A government of technocrats is untenable

January 29, 2023

Why a trespass by non-political forces is undesirable

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he idea is to install a government led by technocrats so that Pakistan’s financial woes can be redressed by apolitical individuals, equipped with adequate experience and foresight. Such a government, it is hoped, will bail the country out of the economic mess it has accumulated over the years.

But does this proposition hold the potential to effectively resolve the issues, given their gravity? We have already toyed with similar ideas, bringing in Muhammad Shoaib and Mahboob ul Haq under Gen Ayub Khan. Under Gen Zia, too, several of the whiz kids (as Mohammad Waseem calls them) were tried. Where did they lead us?

People like Sartaj Aziz, Moeen Qureshi, Shahid Javed Burki, Shaukat Aziz and Hafeez Shaikh have also been tried for various lengths of tenure. None have provided long-term solutions. Some were given carte blanche under military dictators who had no clue about matters pertaining to the economy.

The Ministry of Finance has mostly been run by technocrats since the days of Gen Zia-ul Haq. This has not resulted in any great improvement.

Perhaps Pakistan is too complex an economy for the World Bank and IMF operatives to manage. The military regimes in particular have treaded the path far too often. Before getting down to identifying the issues and challenges peculiar to Pakistan that frustrate the technocrats in their bid to reform the system, let us explicate the idea of a technocratic government (sometime referred to as technocracy), the connotations and the context.

Technocracy is a form of government in which the decision-maker(s) are selected based on their expertise in each area of responsibility, particularly with regard to scientific or technical knowledge. The term “technocratic” implies, for example, that poverty is a technical problem, one that can be solved through scientific and apolitical measures.

A technocratic government is expected to take hard decisions that a political government cannot for fear of losing their vote bank. Similar arrangements have been tried to save several European countries, with the sudden appearance of technocratic government as a deus ex machina in Italy, where economist Mario Monti has been named prime minister and Greece, where economist Lucas Papademos has been named prime minister.

Etymologically, technocracy is derived from the Greek. It means skill and power, as in governance or rule. William Henry Smyth, a California engineer, is usually credited with inventing the word technocracy in 1919 to describe “the rule of the people made effective through the agency of their servants, the scientists and engineers.”

Smyth used the term technocracy in his 1919 article, Technocracy — Ways and Means to Gain Industrial Democracy, in the journal Industrial Management. Smyth’s usage referred to industrial democracy; a movement to integrate workers into decision-making through existing firms or revolution.

In the 1930s, through the influence of Howard Scott (1890-1970) an American engineer, the technocracy movement was founded. The term technocracy came to mean “government by technical decision making”, using an energy metric of value. Scott proposed that money be replaced by energy certificates denominated in units, such as ergs or joules, equivalent in total amount to an appropriate national net energy budget, and then distributed equally among the North American population, according to resource availability. That indeed was a quixotic idea that never found much traction. The movement fizzled out. Scott kept working as an engineer in New York till his death.

Such propositions are floated by the establishment either because it is wary of a populist leader or some political leaders have personal interests to pursue, usually at the expense of the collective (national) interest(s). Economic challenges in such polities become insurmountable and need tough decisions. In such circumstance, no major party has the temerity to bear the cost of instituting painful policies alone.

No wonder such an option is recommended for the economies that are in a downward spin – as in the case of Italy and Greece in the post-Covid situation. So, when things become tantalisingly precarious, one way around the difficulties is to appoint a technocratic government that is not “of” any party but is supported by all the parties. In this way, the “blame” can essentially be shared and the government can do the right thing, whatever that may be.

Whenever a technocratic government is set up in a country like Pakistan, most of the technocrats chosen come from international institutions like the IMF. This is why people having a personal interest in power advocate this type of government.

The intentions of the imported technocrats will always be questioned. Given the grievous situation Pakistan is in today, reforms on a radical, if not revolutionary, scale are required. But that cannot be achieved without political will.

A technocratic set up is bound to fail in a state with a multi-national character where the political institutions are yet to attain a tangible measure of maturity and the populace is starkly polarised. Any governance structure will require political legitimacy to operate. This will not be available to the technocrats lacking stakes in the country. Besides, the powerful elite in Pakistan are the beneficiaries of the anachronistic system and its hierarchical structure. Only about one percent of the people enjoy privilege and have held the country hostage. This is the biggest impediment to any meaningful reform.

Bringing the super-rich into the tax-net, reducing the size of the government, rationalising budgetary allocations for defence, levying taxed on the landed aristocrats and judicial reforms cannot be instituted without apolitical will and electoral constituency.

Doing away with an economy centred on rent-seekers, such as real estate magnates, and incentivising the manufacturing sector can redeem our economy. Encouraging investors to undertake value addition in locally produced goods and services is a project only a well-meaning political leader with a vision can undertake.

Most of the problems Pakistan faces now can be resolved if non-political forces resolve to stop their trespass on the constitutional mandates. That is the crucial step to establish the rule of law. Ensuring the freedom of speech and action will then put our society on the path that leads to cultural evolution, vital for being relevant in the contemporary world.

The writer is Professor in the faculty of Liberal Arts at the Beaconhouse National University, Lahore

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