In the ninth grade, I wrote an essay for English class about how politicians should have to take a civics test in order to qualify for public office. It was 1992, so I don’t recall all the details. But I do remember the Clinton campaign catchphrase of the year that inspired my choice of topic: “It’s the economy, stupid.” The idea was simple but seductive. Focus on what the government can do to actually improve people’s lives. George H.W. Bush was popular but the recession was not. The slogan worked.
But over the last several decades, America lost the plot. Some politicians decided that government itself was the problem, and set out to prove it. Income inequality and political polarization rose. Trust in institutions collapsed, fueling a populist backlash that thrilled in the destruction of the old order but offered no plan to replace it. In the Trump era, a new political term entered the national lexicon: kakistocracy, or rule by the worst.
The election of Joe Biden has restored the sense that meritocracy, rather than nepotism, has returned to the executive branch. But we must be careful as we “return to normal” that we’re not simply restoring the systems that gave us Trump. Meritocracy, after all, has a tendency to preserve itself in the interests of meritocrats.
The truth is, meritocracy is not sufficient for good governance. For that, you need technocracy. The word has come under suspicion by virtue of its association with Big Tech and big data, but the prefix is misleading. Technocracy, simply put, is an approach to governance in which policy decisions are administered by independent public servants, not political appointees. Being a run-of-the-mill elite doesn’t qualify one to be a technocrat. Plenty of MBAs have risen in the financial meritocracy only to plunder banks, shareholders, and depositors through unscrupulous practices. A proper technocrat, therefore, is more than an expert: they must be competent, experienced, and legally bound to maximize collective welfare.
Contrast this vision with our current mess. In America’s revolving-door system, far too many people arrive in Washington without prior exposure to large bureaucracies and budgets. They may bring good ideas, but stand little chance of executing them because they don’t know how the bureaucracy works—and by the time they’ve figured it out, they’re on their way back to law firms or academia. Taxpayer money should not underwrite their fodder for future book deals.
In his 1919 essay ‘Politics as a Vocation,’ the German sociologist Max Weber outlined the essential structures of government and the virtues required of leaders, particularly an “ethic of responsibility” to provide for the greater good. Too often, politics becomes a game—or, even worse, a business. We need to return governance to its rightful place as a higher vocation, a career committed to the administration of the state.
It is not an accident that Americans respect the Armed Forces and Federal Reserve more than other institutions of government. Each is run by dedicated and independent professionals who in many cases give their entire careers to public service. It’s hard to think of a single area of governance that should not be run in that way. Empowering independent and professional career civil servants like Dr. Anthony Fauci should be the norm, not the exception.
Imagine a world in which character and competence are prerequisites for governance. Politicians lament the country falling behind in innovation; technocrats ensure steady funding and independence for the National Academy of Sciences and Institutes of Health. Populists blame China and technology for the erosion of U.S. manufacturing; technocrats ramp up trade adjustment assistance and partner with businesses to upskill workers in new industries. Political parties mobilize their base to get out and vote; technocrats make voting mandatory and digitize it.
REBUILDING THE DEEP STATE
None of this will be easy. Every administration since Kennedy has fallen into the trap of recruiting “the best and the brightest,” seemingly forgetting that David Halberstam meant the term sardonically in his book title from 1972. How about making sure that today’s best and brightest are attracted to governance as a vocation rather than a hobby? Commentators have urged Biden to “hire scientists” as if the U.S. government doesn’t already employ tens of thousands of people with doctorates and decades of institutional experience. It’s hard to have continuity of government reforms when 4,000 political appointees rotate in and out of senior positions every few years, each with their own agendas.
There’s plenty to commend in external advisory groups that provide candid and transparent recommendations to government departments. All recent presidents have had blue-ribbon councils advising them on economic stimulus, technology, and defense priorities. These can be designed to be more diverse and representative as well, so that bailouts don’t magically favor Wall Street over Main Street again and again. But we need to do more.
In my 2017 book Technocracy in America, I proposed a statutory role for senior civil service figures in the Cabinet, both as heads of agencies but also as the voice of institutional knowledge. For decades, these agencies have made sensible proposals for their own reforms and upgrades, but interloping political appointees have been uninterested. Not only do they deserve a seat at the Cabinet table, but they could initiate the kind of functional coordination across agencies that is all but absent today.
These technocrats can and should marry democratic sentiment with data analysis in order to come up with solutions that serve the entire population. Data and democracy are not opposites. Democracy without data is partial and inconclusive: Not enough citizens vote, they don’t have perfect information, and their sentiments contradict each other. Data without democracy is also full of blind spots: It may not be informed by values, not all of our goals can be quantified, and absent oversight can lead to repression. It’s just as frightening to have today’s fact-free democracy as it would be to stumble into tomorrow’s algorithmic tyranny.
The solution must be a new approach to oversight. At present, America has a large state, but it isn’t nearly as deep as conspiracy theorists assume. It is a morass of under-resourced bureaucracies driven haphazardly by colliding political and special interests. Just look at the health system. Even though healthcare-related spending has reached 18% of GDP, the sector has become emblematic of American dysfunctionality. In 2013, Obama’s flashy tech team botched the rollout of the HealthCare.gov website. Seven years later, COVID-19 overwhelmed national health institutions controlled by Trump appointees with no interest in science. Good governance often comes down to a combination of statistics and logistics—analyzing data and getting things done. Other countries have engineers in politics; America has barely a handful. Our government needs more fixers and plumbers.
THE ‘SPIRAL STAIRCASE’ MODEL OF LEADERSHIP
If we want to improve government performance in any area, there is no higher priority than the training and retention of technocrats. Canada, Germany, and Japan are three parliamentary systems that are superior to America both in quality of democracy and quality of life. They’ve supported small businesses hit by COVID-19 and have better public health infrastructure. No surprise, then, that their public services also pay well, fund the advanced degrees of their top civil servants and give them sabbaticals at various intervals to refresh, and go on listening tours to pick up new ideas.
If the United States is going to build a new generation of career civil servants, it needs to begin now. Of the 24 million people involved in government service, about one-third will become eligible to retire by 2025. Meanwhile, only 6% of federal workers are under the age of 30: The government is going to shrink substantially unless massive new recruitment is undertaken immediately. Would you like the government to be both smaller and less effective than it already is? According to a 2019 Pew survey, Americans are evenly split about whether the government is “too big” or “too small.” How about making it just right?
Instead of an elevator model of leadership in which amateurs enter on the ground floor and get catapulted straight to the top, we need a spiral staircase in which officials learn different portfolios step by step and gain responsibility as they climb upwards. Why do we incentivize Goldman Sachs, McKinsey, and startup alums to cycle into government for a few years rather than training career civil servants in the latest innovations in finance, consulting, and tech? Would the former really learn the skills of the latter faster than the reverse? And which pathway is better suited to improving the average American’s welfare?
An ambulance-chasing political culture complains about broken aspects of the system only so long as they dominate the news cycle, but does little to fix them. Either the system serves to pad resumes or it serves to actually do something.
In government, as in business, it’s helpful to bring in new leadership to reboot organizations with fresh ideas. But you don’t fire the people who actually know how to make the product, or install lackeys to micromanage them. The American state is full of respectable essential workers, far more essential than most politicians. Alexis de Tocqueville famously wrote that “a new political science is needed for a world itself quite new.” Politics is an art we can no longer afford. It’s time to treat governance as a science and get on with it.