“If men never disagreed about the ends of life, if our ancestors had remained undisturbed in the Garden of Eden, the studies to which the Chichele Chair of Social and Political Theory is dedicated could scarcely have been conceived,” Isaiah Berlin told his audience at Oxford when he assumed that position in 1958. Philosophy was at its best when it was being contentious, especially when it was being contentious about the meaning and purpose of our common existence. Too much agreement was an abdication of its ethical responsibility:This is from five years ago and echoes the terminology I occasionally use, the distinction between determinists and the tragedians. The determinists, of whom Marx, with all his Iron Laws was one, see man as a malleable input of the social process who can be perfected for purposes of the state. Tragedians view life as contingent on complex and often effectively incomprehensible human processes. Man must remain free to make their own decisions because complexity and uncertainty are universal.
Where ends are agreed, the only questions left are those of means, and these are not political, but technical, that is to say, capable of being settled by experts or machines like arguments between engineers or doctors. That is why those who put their faith in some immense, world-transforming phenomenon, like the final triumph of reason or the proletarian revolution, must believe that all political and moral problems can thereby be turned into technological ones. This is the meaning of Saint-Simon’s famous phrase about ‘replacing the government of persons by the administration of things’, and the Marxist prophecies about the withering away of the state and the beginning of the true history of humanity. This outlook is called utopian by those for whom speculation about this condition of perfect social harmony is the play of idle fancy. Nevertheless, a visitor from Mars to any British—or American—university today might perhaps be forgiven if he sustained the impression that its members lived in something very like this innocent and idyllic state, for all the serious attention that is paid to fundamental problems of politics by professional philosophers.The task of philosophy was not to settle disputes, but to unsettle them, to encourage them, to keep them going. For it was only through disputation that we could resist the rule of experts and machines, the bureaucratic-technocratic society foretold by Saint-Simon and championed by Marx and Engels, a society in which we replace the “government of persons by the administration of things.”
Berlin was hardly alone in his concern about the implications of Saint-Simon’s formula. In Natural Right and History, Leo Strauss argued that “in order to reach his highest stature, man must live in the best kind of society, in the kind of society that is most conducive to human excellence. The classics called the best society the best politeia. By this expression they indicated, first of all, that, in order to be good, society must be civil or political society, a society in which there exists government of men and not merely administration of things.” 3 He reiterated this criticism in a slightly more confused way in The City and Man: “On the basis of the break with Aristotle, one could come to believe in the possibility of a simply rational society, i.e., of a society each member of which would be of necessity perfectly rational so that all would be united by fraternal friendship, and government of men, as distinguished from administration of things, would wither away.” 4
Hannah Arendt was even blunter. After citing Lenin’s assertion that administration in the future would become so simple that even a cook could take charge of it, she remarked, “Obviously, under such circumstances the whole business of politics, Engels’s simplified ‘administration of things’, could be of interest only to a cook, or at best to those ‘mediocre minds’ whom Nietzsche thought best qualified for taking care of public affairs.” 5 Still other mid-century thinkers objected that the administration of things would lead to the thingification of people. Thus Raymond Aron argued that “the totalitarian regimes of the twentieth century have shown that if there is one false notion it is that the administration of things can replace the government of people. It has emerged very clearly that if you want to administer all objects you must control all individuals at the same time.” 6 And in The Coming of Post-Industrial Society, Daniel Bell warned “the administration of things—the substitution of rational judgment for politics—is the hallmark of technocracy.” Or even more succinctly: “In the evolution of technocratic society, things ride men.”
These passages seem to echo some of the visceral fear that many are expressing of AI and the possible displacement of humans from the future integrated system where an increasing portion of decisions are made on our behalf by learning machines. That prospect is the ultimate realization of humans having been displaced by the administration of things.