The Engineered Society

What the technocrats had failed to recognize is that politicians are themselves engineers of a sort.

There were, of course, many flaws with technocracy readily apparent to anyone over the age of ten. How was the energy involved in running service businesses—or, indeed, the production of most anything besides heavy industry—to be measured? Even if it could be, wasn’t this just substituting another price system for the one that had supposedly been the root of all the world’s troubles? Moreover, why would engineers prove any more disinterested than any other class of human beings, once handed complete and supreme power?

Scott had few answers for such practical questions, but the concept struck a popular nerve nonetheless. Even after the Great Engineer himself, Herbert Hoover, had failed to curb the crisis, the idea of the engineer—a learned but practical mechanic, with hands-on experience—still resonated in a nation of born tinkerers.

During the terrible winter of 1932-33, the nadir of the Depression, when unemployment in the United States reached at least 25 percent, technocracy clubs were formed all around the country. At their height, in early 1933, their membership may have numbered as many as a quarter-million Americans. The nation’s newspapers, skillfully primed by Loeb, ran column after column speculating about the new technocratic world to come.

The clamor grew irresistible, and finally Scott was persuaded to explain what technocracy was all about with a speech at New York’s Hotel Pierre, on January 13, 1933. This was a grave mistake. Speaking over a nationwide radio hookup, and before a live audience of four hundred of New York’s leading “capitalists, bankers, industrialists, economists, and artists,” Scott claimed: “We are not attempting to say, as some of our critics have said, that there is going to be chaos or there is going to be doom”—and then went on to do precisely that.

His speech consisted of little more than asserting that things were bad and would get worse unless a technocracy were established. His only other prediction was that politicians opposed to technocracy would portray it “as one of the propositions that will necessitate a state politically that would be so grave that an institutional fascism will be proposed under the guise of a dictatorial prerequisite of the incoming President.”

Language like that led technocrats to charge later that Scott had been drugged. Within days his great idea was being mocked in Congress as “the great Columbia rackety-rax.” President Butler and Professor Rautenstrauch hastened to dissociate the university from Scott. Technocracy clubs continued to exist and even grow right up until the Second World War, but the steam had gone out of the movement.

Scott would later go on to sketch more details of what a technocratic state would look like, but it proved to be a depressingly familiar Utopia. Any sort of culture or frivolity was derided, and an armed dictatorship would be ready to enforce contentment. As Archibald MacLeish put it, “Nothing is required of man but that he should submit to the laws of physics, measure his life in ergs and discard all interests which cannot be expressed in foot pounds per second.”

What the technocrats had failed to perceive was that politicians are themselves engineers of a sort. They, too, tend to be craftspeople with a good deal of practical experience. They must maneuver the immensely complicated machine that is modern society, constantly balancing present and future, principle and expediency, the needs and wants of all the people they represent.

Certainly by the early months of 1933 our politicians were doing little to inspire confidence. The same could well be said today, and the American people are right to look with disgust and alarm on their endless personal scandals, our campaign-contribution system, and treaties that blithely allow bureaucrats in Geneva to override our national laws. Yet before we turn ourselves over to any aggregation of neofascists, wrestlers, or moist-pawed magnates, we would do well to remember that it was not the Utopians but the politicians who led us through the Depression and the awful war that followed. Maybe all we need are better engineers.