Seamanship Quotation

“In political activity, then, men sail a boundless and bottomless sea; there is neither harbour for shelter nor floor for anchorage, neither starting-place nor appointed destination.”
— from Michael Oakeshott's
Political Education” (1951)

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Angela Merkel and those glorious technocrats

Time magazine’s choice of the Protestor as the person of the year captures the temper and the potentiality of the moment. Also, it honors personal courage. However, as with Barack Obama’s Nobel Peace prize in 2009, its logic seems rather premature.

Protestors in Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt demonstrated that no political order is permanent. However, they didn’t rediscover the idea that the world is changeable. Outside the Middle East, it was already widely asserted that the status quo—the global order of interdependent market economies that the designed and the whole world now operates—would soon break up.  

The biggest story of this year is not what the protestors have changed, but how well the world's young imperfect order has held.

This was to be the year for the center to lose its grip: Washington was to be irredeemably radicalized by the Tea Party, debt-default, and a double-dip recession, and the “fundamental flaws” of the Euro zone were literally going to reverse European integration.

Next year may be different. For this year, however, the so-called technocrats—the central bankers, the economists, and the elected politicians who respect and can comprehend their advise—made the real news, and saved the status quo.

Their prominence shouldn’t be dispiriting. Their accomplishments don’t represent a surrender of democratic politics to robotic bureaucrats.  

It is noteworthy that the two Western leaders holding more political power in December than they held last January—Angela Merkel and Stephen Harper—are both called technocrats. And those whose authority has weakened—Barack Obama, David Cameron, and Nicolas Zarkozy, for instance—are called consummate politicians and great communicators.

Slate magazine noted the technocrat’s impact but misrepresented their vocation.

“An expert, not a politician. Technocrats make decisions based on specialized information rather than public opinion. For this reason, they are sometimes called upon when there’s no popular or easy solution to a problem (like, for example, the European debt crisis). The word technocrat derives from the Greek tekhne, meaning skill or craft, and an expert in a field like economics can be as much a technocrat as one in a field more commonly thought to be technological (like robotics). Both Papademos and Monti hold advanced degrees in economics, and have each held appointments at government institutions

Angela Merkel has proven to be a master of details but, also, an architect of political change and a shaper of public opinion.

Addressing the “fundamental flaws” of the Euro-zone, rather than surrendering to them, requires confidence as a politician as well as technical credibility.

Great public projects demand both sets of skills—occasionally in one person, usually in seamless teams. In the spirit of this season of generalities and Time magazine, here are a few propositions about these two sets of political actors:

The technocrats prefer to huddle; the campaigners look for the podium.

The technocrats are called incrementalists and miss deadlines because they like to test ideas.

The campaigners like to force the issues and compromise later.

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