Donald Trump’s victory has cemented the view across emerging powers and developing countries that Western-style democracy is not the “end of history,” even though there are elements of the rule of law, protection of political and social rights, and entrepreneurial freedom that are admirable and worth integrating into their own systems. Indeed, recent research suggests that even in Western societies, support for democracy has been steadily waning.

For democracy to be admired, it has to deliver. Elections are an instrument of accountability, not a mode of delivery. The input legitimacy of democracy can never compensate for the output legitimacy of delivering the basics. The chaos of democracy may be beautiful, but it’s not worth the price of making a country ungovernable.

As I argue in a new book, “direct technocracy” would be a superior system, one led by experts but perpetually consulting the people through a combination of democracy and data. Direct technocracy is designed to respond efficiently to citizens’ needs and preferences, learn from international experience in devising policies, and use data and scenarios for long-term planning. If done right, such governments marry the virtues of democratic inclusiveness with the effectiveness of technocratic management.


In my research I have found that even highly democratic countries such as Switzerland are more technocratic than we think. Of course no country holds more plebiscites than Switzerland. At the same time, a highly educated caste of professional bureaucrats devotes decades-long careers to overseeing a consistent tax policy, ensuring that the sacrosanct rule of law applies to everyone, and managing the country’s world-class infrastructure – making sure the trains run like clockwork. Not only the government but also the workforce is highly technocratic: Trained, competent and productive workers who virtually never go on strike. Democracy doesn’t deliver Switzerland’s perfectionist efficiencies; technocracy does.


And even highly technocratic states such as Singapore are more democratic than most assume. Though the People’s Action Party of Lee Kuan Yew still dominates parliament and his son is the current prime minister, national governance is very much executed by a highly independent civil service that uses scenario-planning to forecast social needs and plan public spending and services accordingly. Importantly, strategic long-term questions are aired systematically with the population. Over the course of 2013, for example, the “Our Singapore Conversation” process convened 660 dialogues with over 47,000 participants, surveyed 4,000 more citizens, and partnered with 40 different NGOs to collect views. In a high-tech version of Switzerland’s referendum model, Singapore also launched a platform for online petitions (called “GoPetition”) and established a parliamentary committee to derive recommendations from them. Not surprisingly, no matter where Singapore ranks on Western indices of democracy, its government enjoys among the highest level of public trust in the world.

It is not only small countries that can blend democracy and technocracy into a more effective state. I have found many instructive lessons in Germany’s coalition style of parliament and the way its courts strive to adapt the constitution to modern society, and in China’s rigorous training of Party elites prior to assuming higher office. Such modifications are widely applicable to American government. If America’s political elites can break out of the downward cycle of special-interest driven politics and think about how to evolve the country’s institutions, then the USA would not only become a better democracy, but a more admired one as well.

Parag Khanna is a global strategist and a Senior Research Fellow in the Centre on Asia and Globalisation at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore. He is also the Managing Partner of Hybrid Reality, a geostrategic advisory firm. He just published his latest book "Technocracy in America: Rise of the Info-State“.

“Outlook 2017”:
These days are not just the beginning of a new year, they carry some transition or even disruption feeling: new conflicts, new actors, new risks. And, obviously, new opportunities. In the context of the “Future of Power“ conference the GDI asks speakers and further global experts, what they think what we are to expect. Their answers add up to our “Outlook 2017“.


Further reads:
Dirk Helbing: Decomplexing the globe
Fred Turner: What happens when you free media
Venkatesh Rao: The need for a blue collar cosmopolitanism