Belfast Telegraph

Would experts do a better job of governing Northern Ireland than our politicians up at Stormont?

Economy Watch

By Esmond Birnie, chief economist UU economic policy centre

Who would you rather made difficult decisions about your future - politicians or 'experts'? A number of arguments have been used to justify a transfer of decision-making power away from elected politicians towards experts or technocrats.

It is claimed that some decisions are too complex and have too long a time scale to be handled well by politicians. The UK has introduced a National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) to consider what might be the very long term infrastructure needs of the country. The NIC has had some success in producing a list and identifying how much money would be needed. Government still determines which projects are actually funded (and when).

Moreover, certain particularly controversial proposals such as extra airport runways in the South East of England are still stuck in the traditional planning and political process.

Another argument is that decision making by technocrats removes the ability of politicians to attempt to gain electoral advantage through short-run macroeconomic manipulation.

In fact, 20 years ago the Bank of England joined the ranks of those central banks which are politically independent - this has implied there is a greater distance between government and decisions about levels of interest rates. Politicians can still set the ultimate objectives. There is now a debate about whether the Bank's objective should remain solely one of controlling inflation or should an alternative be used? For example, the growth of nominal GDP.

Sometimes, the ascent of the expert has been a response to crisis. Mario Monti, despite never having held an elected position, was elevated from being an economics professor to Italy's Prime Minister in the midst of one phase of the eurozone debt crisis.

There is, of course, a Northern Ireland-specific aspect. Devolution in Northern Ireland did operate between 2007 and January 2017 but was crisis-prone in recent years and is now in abeyance.

Expert advice was previously sought on particular issues, such as how to finance the water service or how to restructure hospital provision - though not then implemented.

It might be asked whether any restored Stormont might wisely devolve some of its decision making powers to panels of experts or could experts even be an alternative to devolution?

All that said, I think there are very strong reasons why we should be wary about moving much further towards technocracy.

It has to be asked, who are these technocrats or experts and would they necessarily improve the quality of decision making? As the reader might expect, I genuinely believe that university education is a social good. However, history suggests that academics or people with doctorates or business experts do not necessarily produce better policies. President J.F. Kennedy, for example, brought some very gifted individuals from academia and industry into his White House team, but in later years some of those individuals such Robert McNamara (former president of the Ford company) and Walt Whitman (economist) were key exponents of America's ever greater intervention in Vietnam. The planning systems of the former Soviet Union and Eastern bloc were very well populated with doctoral scientists, economists and statisticians, but that was not enough to make an absurd system work.

Some of the current political inertia in Northern Ireland or, indeed, the UK, generally reflects the absence of political consensus. There are deep divisions for or against Brexit or about the relative merits of environmental protection versus living standards' growth. Experts and technocrats will not be able to magic such a consensus into being.

Desperate times may require extreme measures, but the possibility of an unelected academic economist having political power thrust upon them, as happened to Mario Monti in Italy, is problematic. Monti lacked the political legitimacy to sufficiently reform the Italian economy and government. To the extent that outside pressure coming from the EU had contributed to his rise to power, that made this situation worse.

A more feasible model is shown in the way that in the Republic of Ireland at the start of the bail-out/austerity period, University College Dublin economist Colm McCarthy was asked to report across the range of Irish public expenditure - were there any activities the Irish government should stop? In the end, the Irish government chose not to follow the detail of the McCarthy report, but it has served the purpose of helping politicians (and the electorate) think more about the unthinkable.

By all means let us seek to have the best informed politicians and civil servants possible. This is where the universities and other venues for informed and evidence-based debate could be useful. Politicians do at least have the virtue of a measure of accountability - you can vote against them. Experts may be harder to shift. As Churchill said 70 years ago, "democracy is the worst form of government except for all the others".

  • In next week's Economy Watch, we hear from Andrew Webb of Webb Advisory

Belfast Telegraph