Liberty, TSA, and the Technological Society

In a hearing of the Senate Commerce Committee on Wednesday, November 17, TSA administrator John Pistole was pressed on changing security procedures in light of the continuing citizen revolt against TSA’s increasingly heavy-handed Kabuki theater.

He said, simply, “No.”

In other words, “let them be groped.”

(Or irradiated in a naked body scanner. Or take Amtrak. Whatever.)

So how exactly did it happen that a single political appointee not even approaching cabinet rank could stymie both the American people and one of the most powerful committees of the soi-disant “world’s greatest deliberative body”?

Oddly enough, that question and many others like it are answered in full by the work of a relatively obscure French sociologist and philosopher. In The Technological Society, Jacques Ellul (1912-1994) discusses at length what he calls “technique,” i.e., the social, political, and economic uses to which science and technological method are put.

“Technique” aims to find “the one best means” of performing whatever the task at hand may be. This is the factory method of Henry Ford applied to politics and society. “If there is one best means of making a car,” the reasoning goes, “there must also be one best means of doing anything (even airport screening).”

This thinking is reflected in the cult of the expert, perhaps best exemplified by Woodrow Wilson’s exaltation of abstract academic theories over common sense and experience. Wilson often bemoaned what he considered the less-than-salutary restrictions placed by popular opinion on the implementation of the ideas of “experts." Democracy was so inconvenient. Why should the elite have to bother explaining themselves to those hick yokels who are neither intelligent nor enlightened enough to understand the wisdom of their betters?

Ellul sees such “experts” as political “technicians,” and warns about the subversion of the democratic process and democracy itself that accompanies their gradual rise to power.

Politicians are decision makers. They control the levers of power. The trouble, according to Ellul, is that in an increasingly complex environment, they often don’t know how to use them.

This is where the expert, the “technician,” comes in. At the outset, the expert’s role is merely to advise political leaders on how best to accomplish politicians’ stated policy goals. The expert’s role soon progresses to determining the “one best means” of accomplishing those goals. Finally, the expert technician decides on not merely the means of pursuing the “one best means” but also determines the policy goal toward which “the one best means” is directed.

As the power of the technician waxes, that of the politician wanes, until he is little more than a rubber stamp.