What’s a Technocrat?

Answers to your questions about the news.
Nov. 11 2011 5:57 PM

What’s a Technocrat?

Have they ever really been in charge?

Lucas Papademos.
Lucas Papademos, the newly chosen prime minister of Greece, has been called a "technocrat"

Photograph by Ralph Orlowski/Getty Images.

Lucas Papademos was sworn in as the new prime minister of Greece Friday morning. In Italy, it’s expected that Silvio Berlusconi will be replaced by former EU commissioner Mario Monti. Both men have been described as “technocrats” in major newspapers. What, exactly, is a technocrat?

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.

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The word technocrat can also refer to an advocate of a form of government in which experts preside. The notion of a technocracy remains mostly hypothetical, though some nations have been considered as such in the sense of being governed primarily by technical experts. Historian Walter A. McDougall argued that the Soviet Union was the world’s first technocracy, and indeed its Politburo included an unusually high proportion of engineers. Other nations, including Italy and Greece, have undergone some short periods under technocratic regimes. Carlo Azeglio Ciampi, formerly an economist and central banker, served as prime minister of Italy from 1993 to 1994. Economist and former Bank of Greece director Xenophon Zolotas served as Prime Minister of Greece from 1989 to 1990.

In the United States, technocracy was most popular in the early years of the Great Depression. Inspired in part by the ideas of economist Thorstein Veblen, the movement was led by engineer Howard Scott, who proposed radical utopian ideas and solutions to the economic disaster in scientific language. His movement, founded in 1932, drew national interest—the New York Times was the first major news organization to report the phenomenon, and Liberty Digest declared, “Technocracy is all the rage. All over the country it is being talked about, explained, wondered at, praised, damned. It is found about as easy to explain ... as the Einstein theory of relativity.” A year later, it had mostly flamed out. No popular Technocratic party exists in the United States today, but Scott’s organization, called Technocracy Incorporated, persists in drastically reduced form.

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Forrest Wickman is a Slate staff writer. 

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