It was late September 2011, and Europe was in a particularly dark phase of its crisis. The governments that use the euro currency had to approve, one by one, a new fund that would shore up the continent’s debt. All 17 of them had to do it, or half a century of progress toward a united Europe could have been thrown in reverse.
And there was a snag in Slovenia.
Yes, a nation of 2 million people and a GDP that rivals that of Rhode Island held in its hand the economic fate of the euro zone’s 332 million residents. And because global markets were jumping wildly on every sign of progress or unraveling, the savings of basically everyone on Earth hinged on what was going down in Ljubljana.
But that episode was more than just one of the stranger moments of the sprawling financial and economic crisis that has gripped the globe for nearly six years. It also exposed something deeper: On both sides of the Atlantic, democratically elected institutions have been helpless, slow or unable to act on the scale needed to protect the leading Western economies. And time and again, the central bankers — a group of secretive, unelected technocrats — have stood up while presidents and parliaments dithered.
In a democratic society, there will always be tension over which decisions should be made by expert appointees, and which by those with the legitimacy and accountability that come with competing for citizens’ votes. The technocrats can make complex decisions quickly, quietly and efficiently. The words “quick, “quiet” and “efficient” are rarely applied to the U.S. Senate or the Italian Parliament — but these institutions are imbued with an authority that comes directly from the people, the explicit consent of the governed.
So, in a crisis, which do you want: unaccountable decisiveness or inefficient accountability?
Consciously or not, we’ve made our choice: The financial crisis and its long, ugly aftermath have marked the triumph of the technocrats.
And the shift of power to the unelected isn’t confined to economic policy and central bankers. In the United States, massive health-care costs threaten to bankrupt the nation if left unchecked; the key method the Obama administration pushed for in its 2010 health-care reform law to deal with the threat was a 15-member Independent Payment Advisory Board, which will recommend ways to reduce Medicare costs that will take effect automatically unless Congress overturns them.
Legislative action to combat global warming has been nonexistent in the United States since 2009. Instead, it is left to bureaucrats at the Environmental Protection Agency to use what legal authority they have to nip around the edges of carbon emissions, and to officials in the Energy Department and a handful of other agencies to help finance companies that can find ways to make the country more energy efficient.