Prudence, justice, democracy – and how technocracy thwarts them

In the June 12 issue of National Review, writer Noah Rothman takes aim at the web of intrusive regulations that, as the Lilliputians tried to bind Gulliver with hundreds of strings, try to micromanage our personal lives with regard to the kinds of technologies we use around the house. In recent years, the following well-established items have become targets for government regulation above and beyond the usual safety concerns: incandescent light bulbs, gas stoves, gas water heaters, air conditioners, lawn mowers, and even paper bags and plastic straws.

Any attempt to elucidate a coherent motivation behind these regulations, which emerge from all levels of government (city, state, and federal), tends to end in confusion. Various reasons are given ranging from suspicious increases in childhood asthma for gas stoves, to air and noise pollution from gasoline-powered lawn mowers, to alleged environmental harms from plastic straws. None of the regulators claim that any of these technologies are bad because they are directly responsible for the deaths or injuries of those who use them (although people have died in fires caused by gas stoves and cut off their fingers with lawnmowers). The harm is always more remote: vague and poorly implemented studies showing correlation between asthma and the use of gas ranges, increased levels of environmental pollution that are so small as to be negligible, or the ever-present excuse of climate change.

As Rothman points out, neglected in all these calculations by the regulators are the inconveniences, or worse, placed on the consumer by the by-products of regulation. LED lighting costs more than old-fashioned incandescent lighting. This is a clear burden on poor people. Some kinds of cooking are hard or impossible to do with electric or induction ranges, which also cost more to operate in many locales than gas ranges do. In the name of various vague political causes, then, the regulators ask the much larger number of ordinary citizens to endure a set of individually slight inconveniences, which however add up to a considerable burden if totalled over the entire US.

There is another philosophy of government that is more or less opposed to democracy, and that is technocracy: rule by experts.

If we look at this situation from an ethical point of view, two cardinal virtues come to mind: justice and prudence. Justice sees that each person gets what is coming to him or her, in either a nice way or a not-so-nice way. Prudence is a sort of all-around virtue of balancing various factors so that justice is served. In a democracy, both of these virtues should be possessed by the body politic so that whatever is democratically enacted embodies them.

Before the era of micro-managing regulations, all of the technologies mentioned above were adopted not because they were politically correct, but because enterprising inventors and manufacturers developed them in response to needs and wants of the public. And the public went for them without any help from government. In the name of prudence, certain basic safety regulations and voluntary schemes such as the Underwriters Laboratory label were put in place to ensure that direct harm from these technologies was kept to an acceptably low level, but that was it as far as regulation is concerned.


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However, there is another philosophy of government that is more or less opposed to democracy, and that is technocracy: rule by experts. In this view, the great unwashed masses are too ignorant to choose domestic technologies wisely and need to be guided by their elitely-educated masters into the path of enlightenment. Exactly which path that is depends on the expert, so in practice the regulation that is enacted depends on just who grabs the levers of power in the increasingly complex web of bureaucracies that we live under today. This probably explains the geographically diverse nature of these regulations: what's fine in Nevada may be banned in California and vice versa, depending on which technocrat is running the show.

Both prudence and justice are violated when an ideologue imposes his idiosyncratic whims on a large group of citizens who have been minding their own business. Whatever allegedly meritorious political goal is served by the regulation is usually far outweighed by the sum of small (or not so small) inconveniences suffered by those who are regulated. Voluntary suffering and privation, as many citizens did to sacrifice consumer products during World War II, is one thing. But to have it imposed on you in the absence of a national emergency is both unwise (imprudent) and unfair (unjust).

Rothman ends his article in the hope that voters will turn to the ballot box to alleviate some of the ills imposed by bureaucratic micro-regulation of technologies which have proved both popular and safe, by and large. Unfortunately, the same diffuseness that marks the regulations (small harms caused to a lot of people) means that such matters are unlikely to become dominant issues in political campaigns. I doubt that even the most progressive candidates have made banning gas stoves a major plank in their platforms.

The most we can hope for in this regard is that one party or the other will take up the cause of pushing back against rule by technocrats in general, and a vote for that party will work against the creeping regulations that threaten to deprive us of things that work just fine, thank you. While this might work on the national level, the entrenched nature of local politics, especially in large cities and certain states, means that there are only limited hopes in this direction.

Sometimes other types of public-relations actions can have effects all out of proportion to their actual size. I think of Mahatma Gandhi's famous Salt March of 1930, which publicized the Indian populace's opposition to the British monopoly on salt production. Salt was something everybody used and had to pay for, and the British unfairly prevented Indian citizens from making it themselves, no doubt using reasons of sanitation and quality to justify their injustice. After the arrest of some 60,000 protesters, Gandhi was able to negotiate with the British leaders for the right to make salt by ordinary citizens, and the march was a success.

I don't know how effective a lawnmower march on a state capital would be, but I'm sure it would garner some publicity. When ordinary democratic means either fail or are unavailable, more unorthodox ways should be tried. But the best thing is to re-establish both a working democratic system, and a populace who will not stand for any nonsense.


Karl D. Stephan is a professor in the Ingram School of Engineering at Texas State University, San Marcos.

This article has been republished from the author's blog, Engineering Ethics. 

Image credits: Charlie Chaplin in "Modern Times". 

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