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Saturday, May 25, 2024

Technocracy at work: The risk for democracy in Italy

The beginning of February signified a turning point in Italian political affairs, as 2022 began with a serious rise of political tensions within the country. The elections for the President of the Italian Republic have never drawn much attention. Unlike in the American government, the head of the state acts more as a nonpartisan defender of democratic institutions, having almost no executive power but a say in the constitutions of the government. 

This month marked an exception. 

The reason for this is simple — one of the shortlisted names to assume this position was Mario Draghi, the current Prime Minister. This led to the question: Who would replace him as the head of the executive?

Draghi is already a well-known figure in the international political scene, having served as the President of the European Central Bank until 2019. Last year, he was appointed leader of the national unity government following the resignation of its predecessor Giuseppe Conte. He, along with his ministers, have been successfully leading the country since, working on a number of crucial reforms for the modernization of the country — from public administration to bureaucracy and the fiscal system.

As a testimony to the success of the current executive, The Economist awarded Italy with the title of Country of the Year. This recognition was mainly because of their accomplishments in containing the pandemic and restoring credibility in the possibility to achieve a sustainable growth in productivity, something which escaped the country since the late 1990s. 

Results indicate industrial production in the last year has been growing more than in the rest of Europe — 4.7% Italian growth against 4.4% growth for the eurozone — as forecasted by Standard and Poor reports. Additionally, the spread rates to German Bunds have been among the lowest in the last decade, showing the confidence that international investors place on the country’s leadership.

The vacancy left from the departure of Draghi would have spurred a governmental crisis, requiring new elections in an extremely delicate period of the pandemic. Moreover, it would have reopened the conflict between political forces in a time of relative harmony and cooperation. 

The situation was ultimately resolved, perhaps anticlimactically, with the reelection of the former President Sergio Mattarella. While everything is de-facto unchanged, this averted catastrophe still creates a lesson for us observers, and can perhaps teach us something about the unresolved contradictions that curse the third biggest economy of Europe.

While the Prime Minister’s achievements are undeniably impressive, his election still casts a shadow on democracy as a whole. Being never explicitly affiliated with any political party, Draghi is the fourth technocrat to rule Italy since 1993. It is often argued that periods of crisis like the current one call for the presence of competent politicians — politicians who can see beyond political divisions and ideologies and pursue forward-looking, although often unpopular, reforms and policies.

For example, in the midst of the Sovereign debt crisis that hit Europe in 2010-11, Mario Monti, who served in the European Commission after studying Economics at Yale, led the country out of inevitable bankruptcy.

As aforementioned, Draghi has a similar, if not more impressive, academic and professional record. After a Ph.D. in Economics at MIT, he worked for Goldman Sachs, the World Bank and the Italian Central Bank, all before landing at the ECB in 2011. Is it possible that the reliance on competent yet unelected political figures paves the way for a weakening of democracy and its core values?

Both a pinch of common sense and ample empirical proof by political science research can tell us that competence, especially for the head of governments, is a desirable feature. However, we must not underestimate the distortions of politics and representative democracy in particular.

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If competence is so desirable, why can completely inexperienced politicians become president of the United States? And conversely, how is it that during a life-threatening pandemic electors worldwide have trouble believing scientists and pharmaceutical companies who have devoted time and resources to devising the best ways to defend ourselves? Why is the general public so skeptical of technocrats?

Unfortunately, no clear cut answer exists to this puzzling question. Still, we can put forward some hypotheses. Technocratic governments where there is no formal election — and therefore, no accountability to voters — take away from the core values of democracy. At least that is the message often put forward by scared electors. Even if the policy proposals of elected politicians are inferior to those of competent but non-political representatives, some may prefer to choose and err themselves, as at least this gives them a sense of control over their destiny. 

Even more so, the executive branches of many governments (Draghi is no exception) tend to use non-conventional ways of passing laws in a more timely manner to cope with emergencies like the pandemic. However, this effectively takes away any control that the Parliament, the only organ directly elected by the people, has on policy-making. Especially when these decisions are costly, as in the case of lockdowns and other (sometimes) arbitrary restrictions to some commercial activities, hearing these come from the mouths of unelected despots undermines the legitimacy of these containment measures. When these tools are abused, electors fear that the emergency state is being used to establish an autocratic regime. 

While voters are skeptical of delegating to independent powers, the same cannot be said for incumbent politicians. No candidate would willingly put themselves in the position to ask sacrifices to their electors, knowing it may cost future reelection chances. Delegation to technocrats is often a way to avoid taking responsibility for unpopular but unavoidable decisions. 

This culture of political opportunism only reinforces the feeling of not being represented by the political establishment and leaves the door open for unconventional politicians to rise in national polls — a trend that has culminated in 2018 with the election of Italy’s first populist government.

The now widespread rise of populism is symptomatic of this newly growing wedge in society between those who trust scientific knowledge, and those who are skeptical of the elites and their encroachment on daily life. Such concerns are often justified by saying that these technocrats serve some other good (be it international finance or some secret organization controlling the whole world), different from the one of the nation. This way, the experience of competent leaders in high-profile agencies only strengthens suspicions, rather than inspiring confidence in their ability. 

Interestingly, this division correlates strongly with education. The first group corresponds to those who are highly educated, highly skilled and for which the opportunities brought about by technology and globalization are improving their career opportunities and earnings. On the other side are the unskilled and uneducated, for whom the growing competition from foreign imports and automation are threatening their standards of living and sense of identity.

What they perceive is that society is transforming, and in a direction that only worsens their prospects. As such, politics is a way of expressing discontent and dissatisfaction with the status quo, and populist politicians are ready to supply such simple, albeit myopic, solutions. When elected representatives are replaced by experts, even the last possibility of making society hear your voice is silenced at the prejudice of democracy as a whole. 

It may come to a point where they are justified in thinking: “If I have no say in a democratic regime, is it preferable to a dictator who has my own good at heart?”

In the end, Italy did not experience any political crisis, and the Draghi government is still standing, trying to achieve the long-overdue transformation of the political and economic institutions. This experience, however, does not need to be pointless. Even if the crisis did not materialize, the present time may be a starting point for us to reevaluate the meaning that such a heavy reliance on unelected governments has for the future survival of democracy in the country. 

While technically superior, it may be that the toll in terms of loss of confidence in the value of democracy by the average citizen might be too high to accept. It might just be better to work to improve the social and economic reasons for the necessity of technocrats, rather than giving up on politics altogether.

Giacomo A. Campagnola is a second-year Master student studying Economic and Social Sciences. Do you agree Italy’s near political upheaval points to the need to re-evaluate unelected government officials? Send all comments to

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