By a 'technocratic conception of politics,' (recall) I mean to capture the following three features of an enduring image of politics present in (social) science: first, it is characterized by the ideal that with social knowledge and its progress, substantial political disagreement can be eliminated. Here is a very striking instance of the claim from Milton Friedman's (1976) Nobel lecture: "Many countries around the world are today experiencing socially destructive inflation, abnormally high unemployment, misuse of economic resources, and, in some cases, the suppression of human freedom not because evil men deliberately sought to achieve these results, nor because of differences in values among their citizens, but because of erroneous judgments about the consequences of government measures: errors that at least in principle are capable of being corrected by the progress of positive economic science." The context of the passage is the furor surrounding his association with the so-called 'Chicago Boys' in Chile and the assassination of his Chilean critic Orlando Letelier (recall).
In particular, second, this ideal of conflict-free politics presupposes (as is clear from the quoted passage in Friedman's Nobel lecture) considerable value-unanimity in society. So, for example, in a famous article, the Chicago-school economists, Stigler and Becker write, "one may usefully treat tastes as stable over time and similar among people;" establishing this point "is the central task of this essay." When value-unanimity is granted then ordinary welfare economics is possible as a kind of (social) engineering science (recall).
Third, the conception requires an image of science in which one of the central aims of policy scientists is to achieve consensus (or lack of disagreement). In modern economics this idea goes back at least to Sidgwick's (1887) Principles of Political Economy (recall; for some prehistory on Hume). It was a central feature of Lionel Robbins's influential methodological restatement (1932) of what economics is: "Surely, for the sake of securing what agreement we can in a world in which avoidable differences of opinion are all too common, it is worth while carefully delimiting those fields of enquiry where this kind of settlement is possible from those where it is not to be hoped for —it is worth while delimiting the neutral area of science from the more disputable area of moral and political philosophy." This image of science was made widely popular by Thomas Kuhn in Structure (1960), but via Talcott Parsons's Weberianism and others it was already well known in mid-twentieth century social science.
It is worth emphasizing that the expectation of consensus was by no means universal. Friedman's sometime co-author, Savage, insists in The Foundations of Statistics, that "we must be prepared to find reasoning inadequate to bring about complete agreement." (1954 :7; see also 3, 67ff.) But this view became a minority position (cf. Aumann).
In order to avoid confusion: my mention of icons of Chicago economics (Friedman, Stigler, Harberger) might suggest I am attempting to characterize what is known as 'neo-Liberalism' (recall my taxonomy). My point here, however, is slightly different: it is to characterize a broader shared set of professional commitments in post-WWII economics (shared by neo-Keynesians from Samuelson and Arrow to Krugman and their 'Chicago' opponents) that made conceptual space for neo-Liberal program to flourish within not just a self-styled professional and scientific discipline, but a broader intellectual culture. So, the technocratic conception of politics did not originate in 'Chicago' economics -- in fact, Knight (and some of his students e.g., Nutter, Vining, and the early Stigler) remained hostile – nor does it need to conclude in neo-Liberal 'shock-therapy.' (After all, the experts might agree that gradualism is always the most welfare enhancing.)
I often pretend that this technocratic conception of politics is an autonomous invention by economists (and I imply that given their incentives it is a self-serving one, too). This is not to deny that this conception was attacked within economics (here and here), but even so it has endured during the last six decades. Here I wish to remind ourselves that in fact this technocratic conception of politics is also fully embraced in the seminal text of twentieth century (professional) political philosophy, Rawls's Theory of Justice. Rawls's approach can be understood as offering a decision procedure that generates unanimity (see Rawls 1971: 106; 232-3; recall my discussion here for evidence that Rawls accepts the first two features of the technocratic conception). In fact, in doing so, Rawls appeals to Knight's claim that "legislative discussion" is an (expert) "objective inquiry" and not a contest between interests! So, Rawls also accepts the third condition even outside science, for "moral philosophy" (op. cit. 233; recent, formal extensions of Rawls continue to seek to secure consensus).
Even so, Rawls'sapproach is not quite the economists's. (This was clarified more fully in 1974.) For (a) there is some role for epistemic uncertainty in the origin position, where one has no knowledge of “the likelihoods of the possible circumstances” (1971: 134; see also this piece by Angner) and (b) that for Rawls it is crucial that there is a (non-probabilistic) “taking a chance” (on which person one will be) in the original position (1971: 165). That is to say, despite the embrace of maximin and the technocratic conception of politics, more generally, Rawls makes space for genuine Knightian uncertainty. This makes sense, as I learned from a fascinating lecture by Alfonso Vergaray, in a broader perspective on traditional (classical) Liberalism, in which true uncertainty is redirected (and thereby transformed) at fruitful ends. But about that more some other time.*
*In addition to Vergaray I thank David Teira for fruitful discussion.