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The power of the technician

Posted by Richard on November 21, 2010

Daniel H. Fernald thinks TSA administrator John Pistole's response to the growing "Don't touch my junk" movement is a symptom of a problem that won't be solved by defeating Obama in 2012. It's much more fundamental. Woodrow Wilson is implicated. And French philosopher and sociologist Jacques Ellul explained it almost fifty years ago:

Politicians are decision makers. They control the levers of power. The trouble, according to Ellul, is that in an increasingly complex environment, they often don’t know how to use them.

This is where the expert, the “technician,” comes in. At the outset, the expert’s role is merely to advise political leaders on how best to accomplish politicians’ stated policy goals. The expert’s role soon progresses to determining the “one best means” of accomplishing those goals. Finally, the expert technician decides on not merely the means of pursuing the “one best means” but also determines the policy goal toward which “the one best means” is directed.

As the power of the technician waxes, that of the politician wanes, until he is little more than a rubber stamp.

The monstrous Leviathan into which TSA has quickly, albeit all too predictably, morphed is a textbook illustration of Ellul’s thesis. Several elected representatives of the people politely suggested that a political technician, a bureaucrat, might possibly want to think about maybe giving, you know, just a bit of thought to not forcing American citizens to choose between being irradiated or groped, and he simply said:


That’s a quote. He didn’t mince words, he didn’t equivocate, he didn’t evade the question. He simply said, “No.”

And the politicians did nothing, because they had no power to do anything. The technician had the power, and they all knew it.

Read the whole thing.

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3 Responses to “The power of the technician”

  1. David Bryant said

    This is interesting stuff, Richard. I read some more about Jacques Ellul — he characterized himself as a “Christian anarchist.” There’s an interesting tension in that phrase — some might even say it’s an oxymoron. I think it also places him in the same camp as Albert J. Nock (who was definitely an anarchist, and who — despite his professed agnosticism in later life — never managed to divorce himself entirely from the effects of his early training as an Episcopal priest).

  2. Hathor said

    Perhaps this might change if science and math were considered a part of a liberal education.

  3. rgcombs said

    I vaguely recall reading some Ellul (and about Ellul) many, many years ago, but the details are mostly lost amidst the dormant synapses of my brain. IIRC, he was definitely an anarchist, and I believe I found him somewhat interesting (this was during my anarchist period), but ultimately found both his religious beliefs and his rather Rousseauvian romanticist views a bit much.

    ”Perhaps this might change if science and math were considered a part of a liberal education.”

    Interesting that you should put it that way, because Ellul complained about pretty much the opposite. His antipathy to technology and material progress caused him to lament the fact that the ”humanities” were losing their relevance to most people. 🙂

    I disagree with Ellul on that (and think more science and math education — along with more economics — is a good idea). But of course, I object to having what he called the “technicians” making decisions that are imposed on the rest of us. And I think his analysis of how the “expert” bureaucrats end up ruling over us is pretty much spot on. More’s the pity.

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