Coming just a few days after the fall of Athens, the fall of Rome would have given Europe's classically conscious old elite pause for thought. Those still standing in continental politics today, however, are less historically minded – more interested in present balance sheets than the ancient past. So the dispatch of elected if flawed prime ministers inGreece and Italy, and their replacement by supposed economic experts, is viewed not as a problem but as an affirmation that these nations mean business. In the Italian case in particular, this weekend's departure of the undoubtedly dreadful Silvio Berlusconi has for the moment soothed political nerves frayed during last week's bond market rout. But the installation of a new cadre of leaders such as Lucas Papademos in Athens and Mario Monti in Rome – men being ubiquitously branded as "technocrats" – will soon raise more questions than it has answered.
The rise of the technocracy, to distort Michael Young's famous phrase, is what we are witnessing. This ugly term conveys two separate things. The first is a contrast with a more familiar "ocracy" – that derived from "demos", a Greek word which brings to mind the common people. Messrs Papademos and Monti have not had to worry about them since both are unelected. Not merely unelected in the Gordon Brown sense of taking up the premiership midterm, but truly unelected in the sense that Mr Brown would only have been if he had entered No 10 without having bothered to stand as an MP.
A century plus a decade has passed since Britain was ruled by a prime minister from the pre-democratic splendour of the Lords. Yet the former European commissioner Mr Monti was last week installed as a life senator just before being asked to form a government. Meanwhile in Athens a central banking bureaucrat, Mr Papademos, was called in to fill a vacancy created precisely because the previous premier had flirted with the dangerous idea of giving the people a say on austerity, through a referendum. Democrats have undoubtedly struggled in imposing wage cuts and other retrenchments on the people of southern Europe: another government could well fall victim to the slump in the Spanish election at the end of the week. But it is a logical leap from this observation to snapping up the first half of Churchill's quip about democracy being the worst form of government – while disregarding his rider about all the other forms that have been tried.
If distance from popular opinion is the first thing conveyed by "technocrat", the second is expertise. Brussels would like Europe's leaders to tackle its sinking economy in the professional spirit of an engineer fixing an aeroplane. But pursuing this analogy highlights how forlorn such hopes are. Faced with a grounded plane, our engineer would start with calculations about the vehicle's weight and the force required to overcome it; next he would consider the options for boosting the latter relative to the former. By contrast, those trying to fix Europe's economy are working to the rigid rule that the weight of public debt must be reduced first by all available means – even if this greatly weakens the force of growth, which in the end is what must carry that weight. As a result, the economy is most unlikely to fly. Likewise our engineer would be greatly concerned by the balance of forces across the two wings, whereas Europe's elite imagines it can force all the adjustment on to the indebted periphery, while leaving the likes of Germany alone.
Asymmetric adjustment will not lead to balance, not least because the Germans depend on the periphery's spendthrift ways to sell their exports. But then economics is not engineering. It remains as much an art as a science, and its judgments have such vast implications for who gets what that they will always be contentious politically. Don't bank on the technocrats being able to stay above the fray for long.