It looks as if 2012 could be the Year of the Technocrats. The fashion didn’t really start in Athens or Rome, though it was the formation of new governments there last year that made “technocracy” a buzzword. What Lucas Papademos and Mario Monti have in common is not just that they aren’t regular party leaders with governing majorities. The real point is that they’re experts. They’ve spent their careers in lofty academic ivory towers, or in elite bureaucratic institutions like central banks or supra-national commissions, not down and dirty in the bear pit of democratic politics.
The ideal of technocratic rule isn’t new. Between the wars Europe saw numerous “Cabinets of the Experts” when multiparty coalitions collapsed. Nor is technocracy a purely European phenomenon. In postcolonial Asia, Singapore was the principal exponent of wonkish government. These days, the world headquarters of technocracy is arguably in Beijing, where China’s leadership is chosen through a wholly opaque process of inter-apparatchik machination.
Now technocracy has come to the United States. A large part of the appeal of Mitt Romney as a presidential candidate is that he is the quintessential American Technocrat. His educational résumé couldn’t do more to convey managerial competence: the guy has degrees from both Harvard Law and Harvard Business schools. He has ticked every box the United States has to offer a compulsive doer, going forward with laserlike focus on win-win execution (this is how technocrats talk). He has built from scratch a successful private-equity business, Bain Capital. He has turned around a major public event, the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics. He has been a state governor. I live in Massachusetts; not even his political opponents question Romney’s aptitude. And despite some recent bad press and months of attacks by his rivals for the Republican presidential nomination, his campaign is running as smoothly as a McKinsey flow chart crossed with a BMW engine.
To the kind of people who spend their careers inside elite institutions, the technocratic turn is welcome. Decisions about economic policy, they reason, are too difficult to be entrusted to the people’s elected representatives. And if it makes sense to entrust monetary policy to unelected experts at central banks, then why not do something similar for fiscal policy? After all, voters will never back the kind of tough measures that need to be taken to stabilize Western budgets. They want jam today, paid for in 30 years at the earliest. Hence our chronic deficits.
But there’s a catch. The sacrifices we need to make are bound to be painful: just look what Greece and Italy are going through now. Yet people can tolerate job losses, spending cuts, and tax hikes if they believe that a payoff will come in the foreseeable future. How to persuade them of that? The only way is through political leadership. And that means inspirational speeches and fireside chats.
Technocrats suck at these.
Ask yourself: what is Mitt Romney’s biggest weakness as a candidate (apart from his being a multimillionaire who pays an “effective” tax rate of 15 percent)? The answer is that he has all the rhetorical flair of a PowerPoint presentation. Despite years of practice and doubtless the best team of public-speaking coaches on the planet, he simply can’t stand in front of a lectern without turning into an immaculate wooden carving of himself emitting strange prerecorded messages from a human impersonator on Planet Vulcan. And if he’s bad with a script, he’s even worse off the cuff.
Enter Ron Paul. In his long career, Dr. Paul has delivered many babies, articles, and speeches. But he hasn’t run anything except a political campaign. He is every technocrat’s worst nightmare because he believes in nutty things like the gold standard and isolationism. But many ordinary folks just love that homespun, old-time Austrian economics.
Mitt Romney is clearly not going to lose the Republican nomination to Ron Paul. But the fear haunting conservative Washington is that Paul won’t bow out gracefully. People remember how he ran as the Libertarian Party candidate back in 1988, securing half a million votes. The word is that he could do it again this year.
Any third-party candidate from the right would be more than just a disaster for Romney. It would also demonstrate the limitations of the technocratic approach to politics. American voters want competent government. But they also need to be convinced to swallow the bitter medicine that competent government sometimes prescribes. In austerity-stricken Europe, too, the populists are waiting in the wings, ready to deliver rabble-rousing rants. Perhaps 2012 will turn out to be their year after all.