What’s Wrong with Technocracy?

Democratic theory points to two problems: unjust concentrations of power and a flawed theory of knowledge.

The word “technocracy” has been around for a century, but as a term of political derision it has flourished since the global financial crisis of 2008, especially in the context of the European Union’s austerity-driven response to recession. Critics have alleged, in particular, that EU policy was overdetermined by unelected experts—especially those within the European Central Bank, whose positions insulated them from democratic accountability. The Occupy Wall Street movement of the early 2010s gave voice to similar outrage in the United States.

Technocracy cannot be dismissed as a mere spectre of the paranoid populist imagination.

In hindsight, these debates now register as early flashpoints in a twenty-first-century political showdown over the relationship between experts and citizens—what political scientist Archon Fung has called the rise of “wide-aperture, low-deference democracy.” The signs of that showdown are everywhere. Since the COVID-19 pandemic plunged the world into a series of interlocking crises, public health agencies like the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have been accused of mismanagement, miscommunication, and even outright deception, while economic institutions like the Federal Reserve and the European Central Bank have exercised wide discretionary power over the path of recovery. Whatever one makes of the details of these debates, it is undeniable that democratic citizens in many nations find themselves in a position of dependence and distrust, reliant on technocratic institutions but lacking in meaningful mechanisms of oversight and accountability. Technocracy cannot be dismissed as a mere specter of the paranoid populist imagination.

At the same time, the concept of technocracy itself remains poorly defined, and arguments against it lack a firm, widely shared normative foundation. Critics have many targets, and it is not always clear exactly on what grounds we are supposed to find those targets objectionable. One reason for this situation may be that technocracy has rarely been a central concern for democratic theory, despite the efforts of German philosopher Jürgen Habermas and a few of his fellow travelers. Even among those with democratic sympathies, technocracy may seem a less pressing target than oligarchy, authoritarianism, or “minoritarianism.”