Why Some Nations Are Warming to Technocracy

Young democracies are hungry for competent government, even if they didn't elect it.

In experts we trust?

Photographer: Three Lions/Getty Images

It's an interesting paradox that ordinary people asked to choose the best form of government don't necessarily choose democracy -- the only form structured around how they feel about such questions. A 38-country survey published by Pew Research Center on Monday shows most people the world prefer a technocracy, with a minority favoring a type of military or civilian authoritarianism.

Pew asked 41,953 people earlier this year to judge if five forms of government -- representative democracy, direct democracy, or rule by either experts, a strong leader or the military -- would, in their opinion, be good for their country. More than three-quarters said they liked representative democracy and two-thirds praised direct voting; none of the other options won an overall majority in the 38 countries. That should be enough to satisfy a pro-democracy optimist. The data, however, are more complex.

Discarding the direct democracy option, Pew classified respondents as those committed to representative democracy (those who only support this type of government), those who are positive about at least one other type and those who only support a non-democratic option or two. Sweden turned out to be the only country with a majority -- 52 percent -- strongly committed to representative democracy. Even in countries with strong traditions of popular rule, such as the U.S., Canada, the Netherlands, the U.K. or France, most people are willing to entertain alternatives, tacitly disagreeing with Winston Churchill's contention that "democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time."

Democracy? Not Necessarily

In most countries, a majority is not firmly committed to representative democracy as a form of government

Source: Pew Research

* Those who say only representative democracy is good for their country **Those who say an alternative could also be good ***Those who don't believe representative democracy is good

It's not that, in most of these countries, people have ever tried anything else. It's just that, in many cases, they don't believe the current political system works well. Majorities in France, Southern European countries, Hungary, South Korea, and most Middle Eastern and Latin American nations say they are unhappy with how democracy works in their country. But then, as the Pew researchers point out, happiness with the democratic order is closely correlated with how democratic a country actually is (according to the Economist's democracy index), with wealth, economic growth and support for the ruling political parties. People's willingness to consider alternatives to representative government is also correlated with education (predictably, those with less of it have more respect for a strong hand and for the military). Pew didn't do an age breakdown, otherwise they could have discovered, as Roberto Stefan Foa and Yascha Mounk did last year, that millennials find it less essential than previous generations to live in a democratically-governed country; but then, today's young are more economically disadvantaged than their parents, so perhaps there's an economic explanation for the phenomenon. 

Most people can't think of government forms in the abstract. Winners (in every sense -- those who are wealthier and more used to freedom, those with more schooling, those who voted for the winning party) are generally happier with the status quo than losers, and that affects their judgment. Societies where most people feel like losers on several counts are understandably more agnostic about the way they're governed and more open to experimentation.

What's truly striking about the Pew findings, however, is what kind of experiment people would favor. The only nondemocratic form of government that attracts majorities in some countries is technocracy, in which experts, not elected politicians, determine how to run a nation. The list of countries where that's a common belief is telling:

In Experts We Trust

Percentage of respondents who say rule by experts rather than elected representatives would be good for their country

Source: Pew Research

It's in advanced democracies that experts' allure has faded. When Michael Gove, currently the U.K. environment minister, said last year that "people in this country have had enough of experts," he was right in the sense that British people didn't want an expertocracy. They still don't: 54 percent believe it would be bad for the U.K. Large majorities in Europe believe ordinary people should be more empowered, voting on major national issues -- a preference that helps populist parties, which generally call for more referendums. But in countries where democracy is young, flawed or fragile, majorities would consent to technocratic rule. It's usually second best after representative democracy in Pew respondents' view, but it's clearly preferable to strongman or military rule. 

One could see it merely as willingness to settle for second best if they can't have their top choice. It's better to be ruled by smart people than by stick-wielding dictators. I suspect there's more to it, though. In young and imperfect democracies, people are more likely than in established ones to have lived under a coercive regime. But in some of these countries, many people have direct experience of having overthrown one -- and of the chaotic, inept democratic government that often follows such upheavals. They're hungry for competent government, one that doesn't merely represent them but also knows what it's doing.

That paternalism may be why these democracies are vulnerable to strongmen posing as technocrats. It's something of a vicious circle: A country without a strong democratic tradition usually doesn't have a competent political class, but there's never a shortage of people with a plan who are impatient with checks and balances and who prevent such a class from developing. But perhaps new and fragile democracies that end up with such rulers shouldn't be judged too harshly: They are entitled to try this option before they come back to popular representation as the best selection mechanism for competent leaders. By then, societies with a longer tradition of competitive politics will either move on to more direct democracy -- or get tired of their own populist experiment and also revert to the well-tested forms of representative government.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

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    Mike Nizza at mnizza3@bloomberg.net

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