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Government Politics

Are Engineers Natural Libertarians Or Technocrats? 727

Posted by Soulskill
from the those-are-your-only-choices dept.
uctpjac writes "This openDemocracy article uses Scott Adams' presidential bid to argue that however much engineers — especially Silicon Valley types — like to think that they're libertarians, they are in fact much more likely to be control-freak technocrats. Quoting: 'Sensibly if uncharismatically, Adams has pledged if elected to delegate most of his decisions to people who know more than him, and flip-flop on any issue where new evidence causes him to modify his position. His worldview has its limitations – he underestimates the value of ways of thinking other than the engineer's, and it's naïve of him to claim his approach to policy is purely pragmatic and non-ideological.' Is this a fair account? Has the author wrongly read Dilbert, or wrongly interpreted the relationship between the engineering mindset and Adams' representation of it in the cartoon strip?"
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Are Engineers Natural Libertarians Or Technocrats?

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  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday January 03, 2012 @04:09PM (#38575984)

    ... for a fee.

    • by Defenestrar (1773808) on Tuesday January 03, 2012 @04:28PM (#38576226)
      No. Engineers may work in paper mills, sewage plants, and might even design weapons for indiscriminate sale, but some things will always cross the line... properly commenting our own code, for example.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday January 03, 2012 @04:14PM (#38576036)

    It seems that most people have a hard time when life isn't left down to 2 choices. No wonder we have such a hard time coming together on a common ground and working out our problems.

  • by Trepidity (597) <delirium-slashdot@h a c k i sh.org> on Tuesday January 03, 2012 @04:15PM (#38576052)

    China's government is probably the most engineer-dominated government in the world [slashdot.org], in contrast to the lawyer-dominated Western governments, and it has definite technocratic tendencies. I'd say a lot of western engineers who otherwise dislike the government (e.g. its position on free speech) do admire some of its technocratic infrastructure achievements, like its rapid deployment of high-speed rail.

    More generally it's kind of the natural outcome of a certain engineering mindset which looks for optimized supply chains, economies of scale, evidence/data-based decision making, etc. There's an alternate, more messy/decentralized engineering mindset though, perhaps better labeled "hacker mindset" than "engineering mindset", which is more about DIY, free-form experimentation, etc., and less technocratic in its orientation (though not necessarily libertarian in the American sense either; plenty are more lefty-anarchist leaning).

    • by vlm (69642)

      More generally it's kind of the natural outcome of a certain engineering mindset which looks for optimized supply chains, economies of scale, evidence/data-based decision making, etc. There's an alternate, more messy/decentralized engineering mindset though, perhaps better labeled "hacker mindset" than "engineering mindset", which is more about DIY, free-form experimentation, etc., and less technocratic in its orientation (though not necessarily libertarian in the American sense either; plenty are more lefty-anarchist leaning).

      That seems like a very complicated answer. How bout "a hacker is an engineer with a really small budget". By occams razor my short and simple answer is much more likely to be correct. All your other postulated behaviors seem to flow from a simple lack of $ or in some cases, time.

  • by elrous0 (869638) * on Tuesday January 03, 2012 @04:16PM (#38576072)

    Once you understand the basics of politics, learning a new ideology is trivial really.

    • by jd (1658)

      Why would you want to? With the underlying structure as defective and damaged as it is, it's like learning a new procedural programming language for a computer with a burned-out main memory.

      Besides, I rather like Harold McMillain's claim that ideology is SUPPOSED to be transient.

  • by XxtraLarGe (551297) on Tuesday January 03, 2012 @04:18PM (#38576102) Journal
    Decisions based merely on results, divorced from ethics and morality can bring disastrous results. Think how quickly we could advance medicine if we started experimenting on humans unchecked, or how "safe" we could be if we lived in a police state. I put safe in quotes because we might be safe from terrorists and other boogeymen, but we wouldn't be safe from the police state.
    • Add a term to you results-scoring algorithm to account for the ethics and morality you wish to promote. (Minus points for prisoners, but plus points for lowering crime rates; minus points for human experiments, but plus points for increased health.) Problem solved! Now, just to iron out the details...
    • Pragmatism does not have to be divorced from ethics. In fact, all you have to do is append: "while maintaining human rights and abiding the constitution" to your platform. Personally, I think "do whatever empirically (or theoretically if experimental evidence is absent) works best, as best we can, regularly review the results and add them to our decision making body of evidence, all while not trampling human rights" is a great party platform; much better than blinding shouting "smaller government" or "uni

    • by vlm (69642)

      Decisions based merely on results, divorced from ethics and morality can bring disastrous results.

