The world is not an engineering problem - an argument against technocracy

By Simon Cooke


Chris Dillow has an interesting blog post about the problems with what he calls 'liberal technocracy':
This urge to express all arguments in consequentialist terms is an admission that liberal technocracy has won. The only acceptable arguments for any policy, it is believed, are consequentialist ones – ideally, along the lines of making us materially better off. And everybody seems to accept Mill’s harm principle, and thus argue for bans on the – often elusive – grounds that the activity in question does indeed impose harms onto others.
You only need look at the new found 'neoliberalism' of the Adam Smith Institute to see the onward march of this "what works is what's right" approach to policy-making. Dillow speaks of how some things are, as it were, felt rather than analysed - the "best case for Brexit is an intrinsic one – that it’ll give us a sense of independence and sovereignty" and when advocates try to set out economic utilitarian gains from leaving their argument weakens. I once wrote a similar thing about Scottish independence:
It's the idea of Scotland in that quote from Henry Scott Riddell's 'Scotland Yet' - not about some idea of superiority, certainly no hatred or dislike, just a message of pride, joy and love for the place. And the nation - that thing we try to define with grand words - is all those who share those emotions, that association.

When Kipling wrote about men having small hearts it was about these feelings - we cannot love everywhere and we cannot expect everyone to love the place we love. But we can share that love with those who do and that is nationhood. No government, no kings, no lords, no oil, no First Minister. Just people placing their boots in the soil and saying "this is my country and I'll work with you to make it better".

If you want independence for reason of blood, for reason of hatred or for reason of greed then you deserve to lose. But if you want independence for pride, joy and love of the place that is Scotland then - for what it's worth - you have my blessing and I wish you well.

The idea here is something we've lost from our thinking, one of those virtues Deirdre McCloskey writes about, the idea of faith, that there are things we have to take as felt not as demonstrated by science. This rejection of maximising utility as the only purpose of public policy is perhaps the single most important thing in McCloskey's triology on bourgeois virtues - that ideas matter as much as science does. And it is true since the things we feel cannot be defined by utilitarian or consequentialist argument - here's economist Don Boudreaux:
There are no scientific ‘solutions’ to society's problems. This reality is so in part because in many cases people legitimately disagree over what arranged changes are desirable and which are undesirable. For example, some people join me in celebrating marijuana legalization; other people disagree sincerely and deeply even if there is no disagreement over the predicted health and behavioral effects of marijuana use. There is no scientific ‘solution’ to this disagreement or to any other disagreement that turns on differences in values and preferences.
This reminds me of P J O'Rourke speaking of his politics - "I'm personally conservative" says O'Rourke but believes government, public policy, should be as libertarian as possible. So a man who believes drinking and smoking are sinful can, at the same time as holding these views, support the liberalisation of their use. But, it is more likely that such a person for reasons of faith - belief without evidence - will oppose liberal drinking laws and even propose stricter temperance or prohibition.Back at university we coined the term "soft loo-paper conservatism" to describe the approach to student politics where the only care was the good management of the student union and its services to the student body (such as, hence the phrase, insisting on better toilet paper in the union buildings' loos). Management was all that matters - Boudreaux quotes a cynical comment from James Buchanan on economists and public policy:
Once he has defined his social welfare function, his public interest, he can advance solutions to all of society’s economic ills, solutions that government, as deus ex machina, is, of course, expected to implement.
The problem is that politics just doesn't work like this - people have views, felt experiences, faith meaning that the answer might be a different one from that produced through the expert's systems. Nor can we ever be perfectly sure that the expert's answer isn't sub-optimal - there are plenty of examples of technocratic solutions to perceived problems that have failed or, in solving one problem, merely acted to create three new ones. Raising the duty on fags seems to work as a means of reducing their consumption but there's a point at which it creates an opportunity for criminal arbitrage - the cost of making a cigarette is so much lower that the sale price it's worth the risk for the criminal to create a black market.It seems right that government should seek the 'right' solutions in its policy-making but this assumes that there is such a solution and, indeed, that the negatives of such a policy don't outweigh the benefits of the solution. After all, if we take the utilitarian argument in its entirety, it begins to make the case for a sort of Huxley-esque benign authoritarianism, a Singapore-on-Steroids. For my part, I prefer things a little messy because not only are the solutions so often dependent on coercion but they also require that the ordinary citizen's faith and feelings are denied. Maximising utility seems a good thing but it is not the main reason why people do things like set up business, create charities, build village halls, paint, sing, create or innovate. Technocracy treats the world as an engineering problem when it's an unfolding story, explorers in a dense jungle not white-coated scientists in a laboratory.

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