Like David Henderson, I was saddened to learn of the unfortunate death of Jeffrey Friedman. He was the founder of Critical Review, a journal I always find interesting, as well as the author of what I think is the most persuasive explanation of the 2008 financial crisis published so far. He was also a strong critic of both the economics profession and libertarianism, which makes him (to me) deeply interesting and engaging to read. I was very eager to read what turned out to be his final book, Power Without Knowledge: A Critique of Technocracy, as soon as it was released. I happened to have re-read it recently, and I will be putting together a series of posts reviewing the book.

First, a stylistic note is in order. While I find Friedman’s ideas engaging, his writing style flows like a river of bricks. Here’s a typical sentence:

The waters are only muddied if we conceptualize this inter-individual process of culture production as supra-individual, as when we pit intersubjectivity against subjectivity by omitting a factor that makes both ideational homogeneity and ideational heterogeneity possible: communication among individual human subjects.

You might want to skip this book if 350 pages of that kind of prose don’t appeal to you. That note having been made, let’s begin with an overview.

Friedman wishes to critically examine technocracy. Helpfully, he provides a clear definition of what he means by that term:

A polity that aims to solve, mitigate, or prevent social and economic problems among its people (henceforth, for convenience, their “social problems.”)

Now that he’s defined what a technocracy is, who are the technocrats? Friedman applies a broad brush here, classifying as technocrats not only putative experts, but also ordinary citizens who engage in political activity with the intent of achieving social goals. From here, he gives each group a distinctive classification:

In the meantime, let us define as “technocrats” all political actors who make knowledge claims (express or tacit) about the scope, causes of, and cures for social problems – whether these actors are trained, credentialed specialists or not. In turn, let us call “epistocrats” either trained, credentialed specialists (or any other political actors) who claim to have technocratic knowledge unavailable to ordinary citizens. Finally, let us call “citizen-technocrats” political actors who have non-esoteric opinions – explicit or tacit – about the scope, causes of, and cures for social problems.

By Friedman’s definitions, technocracy isn’t inherently an antidemocratic system where elites attempt to steer society. Instead:

What distinguishes this type of regime from others is not the number of its personnel in proportion to the population being governed – “the few” versus “the many” – but the nature of the regime’s mission: to solve, mitigate, and prevent social problems.

Friedman expects his inclusion of ordinary citizens as technocrats will be controversial:

Empirically oriented political scientists might scoff at the notion that ordinary citizens should be counted as technocrats…because they doubt that ordinary citizens are equipped to weigh policies’ costs against their benefits.

Against this concern, Friedman replies:

I am suggesting only that [citizens] political decisions are heavily influenced by perceptions of whether or not public policies can be expected to “work,” or are already “working”…Consider the well-established tendency of ordinary twentieth-century US citizens to vote retrospectively: that is, on the basis of whether the incumbent candidate or party has prevented or mitigated important social problems such as inflation, unemployment, or war. Retrospection of this sort is an all-things-considered form of cost-benefit analysis. Retrospective voters are tacitly claiming to know whether technocratic policies have produced good economic or foreign-policy consequences overall.

Having offered definitions of both technocracy and technocrats, Friedman sets out to examine the legitimacy of technocracy. His goal is not to raise an external critique of technocracy, as a libertarian might by arguing the project is illegitimate due to normative beliefs about the proper scope of government. Instead, he raises an internal critique – is technocracy workable according to its own purpose, as defined above? If a technocracy can’t reliably achieve the intended aims, or if those aims can be achieved by lower cost means, then technocracy would be internally illegitimate by its own standards.

Friedman identifies four different types of knowledge technocrats would need to achieve the goals of technocracy:

Type 1. Knowledge of which social problems are not only real but significant, in the sense that they affect large numbers of people – or small numbers intensely. (This amounts to the negative-utilitarian benefits to be achieved by solving, preventing, or mitigating problems.)

Type 2. Knowledge of what is causing the significant problems, and (preferably) knowledge of what might cause significant problems in the future.

Type 3. Knowledge of which technocratic actions can efficaciously solve, mitigate, or prevent the significant problems.

Type 4. Knowledge of the costs of efficacious solutions, including not only anticipated costs but those that are not intended, and thus not anticipated.

(As a side note, while I’ve argued it’s sensible to speak of costs that are unintended but still anticipated, by Friedman’s lights, all unintended costs are also unanticipated. Given that this is a review of his book, I’ll be using those terms according to his stipulated definitions.)

Without accurate type 1 knowledge, technocrats might expend considerable resources attempting to solve nonexistent or minor problems, preventing resources from being used to solve real or larger ones. Even with accurate type 1 knowledge, lacking type 2 knowledge will cause technocratic solutions to be useless or counterproductive. An example would be a doctor who knows the symptoms (accurate type 1 knowledge) but misdiagnoses the disease causing those symptoms (inaccurate type 2 knowledge). The treatments the doctor applies in this case will be wasted effort at best, and possibly harmful or fatal. Even with accurate type 1 and 2 knowledge, without accurate type 3 knowledge, technocratic policies will “devote scarce resources to inefficacious solutions, indirectly causing unintended problems by reducing our ability to implement efficacious solutions.” And finally, type 4 knowledge is needed to ensure that the cure isn’t worse than the disease.

However, Friedman doesn’t want to put forth an “unrealistically demanding” standard, and sets the bar at what seems like a reasonable level:

As a human enterprise, technocracy should not be held to standards of perfection…Thus, I suggest that as a working assumption, we deem a technocratic regime internally legitimate if it tends to do more good, overall, than the harm it creates in the form of costs, including unintended ones. According to this criterion, technocratic decision makers need to know, more often than not, how to establish the existence of social problems, how to roughly prioritize them according to their significance, how to discern their causes, and how to solve them well enough to do more good than the costs these solutions generate. This standard of adequacy cuts technocrats a great deal of slack without licensing too many policy backfires, invisible costs, and misguided missiles.

Thus, the stage is set for Friedman’s review of technocratic legitimacy. Over the next several posts, I’ll summarize the ideas Friedman uses to examine this question and the conclusions he reaches. I’ll wrap up by reviewing what I learned from this book, where he changed my mind, and where I find shortcomings in his argument.



Kevin Corcoran is a Marine Corps veteran and a consultant in healthcare economics and analytics and holds a Bachelor of Science in Economics from George Mason University.