It is horrible when someone’s life is ended by a malignant infection like Covid-19. Fighting off such a deadly threat is rightfully a societal priority. However, the manner in which that fight has been carried out has done more than simply combat the pandemic to save lives — it has revealed a deep truth about our government’s evolution into a technocracy, a bureaucracy run by a class of technical experts who are believed to be more capable than the citizens over whom they govern, and provided vivid examples of just how inhuman that technocracy is.
We are living in a society run by a class that views itself as benevolent and singularly capable. But in fact, the actions we have witnessed are no better, and in some cases worse, than what we could have expected from any number of random citizens had they been chosen to lead instead.
Democracy or technocracy?
Most Americans are at least superficially familiar with the concepts of democracy: civil liberties, universal suffrage, and equality under the law. We spend nearly all of our time in school being taught these virtues and about democracy’s superiority to rule by force or rule by divine right, the previous systems of government that the American experiment replaced.
But what we might find ourselves hesitant to recognize is that there is virtually no society in the world that is actually democratic, for two reasons. Though “democracy” is nominally the most sacrosanct concept in our political discourse, the United States of America is far from a direct democracy, where every citizen votes individually on laws and initiatives, and even far from a representative democracy. Only at the most indirect level does the ordinary citizen have a say in most of the policies and decisions made by his government.
Welcome to technocracy, known to some as the administrative state, or the fourth branch of government.
The dawn of technocracy in America largely took place during the Progressive Era — an era of massive social and political upheaval between the 1880s and 1920s. During this time, America’s birth as an agrarian, enlightened democracy faded as the nation industrialized. Violent conflicts raged between organized labor and big business, and a generation of political reformers arose, hoping to use expertise in the new “social sciences” to manage the economy and cure the ills of modern capitalism. In doing so, they deposed the old era, where policies and regulations were made by legislators and judges, and ushered in the new one, where decisions are made by administrative experts working outside of the electoral theater.
At first glance, there are several problems. First, the assumption that experts are all or mostly civic-spirited and impartial because they do not have to work with political parties or face voters is easily dismissed, as Covid-19 has illustrated neatly today. We should not be surprised by this, since the technocratic philosophy, taken to its logical conclusion, does not believe in allowing the policymaker to be constricted by the straitjackets of individual rights, property rights, customs, morals or anything else not deemed “scientific.”
Experts not only have biases and personal interests just like everyone else, they are often wrong – and in this case, to a disastrous extent.
This is not just a post hoc opinion dismissive of the dominant thought of that time. These are the views of the many legal and political scholars whose views shaped the Progressive Era. In his brilliant 2016 book Illiberal Reformers: Race, Eugenics & American Economics in the Progressive Era, Princeton University historian Thomas Leonard re-introduces us to the dark history of the administrative state’s creation. Among the things he reveals: the minimum wage not only destroys jobs, it was designed to do so, in order to protect white, Anglo-Saxon (English) industrial workers from competition from African-Americans as well as Irish and Polish Catholics. Progressive Era reformers detested small businesses, not large corporations, and most importantly of all, they were not liberals who supported equality, but elitists who demonstrated contempt for individualism and supported state control of not just economic matters but human life itself.
Eugenics, the study of improving human heredity through sterilization of those with undesirable traits, was not just a popular idea, much less the derided pseudoscience it is today. Instead it would become one of our country’s earliest experiments in the dangers of letting “experts” make most or all important decisions based on the principles of “scientific management.” For not only do experts have biases and personal interests just like everyone else, they are often wrong – and in this case, to a disastrous extent. The ideas of eugenics ultimately served as the basis for forced sterilization programs, which the Supreme Court infamously upheld in Buck v. Bell as Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes argued, “Three generations of imbeciles are enough.”
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That was far from the limit of the 20th century assault on self-government and individualism. Progressive historian Charles Beard, author of An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution, depicted the Constitutional Convention as a debate over protecting the interests of wealthy landowners and financiers, rather than a struggle to promote republican principles. And while his argument itself may no longer be accepted and taught, his theme that limited government is a tool of elites to oppress the weak has found its way into every corner of our lives.
Woodrow Wilson, also an academic before becoming the 28th President, argued this after taking office in 1913:
“All that progressives ask or desire is permission—in an era when development,’ ‘evolution,’ is the scientific word—to interpret the Constitution according to the Darwinian principle; all they ask is recognition of the fact that a nation is a living thing and not a machine.”
“Let the science speak”
Put similarly, answers must not come from our intuition, our philosophies, or our inherited beliefs; they must come from “the Darwinian principle”, from evolutionary science. The “living” nation, spearheaded by a living government compels our behavior rather than the other way around. Only enlightened individuals, who are somehow free of such social forces — like Woodrow Wilson — can manage our own primitive nature before we consume ourselves. This is inductive logic taken to extremes: just let the evidence speak, and do what it says. There is no rule of law, the word of science is final. Just let the science speak. Now, where have we heard that before?
‘Believe the science’ is not so much an impartial plea to search for truth as it is a political command to follow orders.
Needless to say, people do have a right to be frustrated, to demand answers, and to question leaders, even if those leaders are more credentialed than themselves. The Imperial College London study from March of last year that claimed 250,000 lives could be lost in the UK alone by the end of 2020, even with strict quarantining and social distancing measures, was a focal point for lockdown proponents. At the time of writing, 116,908 people have died in the United Kingdom, despite a less severe approach than what the article called for.
One of the study’s authors, Neil Ferguson, had a history of being dramatically wrong. In 2005, he claimed, on the basis of similar mathematical models, that as many as 200 million people could be killed worldwide by a new strain of avian flu. By 2013, the professor was proven to be off by around 99.98%, as the disease claimed a total of 375 lives.
The usual retort to skepticism? “Don’t be a science denier.” “Listen to your experts and stop asking questions.” “It’s for the greater good, even if it inconveniences you.”
Stateside, our governmental experts have been similarly flagrant in their errors. Pennsylvania Secretary of Health Rachel Levine, who just received a promotion to the Biden Administration, mandated Covid-19 patients be moved back into long-term care facilities despite removing her own mother from one such facility.
An aide to Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D-NY) recently admitted to concealing information about the scale of Covid-19 in New York State’s long-term care facilities from the public to forestall investigations, in an apology delivered not to citizens for the lies they were told but to lawmakers for hurting their political credibility.
“So we do apologize,’ that aide said. “I do understand the position that you were put in. I know that it is not fair. It was not our intention to put you in that political position with the Republicans,” the New York Post reported last week.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, Director at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, faulted Americans last fall as the cause of a surge in Covid-19 cases for their “independent spirit.”
“Now is the time,” he says, “to do as you’re told.”
If Woodrow Wilson did have one thing right, it’s that our country’s Framers were eminently practical men, certainly not engaged in a vain mission to build the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth (the liberal Protestant ethic often preached by the “social gospel” Progressives). They were modest settlers looking to secure the liberties and autonomy which they had long held. What this pandemic has done is to finally and completely give the lie to the belief that our technocratic administrators are apolitical actors who only consider the common good through expertise. It has shown that “believe the science” is not so much an impartial plea to search for truth as it is a political command to follow orders. It has eroded the practical values for which the Framers struggled.
The technocrat has no clothes. And like Hans Christian Andersen’s 19th century folktale, we won’t realize we’ve been had until someone says it out loud.
Michael Clifford is a junior at the University of Pittsburgh, where he studies economics, political science, and mathematics. In his free time, he enjoys sports, especially baseball, and history.