Those who regularly read FiveThirtyEight may have seen the debut of their new column, “Political Confessional.” From what I can gather, their writers solicit “unpopular” opinions from people and then interview them. It is an interesting idea because it allows people to reveal views anonymously, making them more willing to share their controversial takes. By only featuring the respondents they want, however, FiveThirtyEight has imposed some degree of gatekeeping to prevent really odious views (racism, sexism, etc.) from hijacking their platform. But while the general concept behind the column fascinates me, I actually want to spend the rest of this post discussing the substance of the inaugural interview.
The piece features a man named Matt. Matt apparently used to strongly identify as a libertarian but has recently moved toward the center. His proposal is arguably not very moderate, however, as it calls for the imposition of an oligarchic government within the U.S. Despite re-reading the interview several times, I’m still not exactly certain I understand what Matt means when he says oligarchy, as the dictionary definition is simply “rule by a few.” But from what I can gather, he seems to defend a technocratic approach to governance in which “[administrators] are genuine experts in the things they’re tasked with running.” Given that this sounds more like a technocracy to me, I am unsure of just how oligarchic it would be. A “small bureaucracy” just sounds oxymoronic. But this is, perhaps, unfair semantics, and it misses the broader problem with his argument.
Matt’s core frustration is the absurdist theater that is contemporary American politics. In particular, Matt calls out political hobbyism:
I think a lot of people get worked up over things that they aren’t in a position control, and that makes them really unhappy. People would be a lot happier if they gave themselves permission not to care about election outcomes.
He also harbors resentment at the amateurish views of many of America’s leading politicians, arguing that they lack the relevant expertise to properly govern the nation. Matt contends that their lack of knowledge forces them to rely on “ideological, emotionally-driven arguments.” By allowing these nincompoops to run the United States and becoming stressed and angry while watching them do it, Matt believes people are wasting time that they could be using to learn, build communities, and sustain friendships.
As someone who has written posts arguing for the need to increase our respect for experts, I understand where Matt is coming from. I also agree that most voters are rationally ignorant, leaving them underinformed and poor evaluators of politicians’ worthiness. However, creating an autonomous technocracy is a terrible idea for several reasons. First, it is a myth that technocrats are not ideological or emotional. Everyone has biases and priors, and this shapes how they approach problems. In short, the assumption that there is an elite group of policy wonks that have fully grasped the complexities of the world is incredibly naive, and it smacks of central planning, which is ironic given Matt’s libertarian background. Second, this system would likely enjoy no legitimacy in a country like the U.S. that is so accustomed to democracy. Absent legitimacy and buy-in, no state will work, and this is true regardless of the competence of its administrators. Of course, it’s worth noting that when these allegedly infallible bureaucrats mess up (and they will), legitimacy will further erode because the entire founding myth of this silly political project – that the technocrats know what they are doing – would be utterly vitiated. This leads to the final problem, which is that there is no way to throw the rascals out. In the current American system, citizens can police their leaders by removing them from office during elections. This creates an incentive for good governance that simply does not exist in an authoritarian system. It is also a useful signaling mechanism that reveals information about voters’ preferences, and this can be very helpful to policymakers because it allows them to gauge the mood of the country and develop policy that accommodates it. Absent the information channel and pressure release valve of elections, the oligarchs might inadvertently trigger a revolution by continuing to push unpopular policy.
But beyond these rather obvious shortcomings, Matt gets the problem exactly backward. It is not that politicians have too much control over the country; the real problem is they have too little. Most of the time, politicians can do very little real governing and count on the professional bureaucracy to keep chugging along. Indeed, they can shut the government down for multiple weeks, and essential personnel will still continue to toil away. Congress loves to pretend it’s important, but, in reality, it has largely ceded much of its power to the president and the bureaucracy because cowardly legislators are terrified of casting an incorrect vote and, as a result, ruining their political careers. It is for this very reason that Congress has not formally declared war since 1942. Its also for this reason that Republicans, when they finally had to follow through with their pledge to repeal Obamacare, couldn’t. Much better to let the president do the dirty work and suffer the consequences of failure, the logic goes. Because legislators have so few real responsibilities, they are free to engage in the stupid, partisan kabuki theater that has increasingly become the norm.
So to eliminate our incompetent politicians, we must, quite paradoxically, give them more power. By forcing legislators to make hard choices and real decisions instead of playing silly rhetorical games, maybe we can compel them to actually govern.