      That never happens. Circular reasoning or bizarre redefinition of the word "results". The immoral decision was made without taking all results into account, in which case it was a very poor decision

      1) If you take all conditions and results into account
      2) select the best decision based on step #1
      3) step #2 is wrong because you failed in step #1 to account for some pretty obvious conditions.
      4) soft science says step #3 is +1 insightful, hard science says you failed miserably back in step #1 not in step #2,

  • by russotto (537200) on Tuesday January 03, 2012 @04:18PM (#38576106) Journal

    ...so taking what he says 100% seriously is probably a mistake. Even if Dilbert does often appear to be a thinly-veiled documentary.

    • So, what kind of profession should he have in order for him to be taken seriously? A doctor? An accountant? A street sweeper? A politician?

      Forget that, I am missing the big picture here. I, instead, should have started by asking what you do for a living. It's important to know that to be able to tell if anyone should take your comment seriously or not. Because that's what matters the most... ...or, you know, we should simply understand that ad hominem attacks [wikipedia.org] are stupid, and do absolutely nothing to re

  • by stevegee58 (1179505) on Tuesday January 03, 2012 @04:19PM (#38576116) Journal
    I promise, that if elected, to suspend the Constitution and become a benevolent despot to straighten everything out.
    I further promise to leave voluntarily after a 10 year term and restore the Constitution. I swear.
  • Pick Two (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Relic of the Future (118669) <`dales' `at' `digitalfreaks.org'> on Tuesday January 03, 2012 @04:19PM (#38576118)
    Engineers are the same in politics as they are elsewhere. They'll fix any well-defined problem, but the solution can only meet two of three criteria: fast, cheap, and high-quality. But voters (like customers) will want all three, and won't define the problem well.
    • Re:Pick Two (Score:5, Insightful)

      by MartinSchou (1360093) on Tuesday January 03, 2012 @06:15PM (#38578258)

      As far as I can tell, voters do not know what they want, because they do not think things through. Or rather, they know what they want, but they are unwilling to pay for it.

      If asked, voters would prefer not paying any taxes at all while being given everything they want.

      Most people, no matter where they live and their tax percentage, will say that they pay too much tax. Need to cut back on spending.

      Sure. Where? Reducing waste only goes so far, and at some point, you simply can't avoid it. No matter how much you want to, you can't run a pub and expect your glassware or furniture to last forever. Just because you pick a new pub owner, the patrons will still be clumsy and accidents happen.

      Cutting one expenditure will almost always result in expenses elsewhere. Cut back on socialized medicine, and you'll pay for it elsewhere, either in an unhealthy workforce (lower taxable income due to sick days or sub-par performance), at the back door, when the people who can't pay for their own treatment take up much more expensive hospital beds - or at the ethics and morals door by simply letting people without money die.

      Education is often mentioned. Too expensive. Alright. Cut education and you end up with a less educated workforce. Great short term solution, horrible long term, as that will reduce the number of high paid jobs and thus your taxable income.

      Military, surely. Depends on the country. It'd be difficult for Puerto Rico to cut back on their military spending, as it's entirely dependent on the US for that. And cutting back on military spending will result in job losses elsewhere, as you will either move soldiers from the military to the general work populace (aka unemployment), lose jobs at military contractors (as they no longer get as many orders) or both. Plus, if your military is too small, your geopolitical region too unstable, this could result in losing your country and thus your taxable income. Belgium could probably remove its military entirely without military risk - South Korea, not so much.

      Roads? Needed for transporting goods. Cut down on road maintenance and you end up with bad conditions not only for goods transport, but also for your workforce to get to and from work. Similar issues with railroads and public transport.

      Electrical infrastructure? Critical for the economy.

      Internet infrastructure? Critical for the economy, but rarely regulated in the same way.

      Water and sanitation? See socialized medicine.

      Elder care? Moral and ethical issues with simply letting poor people suffer and die.

      One of the reasons politics, everywhere, is so messed up, is that voters have been spoonfed and accepted this notion, that everything can be cooked down to a 20-second sound-bite. It cannot.

      Let me give you an example:

      This is the Danish budget for 2012: http://www.oes-cs.dk/bevillingslove/ffl12t0.pdf [oes-cs.dk]. It's 562 pages. That's for a country with just under 6 million people, a nominal GDP of about 300 billion dollars and a 2012 budget of about 120 billion dollars.

