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Trust in NumbersThe Pursuit of Objectivity in Science and Public Life$
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Theodore M. Porter

Print publication date: 2020

Print ISBN-13: 9780691208411

Published to Princeton Scholarship Online: January 2021

DOI: 10.23943/princeton/9780691208411.001.0001

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French State Engineers and the Ambiguities of Technocracy

French State Engineers and the Ambiguities of Technocracy

(p.114) Chapter Six French State Engineers and the Ambiguities of Technocracy
Trust in Numbers

Theodore M. Porter

Princeton University Press

This chapter evaluates technocracy in France. The Ecole Polytechnique, a product of the French Revolution, is often taken to epitomize technocratic culture in France. Polytechnique, with its emphasis on mathematics and science, was central to the invention of the modern engineer. Quite unlike its imitators, it educated the highest stratum of elites. Where else has administrative power been so closely allied to technical knowledge? This alliance helps to explain the French tradition of what would now be called applied economics. The chapter then focuses on economic calculation in action. Accounting means, among other things, placing monetary values on goods and services that contribute to production or sales but cannot themselves be readily exchanged in the marketplace. Nineteenth-century French engineers went one step further, attempting an analysis of the (often unpriced) benefits of public goods to balance against their monetary cost. In this context, values had to be placed on objects, services, and relationships for which there was no proper market, or whose prices could give no adequate measure of their value to users. This “cost–benefit analysis,” to introduce the anachronistic term, remains an elaborate form of accounting.

Keywords:   technocracy, France, Ecole Polytechnique, technocratic culture, applied economics, economic calculation, accounting, French engineers, cost–benefit analysis

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