms of transit that “impede” cars. This was one of just many episodes of this rhetorical sleight of hand. Another involved his removal of a bike lane on a downtown street. Despite the $300,000 removal cost, he dubiously claimed that the removal would pay off in extra economic activity that would come from the two to seven minutes saved by drivers.

What we are left wondering after looking at these cases is whether it is ever possible to detect the intent of a political policy. At its root, all budget decisions are motivated by an underlying ideology; even the very concept of “technocracy” is a very distinct and real ideology, with a whole host of assumptions about the fallibility of democratic majorities baked into its prescriptions of expert-based governance. Whenever any sort of government action is proposed, it sells to say it is because of rational, impartial criteria. Opponents, in turn will often want to paint their opponents as dangerous ideologues—see the debate in the US over the Paul Ryan budget and in Canada over the Harper Government’s budget cuts. Ideally, the public would consider political policies on their merits, and often they do. Even so, the way that a voter views the merits of a policy is inevitably colored by those who succeed in framing its intent.