Parag Khanna: "This is not the age of Napoleon"


"Direct technocracy combines the virtues of Swiss-style direct democracy with the strength of Singapore’s technocratic system," says leading geostrategist Parag Khanna here – and at the conference "Tyler Cowen & Parag Khanna at GDI". Khanna advocates a new government system where big states learn from the small.

GDI: In your latest publication “Technocracy in America”, you are proposing the concept of direct technocracy as the ideal form of government. What does such a direct technocracy look like?

Khanna: Direct technocracy combines the virtues of Swiss-style direct democracy with the strength of Singapore’s technocratic system. Citizen input is essential on all major issues, but the government also has a strong capacity to augment these views with data and scenario planning to determine the best course of action as well. The government remains democratically accountable to the people, but there is an appreciation that the world is very complex and simple majority votes may not produce the best decisions.

According to you, political systems should focus less on democracy and more on good governance: what does this mean for Europe?

There is no trade-off. Good democracy is democracy and more. One ingredient of the three dozen variables used to measure good governance is the degree of citizen voice (democracy). But there are many other factors such as free press, rule of law, quality of public services, capacity of the civil service, and so forth. European countries rank very well both in democracy and in good governance. What they need however is more long-term decision-making capability at the national and regional level.

How can data lead countries to economic progress and how would this data collection be put into practice?

Using data to understand citizen needs is crucial to good governance, and economic progress is one major objective. For example, data can forecast job losses in certain sectors due to automation or outsourcing and then work with industry and educational institutions to retrain workers in advance. Germany and Switzerland of course already do this. America does not. If any specific failure explains the rise of Donald Trump, it is this one!

Among other things, it’s Switzerland’s and Singapore’s small size that gives them advantages in implementing politics and driving their economies. How applicable are these states’ practices for bigger states or unions like the US or Europe?

They are very applicable. It is a myth that the practices of small states cannot be imported to large ones. In fact, in order to remain solvent, large states must learn from small ones, otherwise they will be bankrupted by the high cost of scaling bureaucracy. This is of course what is happening to America. Also, implementing data-sharing in the healthcare system of any country, for example, has only one fixed cost. It does not cost anything extra to add data to it. Data is free!

For the US, you are suggesting a collective presidency based on the model of Switzerland. How high are the chances of revolutionising a whole political system that grew over the past several hundreds of years?

The chances are very low, sadly. If a system does not evolve to cope with complexity, it will either fail or collapse or both.

Would this also call for a new educational system?

Absolutely. I believe that the single best step to improve the education system would be mandatory voting. If voting were legally binding, then citizens would automatically feel an incentive to know more about what they are voting for or against. Right now we have in the West ill-informed voters and low voter turn-out, a disastrous combination.

You are proclaiming that US-American democracy has become indefensibly dysfunctional. If you could start from scratch, how would you design the US government?

The book is full of specific proposals, but let me enumerate a few here. The collective presidency is crucial for the better functioning of the executive branch. Then there is the need to replace the US Senate with an Assembly of Governors because the Senate is redundant while governors are more skilled administrators who know how to manage large territory and bureaucracies and get things done. I also believe that the civil service must be restored to its previous strength and status, and independent experts should nominate justices. There are many more ideas, but since none of these are likely to happen soon, we can start with just a few!

In “Technocracy in America” you state that: “Western societies have to reinvent their political systems, otherwise it simply will not matter who their elected leaders are.” But would Trump, May and Le Pen be willing to restructure their governments towards a democratic technocracy?

These are issues in which the president or head of state must be involved, but it cannot depend solely on their discretion. This is not the age of Napoleon. We need a constitutional reform process initiated by legislatures, provinces, courts, citizen groups and other stakeholders to redesign government. Of course it cannot be approved as such in any country without executive support, but the plan itself cannot come from the likes of a Trump or Le Pen.

After Switzerland and Singapore: what are the countries closest to direct technocracy and where does the US stand on this scale?

That is a great question. I emphasize that no country is perfect. I am constructing a model out of the best practices of many governments, and particularly Switzerland and Singapore which are undeniably the two best. But there are lessons from Germany, China, Finland and many other countries too.

The German Version of Khanna's book will be published by the GDI and will be presented at the conference: "Tyler Cowen and Parag Khanna at GDI".