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It’s a Bird! It’s a Plane! It’s…. Technocratic Government!

- November 7, 2011

The sky is falling! The Euro is collapsing! What can we do? Look, up in the sky: it’s a bird! it’s a plane, it’s….TECHNOCRATIC GOVERNMENT! Destined to save small and large European governments alike, the sudden appearance of technocratic government as a deus ex machnia is probably raising a similar thoughts in most (especially American) people’s head: just what is a technocratic government? Here at The Monkey Cage, that means it is time for another round of Q&A (although this time I’ll do both the Q and the A):

Q (me): Ok, so what’s a technocratic government?

A (me): Technically (no pun intended), a technocratic government is one in which the ministers (or what we call “Secretaries” in the United States) are not career politicians; in fact, in some cases they may not even be members of political parties at all. They are instead supposed to be “experts” in the fields of their respective ministries. So the classic example is that the Finance Minister (or Treasury Secretary in the US) would be someone with an academic background in economics who had worked for years at the IMF, but has not previously run for elective office or been heavily involved in election campaigns.

Q: Is the Prime Minister also a “technocrat”?

A: In some cases yes, but it doesn’t have to be the case. You could have a prime minister from a major party who heads a technocratic government (i.e., most of the ministers meet the definition laid out above), or you could have a technocratic prime minister as well. This will be one of the interesting development to watch as the composition of the new Greek government is revealed.

Q: Can you have a technocratic government in a Presidential System?

A: You could, but my sense is that technocratic governments are more common in parliamentary systems where governments are dependent on the support of parliament. (Anyone have any data on this?) In a Presidential System, by definition the head of the government – the president – will always be a politician (i.e., someone who won an election), while in a parliamentary system the parties in the parliament can actually agree to appoint a government composed of non-politicians.

Q: Why do countries appoint technocratic governments?

A: The practical reason is often because a government has lost the support of parliament but for various reasons (including legal, pragmatic, or political), it is not yet time to hold new elections. If the parties in the parliament can’t agree to form a normal government, then sometimes they can all agree to support a temporary technocratic government. Sometimes these governments are also referred to as “caretaker governments”.

Q: This is not quite the story in Greece and Italy, is it?

A: Well, we’ll see. Now what seems to be going on is that a “received wisdom” is developing that only technocratic governments can carry out the “painful reforms necessary” to save country X. The theory here is that no major party is going to want to pay the costs of instituting painful policies alone. If this is the case, then one way around this predicament is to appoint a technocratic government that is not “of” any party but is supported by all the parties. In this way, blame can essentially be shared, and government can do the right thing, whatever that may be.

Q: Does it work?

A: I really don’t know. If anyone has any research on this topic, please write in below and I can update the post to include your response. In the meantime, let me offer a couple reasons for skepticism. First, politicians are not particularly good at “sharing blame”, which will make the temptation for any of a number of major parties to undercut the technocratic government for political gain omnipresent. Second, even if mainstream parties get behind a technocratic government, that doesn’t mean extremist parties will as well. Indeed, a technocratic government supported by all of the mainstream parties seems to me a perfect recipe for the rise of non-mainstream parties. [As a closely related aside, this is exactly what Radoslaw Markowski and I found happened in Poland when all of the mainstream parties supported EU membership.]

Q: Ok, but even with those caveats, technocratic government still sounds pretty good! Why doesn’t everyone have one?

A: Well, there is this one minor problem, which is that in democracies people are supposed to elect their rulers. Since a technocratic government does not run for office by definition, it is sort of hard to call a country with permanent technocratic government a democracy. Instead, you’d end up with a system where the people only get to vote for people who then get to vote on who the real leaders of the government are. Which, if you stop to think about it, sounds quite a bit like the original set up of the Electoral College in the United States….

Q: Bottom line: will technocratic governments save Europe?

A: They may make it possible for certain policies to be implemented in the short-term. But Europe’s longer-term problems are going to need to be solved (or not be solved) by Europe’s elected officials. Democracy is about accountability. While it may be possible to duck accountability in the short run, long-term policies are going to have been enacted by elected officials. But I’m open to arguments suggesting otherwise…