      562 pages. Not that bad. Except that there are three additional documents to add to these 562 pages. First one is 1,024 pages [oes-cs.dk]. Second one is 929 pages [oes-cs.dk]. Third one is a meager 678 pages. That's a total of 3,193 pages.

      All to be summed up in a 20-second sound-bite.

      So we end up with these ludicrous discussions about minutia. Minutia that very often only covers 1% of 1% of anything. Sure, the numbers may sound big, but in the whole, they're tiny.

      All designed to make us think that we and our opinions matter.

      If cars were designed the way we run politics, they'd be pretty much guaranteed to explode and kill the occupants the moment they were turned on.

  • by rrohbeck (944847) on Tuesday January 03, 2012 @04:20PM (#38576130)

    I prefer "Rational."

  • Perspective (Score:5, Interesting)

    by vlm (69642) on Tuesday January 03, 2012 @04:20PM (#38576132)

    Its all in the perspective:

    1) La de da, I'm building a bridge. My favorite welder on his days off likes to stick tab A into slot B of a member of the same sex. I understand the meaning of an independent variable and file this as such; don't much care. I guess that makes me an engineer-libertarian.

    2) La de da, I'm a building a bridge. I sweat over a keyboard for 850 hours of computer simulation to prove that bolt #374904 must be a size 10-24 NC because if some idiot installs a 8-32 NC or smaller the bridge will collapse when loaded with precisely 17 pickup trucks plus one housefly. Cheap businessman wants to install a smaller 8-32 bolt because live and let live, man, my right to tell him what to do ends at the tip of his screwdriver, or some psuedo-libertarian stuff like that. No, F you businessman, I'm going full on technocrat control freak on you and 10-24 NC bolts are getting installed there or its off to the camps with you.

    Want to run a country instead of building a bridge? Sounds to me like it don't much matter if tab A gets inserted into slot B no matter what sex A or B is, or what hole they're using, as long as they're both consenting adults blah blah. That's the libertarian answer. The control freak comes out when you say no, you are not F-ing setting up a concentration camp for brown people, because unlike two dudes in a closet, that does destroy a country.

  • by SoTerrified (660807) on Tuesday January 03, 2012 @04:23PM (#38576160)

    " and flip-flop on any issue where new evidence causes him to modify his position"

    If there's one aspect of the political system that mystifies me, it's this. One of the very definitions of intelligence is the ability to take information and make conclusions. Obviously new information can lead to new conclusions. Yet in politics, even a hint of a politician displaying intelligence by changing his stance after new information and it's the political kiss of death. So instead we get politicians who will stick to their beliefs despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. So why are we pushing so hard to support political figures who don't demonstrate intelligence and tossing aside the ones that do?

    • by Hentes (2461350)

      Most politicians change their "views" (or at least what they communicate) every other year, they just pretend that they have always believed what they do today.

    • Senator Claude Pepper was once accused of "Celibacy before marriage, and being addicted to monogamy ever since"

      The flip flop is a great thing to accuse a politician of, because you get to use the truth, and put in the mind of the voter that the candidate was wrong. Just like a salesperson will get you to agree to some trivialities just to get you to say "Yes", getting the voter to associate being wrong with a specific politician sets up a line of thinking in the voter's mind. "If he was wrong on that,
    • by selven (1556643)

      Because flip-flopping in practice tends to be motivated by what's popular, not new knowledge.

    • by jeffmeden (135043)

      " and flip-flop on any issue where new evidence causes him to modify his position"

      If there's one aspect of the political system that mystifies me, it's this. One of the very definitions of intelligence is the ability to take information and make conclusions. Obviously new information can lead to new conclusions. Yet in politics, even a hint of a politician displaying intelligence by changing his stance after new information and it's the political kiss of death. So instead we get politicians who will stick to their beliefs despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. So why are we pushing so hard to support political figures who don't demonstrate intelligence and tossing aside the ones that do?

      Because "flip flopper" has a nice ring to it, and in politics it is always easier to change someone's opinion with doubt than to change someone's mind back, no matter how relevant the evidence is to the contrary. Hell, all you have to do is trip over a sound byte enough to make it *sound* like you are a flip-flopper, and next thing you know you are unelectable...

    • by Kohath (38547)

      Because a flip-flop from a politician usually means "I was lying before". Other times, it means "I'm lying now". Once in a while, it can be genuine. We play the odds.

