Philip Lowe says we need less democracy. That would be a disaster.

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In a recent opinion piece at The New Daily, Michael Pascoe drew attention to a concerning perspective held by former RBA Governor Philip Lowe (and likely shared by many influential “opinion leaders” in society) — an inclination towards side-lining democracy and entrusting critical decisions to unelected technocrats.

In principle, fiscal policy could provide a stronger helping hand, although this would require some rethinking of the existing policy architecture. In particular, it would require making some fiscal instruments more nimble, strengthening the (semi) automatic stabilisers and giving an independent body limited control over some fiscal instruments.

“Moving in this direction is not straightforward, but some innovative thinking could help us get to a better place.”

Philip Lowe, emphasis added, The New Daily

This perspective, while framed as a solution to our present inflation challenge, raises red flags that warrant careful consideration.

This is the same attitude that is visible for many small-l liberal advocates on a range of social issues: climate change, refugee rights, criminal justice reform, etc. If we only had more experts, instead of elected politicians, making decisions to take climate action, free the refugees, unwind the carceral state, then everything would be better.

Lowe’s suggestion for handing fiscal powers to an “independent” body begs the question: independent from what, or who?

The belief that politicians and democracy should take a backseat in significant decision-making processes is, at its core, fundamentally anti-democratic.

It undermines the very essence of a government by the people, for the people. This mindset promotes the idea that a select group of experts should wield power without being held accountable through democratic processes.

It is crucial for progressives and leftists to recognise the inherent regressive danger in the approach suggested by Lowe and others. It is not far from this approach to “enlightened despotism”, and then not far to just despotism.

Democracy, though imperfect, is a cornerstone of our society and essential to left, progressive political values.

Democracy ensures that power remains distributed among the citizens, who have the ultimate say in shaping their future.

The problems facing Western societies — whether economic inequality, the climate crisis, refugee rights, criminalisation of minorities — is in part caused, and definitely worsened, by a lack of democracy.

Democracy has been increasingly reduced and limited to the exercise of a vote at the ballot box every few years. Meanwhile, big businesses, multinational corporations and billionaire oligarchs fund anti-democratic, illiberal policies, parties and laws. They have successfully narrowed democracy to a minor part of decision-making; meanwhile, corporations like Amazon, Microsoft, Meta, the big banks, and other large multinational companies exercise vast undemocratic decision-making powers over society.

The reality is that Lowe already has his wish — “independent bodies” (independent from democratic oversight or involvement) have extraordinary power over massively consequential decisions affecting every part of our lives. Far from make things better for everyone, these technocratic elites have built an economy that serves the interests of the rich.

Further diluting democratic power by concentrating it in the hands of unelected technocrats risks alienating the voices and interests of the many for the sake of the few.

Progressive thinkers should be exceptionally cautious about embracing the notion of enlightened technocrats making the difficult but necessary decisions that will supposedly benefit us.

The challenges we face, whether they be economic, environmental, or social, do not find resolution in reducing democracy. Rather, they demand a more robust democratic engagement, where citizens are informed and empowered to participate in shaping policies that affect their lives.

Democracy provides the avenue for diverse perspectives to come together, debate, and find common ground. It’s not a perfect system, but it remains the best one we have to ensure that society and the economy operates in the interests of us all.

Rather than dismissing democracy and hoping that technocrats will fix our problems, our efforts should be focused on improving and strengthening it.