A few years ago Michael Gove made his infamous statement: “people in this country have had enough of experts”. At the time I think I found it vaguely amusing – at the time, there were a lot of experts who had been weighing in about the EU. But over the last few months it’s come back to me more and more. It does seem like the last year of our lives has been government by experts. The proper word for it is technocracy.
What is technocracy? This is how Wikipedia puts it:
Technocracy is a system of government in which a decision-maker or makers are elected by the population or appointed on the basis of their expertise in a given area of responsibility, particularly with regard to scientific or technical knowledge.
So a technocracy is government by scientific or technical experts, rather than democratic representatives. Perhaps over the last few months, the thought has popped into your mind (as it has mine): “When did we elect SAGE to govern us?”
But this is not a new problem. We’ve been living in a kind of technocracy for a while now. The roots of it go back decades. But, for people of my generation, the EU is maybe the biggest symbol of technocracy.
Technocracy and Brexit
Michael Gove’s original comments about “experts” were made in the context of Brexit. Looking back now, it’s fascinating how almost the whole of the establishment were against Brexit. Politicians, the media, even the Archbishop of Canterbury, all spoke out against Brexit. They said that leaving the EU would be bad for us as a country, that there would be terrible consequences.
Brexit was generally considered a Bad Idea by the movers and shakers in the world. The people who know things. You know… the Experts. The economists were telling us how terrible things would happen. Terrifying predictions were made about job losses, about how companies would simply up and leave the UK. World War Three would break out. (Not exaggerating – I seem to remember David Cameron saying something to that effect).
The experts were united: leaving the European Union was a Bad Idea, and how DARE the silly little people vote the wrong way. How dare the people disregard the wisdom of the Experts! Some of the papers hardly even bothered to disguise their contempt for Brexit voters (something I’ve written about before). “Did these people not know what would happen if we voted to leave? Didn’t they hear all the terrible doom-laden predictions of the Experts?”
Every time there was some Brexit-related bad news, many of the media class would roll their eyes and say “I told you so! I told you it would be a catastrophe!” Almost as if they wanted it to fail simply so they could be proved right.
These predictions of doom seem not to have come to pass, not yet anyway. In fact, yesterday I read an astonishing article in the Guardian (the same Guardian which has been pretty much anti-Brexit since the beginning): “I hate to say it, but Britain’s doing OK. Even Germany envies us…” Things seem to be going far better than even most Brexiteers could have hoped for. How could that be, when the Experts told us the opposite would be the case?
Technocracy and Lockdown
It does seem to me there are a lot of parallels between what happened around Brexit and what has happened over the last year about lockdown:
- The Experts are constantly terrifying the government, not to mention the public, with doom-laden predictions about what might happen unless we take a particular path. The most recent example is the government ditching plans to lift the lockdown before Easter because Sage modelling predicted 55,000 more deaths if they did.
- At every point the government have made clear that they are following or being guided by “the science”, which really means the particular group of Experts they have on Sage.
- Almost the entirety of the establishment are behind the Experts.
- There does seem to be a high correlation between the people who were most vehemently anti-Brexit and the people who are most strongly pro-lockdown.
Of course there are some differences. A lot of people who were pro-Brexit are also pro-lockdown, in my opinion largely because they’ve been terrified by the government’s fear campaign. But I think the similarities are striking. We in the UK now live in a technocracy.
So, what’s wrong with that? Surely it’s best to let the people with particular expertise make the decisions? They may get it wrong sometimes, but isn’t it best to listen to them? To answer that question, let’s think about technocracy from a Christian perspective.
A Christian response to technocracy
Are the technocrats trustworthy?
One of the problems with technocracy from a Christian perspective is that the Experts are as flawed as the rest of us. In my previous post I talked about Francis Schaeffer’s book The Church at the End of the Twentieth Century. This is exactly the point that Schaeffer makes – a man may wear a white coat, but he is still a fallen man. Science may make claims to objectivity but, sadly, in the real world it is still subject to social pressure and bias.
I think this is what we’ve seen over the past few months. For example, Neil Ferguson (who became known as ‘professor lockdown’ because his modelling team at Imperial College was instrumental in the government’s decision to lockdown) was unable to keep lockdown rules himself. He resigned from Sage after breaking quarantine rules to have an affair. (Although he appears to be back on Sage, let’s leave that for the moment).
We’ve seen numerous examples of this: experts who call for tough measures have themselves not been able to keep to those measures. But I think there is an even deeper issues with technocracy.
An alternative saviour
C.S. Lewis was, in my opinion, one of the most insightful men of the twentieth century. He, along with Francis Schaeffer, have predicted much of what has gone on to happen. Let me quote you some of his 1958 essay Is Progress Possible?
