Book review: Unelected Power: The Quest for Legitimacy in Central Banking and the Regulatory State

Sir Paul Tucker is an unusual type. He is a consummate bureaucratic insider—a 30-year veteran of the Bank of England and now the chair of a group of ex-central bankers called the Systemic Risk Council—who is concerned as much with high principles of democracy and representative government as he is with policy outcomes. In his new book, Unelected Power: The Quest for Legitimacy in Central Banking and the Regulatory State, he takes up the difficult task of saying when and how it is appropriate for elected officials to delegate authority to agencies insulated from politics. In so doing, he aims to show that modern societies can get beyond a binary choice between technocracy or populism if they manage wisely.

The result is a dense, 600-page tome full of good sense, whose prescriptions holders of unelected power—especially but not only central bankers and others engaged in the management of fiscal and monetary policy—would do well to heed. Tucker’s synthesis of economics, law, political science, and political philosophy is prodigious, and his experience on the front lines of fighting the global financial crisis is imposing. And yet, what is most distinctive about the book is its humility. Tucker’s worry that he and his ilk have become “overmighty citizens” is palpable, and he takes seriously the idea that bureaucrats must ultimately be servants rather than masters. He makes a case for optimism, at least if legislators and unelected officials can properly understand their roles. But that is a big if.

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