Governance: An international journal of policy, administration and institutions

The perils of technocratism: Will environmentalists learn from Brexit?

By Nives Dolsak and Aseem Prakash.  What do the Brexit vote, the rise of Trump and Sanders, and apathy towards climate change mitigation have in common? The perils of relying on technocratism to justify policy choices.

Much will be written on why the British have voted for Brexit. There are already dire predictions about the future of the United Kingdom, the European Union, and the world economy. Mainstream newspapers are puzzled as to why the British voted for the exit even though it might hurt them. They blame populism, the rise of the far right, fears about immigration, economic globalization and so on.

While this is true, the mainstream media has not seriously engaged with the source of voter dissatisfaction with the EU. More broadly, we ought to ask: why are voters less willing to take marching orders from the economic and scientific elites? Why are they willing to follow the populist leaders who peddle simplistic solutions for complex problems instead?  

The Brexit vote reflects the triumph of populism over technocratism. The same might be said about the de facto nomination of Trump as the Republican candidate for President, or the formidable challenge posed by Sanders in the Democratic primaries.

Apathy (sometimes hostility) towards climate change mitigation is another instance. The elites are bewildered about the general population’s lack of willingness to pay for climate change mitigation via say a carbon tax or gasoline tax. For scientific elites, climate change mitigation is a no-brainer, given the overwhelming scientific evidence on this subject. And yet, ordinary citizens do not seem to be responding to their warnings about climate change. In some aspects, these citizens in their capacities as consumers are behaving worse versus previous years, as data on US automobile sales suggests. For example, in 2016 to date, “nearly 75 percent of the people who have traded in a hybrid or electric car to a dealer have replaced it with an all-gas car, an 18 percent jump from 2015.” While in 2008 President Obama set the goal of a million electric cars by 2015; in reality, not even half that number (442,000) have been sold to date.

How might we explain this? They key reason is that the technocratic discourse ignores politics, while populism panders to it. Consider, for example, how policies are justified in the mainstream discourse that uncritically accepts policy prescriptions offered by economists. Welfare economics typically favors policies that meet the so-called Hicks-Kaldor criterion. This suggests that a policy whose aggregate benefits outweigh its aggregate costs is desirable because the beneficiaries could theoretically compensate the losers, and still be better off. This narrative is often offered in support of free trade agreements, climate change mitigation, and regional integration (including the EU debate)

The problem with this approach is that the groups who benefit from such policies are frequently different from the ones that bear their costs. Typically, policy winners tend to be much smaller in number than the policy losers – as the increasing levels of income and wealth inequalities suggest. Furthermore, the policy winners typically are not willing to compensate the policy losers. For the former, their gains are due to their hard work and merit and they believe they do not have to indulge the “takers.” The state is increasingly unwilling or incapable of intervening to ensure that policy losers are compensated; this might be because the state is reflecting the interests of the elites.

What is offered to losers is advice that the world is becoming flat and they need to shore up their skill levels. So, the middle aged laid off steel worker is now expected to make a quick transition to computer programming in order to pay his bills. It is here that populist leaders find political opportunity: they remind “policy losers” of broken promises, and pin the blame for this failure on the elites.

Both the Brexit vote and apathy for global warming suffer from the Hicks-Kaldor fallacy. They ignore that costs and benefits are borne by different groups, and there is no honest broker to ensure that losers are compensated by policy winners.

Political scientists can offer a different way to think about these policy problems. Ted Lowi and James Q, Wilson suggest focusing not on the aggregate benefits and costs, but on how these benefits and costs affect specific groups. They note that policies that impose concentrated costs on few and in the short run, create conditions for policy losers to organize in opposition to the policy. In contrast, when policies create benefits for many, and these benefits materialize in the long run, the beneficiaries do not have similar incentives to organize in support. No wonder that policies passing the Hicks-Kaldor test may fail the Lowi-Wilson test.

In the context of Britain, the EU integration project probably creates aggregate benefits that exceeded its aggregate costs. So, it passes the Hicks-Kaldor test. But these benefits and costs were borne by different actors.  EU integration has created winners and losers. So following the Lowi-Wilson logic, the politically and economically disenfranchised voters have the motivations to express their anger at being left behind while the Europeanists have flourished. The populists saw this opportunity and have stepped in to exaggerate the anguish of the disenfranchised and added the toxic brew of nativist prejudice. A similar story is being enacted in other countries of Europe as well.

Climate change mitigation faces a similar political challenge. By and large, the environmentalists have tended to rely on heavy-handed regulation and scientific discourse. They are puzzled why the citizens continue to be apathetic, and sometimes hostile, towards mitigation. Yes, one can blame media outlets and think-tanks for some of the problems – but then how might one explain the continued fascination of the American consumer with gas guzzling automobiles? And the vocal advocacy of labor unions in favor of new oil pipelines, offshore drilling, and fracking?

In many ways, the elites reflect a high level of naïveté about politics. They need to ask: why should a coal miner or a construction worker sacrifice his livelihood to save the world? Have environmentalists made a case for compensating the losers from climate change mitigation? Have they invested in creating a genuine social movement (not a # movement) and shape preferences of voters and citizens? Instead, they seem to be relying on top-down regulations, court orders, and pontification via the mainstream media to advance their agenda.

Without a serious effort to work towards a just transition to usher in a low-carbon economy in ways that takes care of the interests of policy losers, the climate change agenda is bound to face a push-back. This has created the political space for populists to move in. They exaggerate the costs of mitigation, question the logic of climate change, and link climate change mitigation to the broader issues of free trade and globalization that are leading to the migration of jobs to countries like China and India.

The Brexit vote shows the perils of relying on technocratic thinking that ignores politics. Environmentalists should think about disaggregate benefits and costs of their preferred policies. They should work towards just transitions that allow groups affected by new climate change regulations to continue to lead decent and meaningful lives.

Nives Dolsak is a professor in the School of Marine and Environmental Affairs at the University of Washington, Seattle, and Aseem Prakash is a professor of political science and directs the Center for Environmental Politics at the University of Washington, Seattle.

Written by Governance

June 27, 2016 at 2:26 pm

Posted in Blog comments, Brexit


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