On Democracy, Technocrats and Temporary Autocrats

This is why I like the London Review of Books. This piece, about the debt crisis in Europe, is one of the most cogent defenses of democracy as a form of government that I have ever read. Runciman says it’s best attribute is that it is more flexible than non-democratic forms of government, and that in times of crises, democrats can experiment in with temporary autocracy in ways that autocrats can never experiment with temporary democracy. And I’ll buy that. He also writes:

What no one can know is what happens when relatively wealthy democracies suddenly and permanently become a great deal poorer, even if they don’t fall below the threshold of doom. There are simply not enough examples of this happening to be confident of the outcome. In those circumstances, do temporary autocrats give their power back? Well, you might say, we’re going to find out. But that’s another puzzle about the current European crisis: power hasn’t actually been handed over to temporary autocrats. It’s been given to technocrats, which is different. The assumption is that experts’ superior knowledge gives them the right to take decisions, and ensures that people will abide by those decisions.  

Yet we live in an age which is deeply suspicious of experts, particularly of the kind currently trying to sort out the mess in Greece and Italy: economic experts, drawn from the world of banking. The past few years have not been a good advertisement for their particular brand of superior knowledge. Moreover, in democracies, the problem does not tend to be a lack of knowledge. These bankers were not having their views suppressed by the regimes they have replaced; they were simply not being listened to in the way they would have liked. The problem for democracies in a crisis is not that no one knows what to do, it’s that no one knows how to get other people to do what they are told.

Runciman also writes about what he calls Western fatalism — “the belief that we can know how things will turn out, because the scientific order of the world follows regular patterns.” The battle in the West over how to deal with the financial crisis is between optimists, who think things will be okay in the end, and pessimists, who believe we are finally getting our comeuppance. But as Runciman notes, almost no one (at least no one legitimate, and certainly not me; I may not like democratic governance much, but I accept there are no viable alternatives in modernity) is advocating for another kind of political or economic system to deal with what he calls the first major democratic crisis of the post-cold war world. And it likely won’t be solved:

We want the system we’ve got, because we know it’s the least bad one on offer. In the past, democracies in crisis have always had to fear being swept away by some plausible ideological alternative. The current argument between the optimists and the pessimists has all the hallmarks of an ideological dispute but without any of the content. We don’t have an alternative. The fear is that the political system we’ve relied on in the past might not be up to the task at hand, but it’s the only one we’ve got. You’d think that would make it easier for us to fix it. My fear is that it’s going to make it harder. It makes it more likely that we will drift along with our fate, and into the unknown.

Me? I don’t know if I’m an optimist or a pessimist. Probably a little bit of both, mostly because muddling along into the unknown is what people do. It is what we have always done.