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November 23, 2011 / Tobin Craig

The Technocratic Drift — What Small-Government Conservatives Overlook

Small- or Limited-Government conservatives, LGC’s if you will, make a compelling argument: the 20th century has seen Tocqueville’s nightmare of administrative centralization and soft despotism come to fruition, not only in Europe, but even in the United States, on which he pinned his hopes.  The once proud, vigilant and prickly self-governing citizen has been turned into the timid and deferential client of an ever-growing state, not only tolerating but clamoring for more government supervision, guidance, and assistance.  States and local governments do less and less.  We the people do less and less (associating and organizing to help each other and address our common concerns).

At least one set of these arguments locates the crucial turning point in the American experience in the so-called Progressive era, associated with the presidencies of Wilson, TR, Taft, and later, FDR.  On this telling, the root of the Progressive critique of the limited government of the founding era is the rejection of classic natural rights liberalism (Locke) in favor of Hegelian historicism, which removed the theoretical/moral basis for limited government and opened the way to the total politics of the modern state.

Having just read several versions of this argument, however, I find myself surprised by how silent the LGC’s are about the rise in the authority, and especially the political authority, of modern science, and the importance of this to the growth of the state.  How can we resist regulating risks when we discover them?  Sure you can make fun of helmet laws and smoking laws and seat belt laws… but what about laws regarding real and dangerous environmental toxins or food additives?  And once we recognize its potentially world-transformative power, both explanatory and technological, how can we resist large scale funding of scientific research?  And then how can we resist bringing the inevitable discoveries and inventions to bear on the pressing public problems we face?  In other words, isn’t a key driver of administrative centralization the discovery of the real authority of scientific expertise?  What is a poor congressional representative to do?  Keenly aware of his limited understanding of the relevant science, he creates standing agencies staffed by experts, and charges them with tending to the public weal — sure this is a questionable delegation of legislative authority and probably unconstitutional, but what is the alternative?  (I guess the LGC would say leave it up to the states, but I wonder if that is either adequate or viable.)

Now on those few occasions where this argument gets considered, the LGC tends to retreat behind the science-policy boundary: sure the science is authoritative, but it is up to us what we do with it, and that is a political question and one that we should never delegate away.  Science doesn’t compel a particular policy.

This too is an important argument.  But it doesn’t suffice.  The science-policy divide is not so clear cut, and at least on some issues, it is utterly unworkable.  What we should do (political question) is always constrained or shaped by what it would be reasonable to believe we can do (scientific question).  Funding for science, for example.  Or the vetting of the practical feasibility of a weapon system.  Or the risk associated with a mining technique.  There is no way to benefit from the scientist’s expertise without allowing them some leeway to venture into the ‘what should we do?’ realm.

So is (a perennial struggle against) technocracy our fate?


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