      Also "overwhelming evidence" is not fact. Someone can be innocent of a crime even if there appears to be "overwhelming evidence" of guilt. Often, "overwhelming evidence" means little more than "this is my opinion and there are some people who agree". Sometimes it doesn't even mean that much. Fabricating "overwhelming evidence" is trendin

    • by bky1701 (979071)
      In every other sphere, changing your views is a sign of intelligence. In politics, changing your views usually means pandering to a different base. It's worth pointing out that in almost every case, the new views subscribe to a party line and are less original than their first set of views.
  • by GabrielF (636907) <GJFishman.comcast@net> on Tuesday January 03, 2012 @04:38PM (#38576378)
    My grandfather was an aerospace engineer and a lifelong New Deal Democrat. He grew up poor in the depression, worked in the tobacco fields when he was about 13, put himself through college by selling blood, etc. He understood that government had helped him and a lot of people of his generation to become middle class.

    On the other hand I know a lot of engineers who grew up under Soviet communism and are super right-wing. They had a very bad experience with government persecution and they tend to view all government activity through the lens of restricting their rights.
  • by GreatBunzinni (642500) on Tuesday January 03, 2012 @04:45PM (#38576490)

    The article is poorly thought out, as it is based on a false dichotomy between so called "libertarians" and "technocrats". While a libertarian advocates the idea that free will should be the founding rule of a society, which brings us concepts such as the state doing absolutely nothing to affect society, technocracy represents a system of government which is ruled by technical experts. This means that, unless this hypothetical state is a anarchist utopia, the state requires leadership, and if a state requires leadership then that leadership can very well be exerted by technical experts. Hence, you can have a libertarian technocrats, and libertarian states run by a technocratic government.

  • Dictators (Score:5, Insightful)

    by roman_mir (125474) on Tuesday January 03, 2012 @04:48PM (#38576538) Homepage Journal

    We are all dictators inside and that's the exact reason why government power must be limited in a way that satisfies libertarian principles - no one person or a group of people can be trusted when given power over others, that's why individual liberties and private property are paramount and government power must immediately be considered intrinsically evil by the very design and it must be treated as such. Only with the understanding that government is evil by design and will destroy everything it touches, we will come to a balance (if we want to), of keeping the government at its smallest and individual liberties at maximum.

    Any time that the balance of power shifts from individual liberties towards growth of government power, it must immediately be suspect, be considered evil and be opposed by all.

    • Re:Dictators (Score:5, Insightful)

      by NeutronCowboy (896098) on Tuesday January 03, 2012 @05:15PM (#38577118)

      We are all dictators inside and that's the exact reason why government power must be limited in a way that satisfies libertarian principles

      I'm endlessly amused by this sentence, as it so beautifully sums up everything that's wrong with libertarians. On the one hand, they understand that people are the problem with government: anyone at the top of a power pyramid will be sorely tempted to abuse that power for personal reasons. Many more will actually abuse that power, even if it is well-intentioned. At the same time, they utterly fail to see that when the government is removed from society, the government power structure will be replaced with any of the other power structures that predate the invention of any formal government: personal connections, money, raw strength, military might, etc. Remove government, and you'll find your life governed by those other power structures.

      Just like Karl Marx, they correctly identify today's issue with society. Just like Karl Marx, they utterly fail at incorporating human nature into their solution.

      • by roman_mir (125474)

        you are amused because you don't understand the words you are reading and are building a nice flammable straw-man.

        they utterly fail to see that when the government is removed from society, the government power structure will be replaced with any of the other power structures

        - this is a lie or a misunderstanding, I don't know which is, but I said specifically multiple times in many comments over the years, as is patently obvious [slashdot.org], that there is power vacuum and it will be filled by some form of government.

        Government is intrinsically evil because it wants to fill in that void, that power vacuum, which means a force is created to overpower individuals.

        That's why we mu

  • by GodfatherofSoul (174979) on Tuesday January 03, 2012 @04:49PM (#38576566)

    I'm assuming that the implication is that engineers can solve our problems with process. Lots of social problems might seem like the solutions can be obviously derived with logic, but we're human beings and we do a lot of things that aren't driven by logic. Having children isn't logical; it's expensive, a time drain, and ultimately a financial loss. Practically any form of entertainment we engage in isn't logical (besides intercourse), since we're probably wasting time and resources best spent elsewhere. Hell, even our diets aren't logical. We should all be eating nutrition bars carefully concocted to provide us with the optimal calories and nutrients to keep us functioning (regardless of taste).

    I had the enlightening experience of dating a social worker who explained how often the layman's "logical" and simplistic solutions to all kinds of domestic issues were either ineffective or could be downright detrimental. When you understand that, you can start to envision how the "obvious" solution to social ailment X would fail in practice (otherwise it would have been tried already).