On just the same ground I dread government in the name of science. That is how tyrannies come in. In every age the men who want us under their thumb, if they have any sense, will put forward the particular pretension which the hopes and fears of that age render most potent. They ‘cash in’. It has been magic, it has been Christianity. Now it will certainly be science.
Lewis says that government in the name of science is tyranny. Why? Let’s think about it: one of our society’s greatest fears is death. It’s got to the point where we just try to brush it under the carpet as much as possible. We all know that everybody dies, yet we pretend that it’s not the case. In a society like that, what happens when a scientist comes along who tells you you can save thousands of lives simply by following a particular course of action? If people are genuinely scared of death, the power of the scientists will be almost unlimited. There will be nothing people won’t do in the name of the science, as long as it saves them from death.
And, as the old maxim goes, “absolute power corrupts absolutely”. A scientist who starts out with the best possible intentions can be corrupted by the power. Imagine them thinking “just how many lives could be saved if we just did…?” If the only goal is extending the duration of our lives, this is probably scientifically possible in ways which are highly dubious and unethical. This is what happens when you hand over control to science.
Science is a great tool but a terrible master.
What about values?
And this brings me to the final point. Let me quote once again from C.S. Lewis’ essay:
Again, the new oligarchy must more and more base its claim to plan us on its claim to knowledge. If we are to be mothered, mother must know best. This means they must increasingly rely on the advice of scientists, till in the end the politicians proper become merely the scientists’ puppets. Technocracy is the form to which a planned society must tend. Now I dread specialists in power because they are specialists speaking outside their special subjects. Let scientists tell us about sciences. But government involves questions about the good for man, and justice, and what things are worth having at what price; and on these a scientific training gives a man’s opinion no added value. Let the doctor tell me I shall die unless I do so-and-so; but whether life is worth having on those terms is no more a question for him than for any other man. [My emphasis]
That last sentence I think is the clincher.
Let’s say a special life support machine was designed. It could keep a human being alive for 200 years. The only snag is, it could only keep you that long in a comatose state. You’d be technically alive, but unable to actually live. Would that be the kind of life worth living?
As C.S. Lewis says, that’s not a question for science. It’s a quality of life question, which can’t be answered by purely scientific means. Scientists can tell us what may lengthen or shorten our lives, but whether it’s worth doing on those terms is simply not a question they can (or should) answer.
Over the last twelve months, in order to keep us safe, we as a country have been under various legal restrictions as to who we can see. At the time of writing, it’s still illegal to meet someone – even outside (unless you’re going for a walk). Parents and grandparents have been forbidden from seeing their children and grandchildren. People have been unable to see elderly relatives in care homes. Young children and babies have been unable to enjoy cuddles with their families and all the social interaction they need at that age.
The government have effectively decided, following the science (as they always make clear) that our safety from a particular virus is of more value than our mental health and wellbeing, than businesses, than our normal lives. Is that the correct decision? Well, it’s certainly not one that scientists can answer. I for one am angry that the decision was made on our behalf to keep us safe, when in many ways it has done anything but.
The end of Experts?
All this is rather depressing. But I think there are signs of hope. As lockdown goes on, I think people are beginning to ask more questions. People are beginning to ask whether the lockdowns are really worth it. For example, a lot of people are looking over to other countries who have had less restrictive lockdowns and seeing that they haven’t fared any worse:
People are also beginning to ask questions about the number of deaths. Slowly but surely, people are waking up to the fact that maybe the Experts are not infallible.
As I said before:
My suspicion is, when all is said and done, that the government (aided and abetted by the media) will have done nothing but make things worse. Lockdowns, masks, closing down businesses, everything. Of course, at the moment we can’t know for sure.
My hunch is that the next few months and years will see the whole government strategy over the past 12 months taken apart, piece by piece. I suspect we will see at every point how the measures taken were not made on a sound scientific basis but from panic and a desire to be seen to be doing something.
I sincerely hope and pray that the Experts will be shown up for what they are. I also hope those people who gave the Experts unquestioning loyalty will do some serious soul searching.
The government we need
The government we need is a government who knows what is truly important. A government with principles – not just Experts. I believe a government with principles would have stood up against the lockdown and gone with something more like the UK’s previous pandemic plan (which was ditched in March 2020. The previous plan didn’t include lockdowns). Perhaps a government with principles might have been more loath to trust a strategy from the Chinese Communist Party – not known for its good record of human rights.
At the end of the day, as Francis Schaeffer says, there has to be some absolute. If you don’t have an absolute, there can be no true knowledge. The Bible says:
The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge,Proverbs 1:7
but fools despise wisdom and instruction.
The fount of all expertise is the fear of the Lord. That’s the primary kind of expertise that the government needs: not an expertise in science, or technology, or politics – but an expertise in the fear of the Lord. If we get that right, everything else will follow.