A Little on [Regular] Technocracy and Why Liberal Arts Major Rule

I got my first BA in English Literature (with minors in Creative Writing, Japanese, and Philosophy); and while I was pursuing my second round of BAs several years later, I had the pleasure of working on a communications strategy and program design for a state humanities council. It’s an understatement to say I’m partial to humanities and liberal arts-based education.

As a political scientist and as someone who values clear thinking in what I read and in what I write, I have nothing against STEM education either. I mean, this is a blog about technology as much as it is Things Political. With those things alone I have the S and the T from STEM. And if we can count one semester of Methodology and and one semester of Statistics as Mathematics, I’m rocking 3 of 4. But enough about me. I’m here to direct you to this article by Virginia Postrel which is as good a defense of liberal arts and humanities education as I’ve seen, even given a few months of looking for just such a thing when I worked at the humanities council.

What struck me though was this line (emphasis added):

The argument that public policy should herd students into Stem fields is as wrong-headed as the notion that industrial policy should drive investment into manufacturing or “green” industries. It’s just the old technocratic central planning impulse in a new guise.

It is true that all the famous figures who have had the “technocrat” placard hung on their neck have been die-hard central planners–many of them economists from Harvard, Oxford, or the London School of Economics, but I think there’s a way to think about technocracy that doesn’t only include the Porfirio Diazes of the world.

I like to think of “technocracy” as a positivist enterprise in that it claims there are things we can know about the world through observation. The universe of observation is the political world, specifically policy-making. I think the tendency is to over-emphasize the strength of the facts that are found and derive from their discovery that a single “correct” policy can be written and effectively executed, thus the move toward centralization.

But America’s first technocrat, James Madison, did not believe this at all. Or, at least he believed it, but implemented his vision in a way very different from the technocrats of the mid- to late 19th century. Madison’s two big contributions to the world of self-governance as federalism and elite competition. In both he recognizes that, although “correct answers” are discoverable, “correct answers” may differ between different groups and that the best way to find them is to pit them against one another, both in the realm of public discourse and in the realm of side-by-side implementation. That is to say that his conclusion was that there was a “right way” and that way was to try lots of things and see what sticks. It isn’t fool-proof or full-proof but it is a technocratic solution that discourages centralization in its base form. It’s a recommendation very similar to the one Postrel promotes in the essay linked above.

Although this blog won’t spend a lot of time dwelling on abstract concepts like “federalism” as technology, the fact is, for a constructivist like me, ideas are things and are just as worthy of the title as “technology” as is a shovel or an iPad. I recognize the desire to move away from the technocrats that touted eugenics and Prohibition and who currently advocate for centrally planned education policy, but I think there’s something to be said for recognizing that there are things we can know about the world and that we can use those facts to design policies that effectively achieve what they set out to achieve. And I think the term technocrat needs to be rescued from what it has become by focusing on the social value created by new technologies, ideal and material, and the way those technologies can improve the way we govern ourselves.

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