  • by scamper_22 (1073470) on Tuesday January 03, 2012 @04:50PM (#38576574)

    Engineers often like to think of themselves as libertarians.

    But I've met enough that when you even begin to scratch the surface, they tend to be very technocratic... believing there must be a better way to organize something if only *they* could be trusted to run something.

    This is more and more true in places with a higher emphasis on academia.

    Academics suffer from what I like to call systems thinking. Having spent enough time there, they almost always try and solve every problem by modelling and then playing with it numerically.

    This results in the idea that we should trust in such models above and beyond people's choices. To use an engineers mentality, they tend to like centralized big computers instead of distributed systems :P Kinda odd isn't it.

    There is nothing 'scientific' about it. Science can't tell you what values or policies you should follow, but they tend to like to frame it that way.

    I personally credit this kind of systems thinking for the recent financial collapse. At no point in history has there been so much sophistication and modelling in the financial system. Yet of course people are still in the system for their own self-interest, their own biases, still gaming it, models were incorrect or imperfect. And of course who gets to be in charge and make decisions based on the models...

    When Greenspan made his point about the 'market failing' it was a classic systems thinking mistake.

    The banks have a vested interest to enhance share holder value, so they would be in the best position to regulate themselves... as their institution's purpose is to enhance share holder value... which means keeping the bank in good shape.

    It's like saying car drivers have a natural interest to prevent accidents. Therefore, they should be allowed to regular themselves.

    I won't get into saying whether we need more/better/less regulation. But I will say this. We as a society have decided we like to have stable banking. The government backs and insures banks. It then has a duty to regulate them. Just like your car insurance company regulates you by charging you more for more risk, denying you coverage if you're too risky...

    I see the same thing all the time on so many policies.
    When it comes to education policy or health policy, many think we can generate expert panels on all of these to deliver excellent healthcare and education.
    Meanwhile, the centralization of power that comes with unions and medical associations and payment and politics and facing parents with different beliefs and facing people who are facing death or illness... basically anything human is something they choose to ignore.

    Which is very common for technocrats... and hence engineers. Just like the Euro. These big systems designed by technocrats and engineers and scientists will eventually fail because they're ignorant for anything related to humanity.

    It's like they try and solve a complex equation... but they ignore the biggest variable... humanity.

  • by squidflakes (905524) on Tuesday January 03, 2012 @05:01PM (#38576890) Homepage

    It could be that Scott Adams is just a dickhead who's coasting along on the singular achievement of pointing out what everyone already knows, but doing it with a dog wearing glasses.

  • I am a Technocract (Score:4, Interesting)

    by bky1701 (979071) on Tuesday January 03, 2012 @05:51PM (#38577774) Homepage
    Technocracy means doing things that make sense, without attention to ideology (or necessarily, public opinion). This is certainly something the US is in serious need of. One only need to consider SOPA and the myriad of other failed bills intended to "fix" the country to see why engineers would want to include reason and proof in the process for once, over outcry and dollars.

    However, I'd not say I lean libertarian at all. Corporations are currently the largest source of corruption and the largest threat to personal rights in the western world. Right now, there are a number of corporations with far more power over you than the government. So I am dismayed at the common libertarian diatribes that everything will be alright, if we just get rid of government. What fills the hole left by government?

    I would say I lean much more towards European socialism. I don't believe in survival or the fittest or deep class structures. If inheritance and embezzlement are the two biggest sources of wealth in the country, then the country is in the wrong and needs to be repaired. Further, there are many times when something just does not belong in private hands. Corporations naturally are greedy and corrupting influences, and are nowhere near as efficient as the libertarian types like to think; government can be corrupted, but is not inherently anything negative.

    My primary concern is that given my definition of Technocracy above, it has the potential to become all sorts of bad things. Which is why I think anyone who actually goes out to claim they are a Technocrat needs to ultimately follow a few rules:

    1. The goal of society is to provide the greatest average good for its members.
    2. Communication should always be free. Censorship is always wrong.
    3. Nothing should be restricted on emotional or religious basis.

    If even half of politicians followed those three rules, we'd be living in a far better world today. It is time we start forcing them to do so.
    • I resemble this remark, except I replace #3 with informed on a rational religious basis, ie, I'm a Chestertonian Distributist with a hint of Marxist (in that I believe that capitalism should have a starting line of minimum private property allowed, not necessarily dictate outcomes, but should have a maximum amount of private property allowed equal to the assets of the nation - (minimum private property allowed * population-1), and I believe that should be so because of the Christian Concept of Human Dignity

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