The problem with technocracy

Once again we see the basic problem with technocracy:

Adults will be told it is fine to drink in moderation in new guidelines on alcohol intake unveiled by the govern­ment — in a slapdown of Britain’s top doctor.

The rules, to be announced soon, will set the recommended weekly limit for both men and women at 14 units, a reduction of seven for men, and explain that every drink comes with a small health risk.

The dangers of alcohol, like the dangers of rather a lot of things in this life, come on a curve. No booze at all leads to shorter lifespans than some, too much to shorter again. Where those curves are is of course an empirical matter but the too much, leading to the same dangers as none, is well out beyond 14 units a week for men. Up more at 30 to 40 units in fact.

That this is true of much of life is obvious - no food is not known to be good for us, 5,000 calories a day plus a sedentary lifestyle similarly not all that healthy. A diet of pure sugar won't keep you going all that long but an insistence on "no refined sugar" is to make the opposite mistake. And on the larger scale of course a tax rate of zero percent raises no money from that particular tax while there really is a rate which is "too high" in that raising it further will produce ever less revenue.

It's superficially attractive that we have experts who decide how these curves work and then tell the rest of us. Certainly we think that pointing out that the peak of the Laffer Curve for UK income tax is somewhere around 40% or so, less than 50% or so, is an empirical result which we think experts should mention.

And yet there's a problem with such technocracy. It's akin to the trade protection and tariffs problem. The people who will end up as the technocrats on any particular subject are going to be those with a whole hive of bees in their bonnet about that particular subject. We end up being ruled by the Single Issue Fanatics, as Bernard Levin used to put it. 

It's a standard analysis of the problem with trade tariffs. Those who gain from the protection they provide are a concentrated interest- those few who produce whatever the tariff is placed upon. Those losers are the dispersed interest of everyone else. We don't care very much, and therefore make very little noise about, tuppence on every toothbrush. Toothbrush manufacturers are very interested indeed, and will be most vocal, about 2 p on every brush they sell. And will thus be insistent about the vital interest of protecting British teeth from the horrors of Chinese competition.

So it is with our technocrats. Those who take a sufficient interest in how much other people drink are going to be those who are very interested in being able to control how much other people drink. The Temperance Lobby in short. Those who wish to control how much people smoke are going to be those against smoking itself. Those who work to regulate e-ciggies will be those who really don't think they should exist at all. "Proper" salt levels will be determined by those with a bugbear about salt for whatever reason.

It is that concentrated and dispersed interest again. As soon as there is some small part of government which determines such details that small part will be colonised by the fanatics.

Which is the basic problem with technocracy. It doesn't end up with those who know what they're doing running matters, it ends up with the fanatics as they're the only people who care enough to regulate the rest of us. And if we're honest about it rule by fanatics doesn't have quite the same ring to it as rule by experts.

All of which is rather why we are fanatics ourselves. Fanatics for there being fewer rules and rather more of that dispersed interest making itself known by what people get on and do themselves rather than the imposition of absurdities by those with the power to do so.