Conservatives today often present themselves as populists running against a left said to be out of touch with the common people and enamored of technocratic rule by experts. This is, in fact, a longstanding critique found not only in grassroots ideological discourse but also in the work of conservative philosophers like Michael Oakeshott, who suggested that the left was entangled in an overbearing rationalism that led to forms of social engineering and political manipulation.
However, both the recent COVID-19 pandemic and the resurgence of antiliberal thought on the right have made evident that technocracy is by no means limited to a single side of the political spectrum. To the contrary, the American right also nurtures unique strains of technocratic politics that have played an enormous role in contemporary life.
Consider first how many Americans have rejected social distancing measures by relying on the premise that the economy demands not only markets remain open but also that government assistance be kept to a minimum. The latter was, for example, the line of argument voiced by Donald Trump’s chief trade advisor Peter Navarro, an academic economist, who proclaimed that the basics of economic science required reopening markets and pushing wage workers (in America disproportionately comprised of racial minorities and immigrants) back into spaces where they risk contracting the virus.
This economic rationale is a popularization of the complex theories of the neoclassical paradigm which helped fuel a massive restructuring of the global economy over the last half century. Neoclassical economics not only made a claim to an expert science of the mechanics of wealth but also suggested a vision of human agency as essentially calculative and self-interested. In popularized form, this purported science was summarized in various folk adages and sentiments like “government is never the solution” and “it’s the economy, stupid.”
One reason the United States currently finds itself so uniquely unable to effectively combat the virus through national contact tracing, effective testing, and greater healthcare coverage is because many Americans believe an expert science of economics has established that “big government” is always to be avoided. This has meant measures proven to be effective against the pandemic in other countries go unemployed or haphazardly implemented. Ironically, a technocratic “science” of economy ensures that public health experts are treated skeptically even as the United States suffers an astonishing rate of preventable infection and death.
But rightwing technocracy is also evident in a very different form amid the antiliberal right that came to electoral power in 2016. This is particularly clear in the wave of antiliberal intellectuals—like Notre Dame political philosopher Patrick Deneen and Harvard legal theorist Adrian Vermeule—who present themselves as diagnosticians of liberalism’s impending doom.
For example, Deneen’s surprise bestseller, Why Liberalism Failed, relied on the social scientific claim that liberalism must collapse because it supposedly conforms to a certain predictable and inescapable mechanics of decline. As Deneen expressed it: “liberalism has failed” due to an “inner logic” that “generate[s] pathologies.” Drawing implicitly on the earlier work of Alasdair MacIntyre, Deneen argued that the atomized and ultra-autonomous conception of the individual in liberal ideology must lead to moral decline and societal dissolution.
Although Deneen presents himself as a critic of technocratic politics in favor of localism and populist nationalism, his theory in fact assumes the same basic conception of political knowledge: one where certain experts offer indubitable predictive knowledge about the future. Indeed, ironically Deneen’s form of anti-liberalism assumes the very same discredited and obsolete stadial and developmental conceptions of history associated with thinkers like G.W.F. Hegel, Karl Marx, and more recently Francis Fukuyama. But where Fukuyama saw history predictably culminating in liberal ideology, Deneen claims instead to presage liberalism’s demise. Deneen has thus simply turned Fukuyama on his head.
The mistake—made evident by reflection on the insights of hermeneutic or interpretive social science—is to assume that liberal ideology is an essential type with a reductive set of properties. But liberalism (like all ideologies) is a set of meanings and family resemblances and does not have the logic of a predictable, developmental mechanics or necessary, essentialized process. Instead, human creative agency is such that ideological traditions and human history itself is open-ended. Technocracy, whether of the right or left, fails to grasp this central truth.