Edmund Burke, a famous British MP and philosopher, once described how he viewed the social contract between voters and representatives. For him, the relationship was not that of a principal and an agent, but rather that of a community and a benevolent caretaker. In other words, he believed that people do not elect representatives to simply carry out their wishes; they elect leaders whose values and experience they trust. Burke argued that because voters are unable to truly understand the plethora of policy decisions, they should delegate to their betters to decide on their behalf. Needless to say, this philosophy did not go over well with his constituents, and when he tried to implement it, he was promptly voted out of office. Nevertheless, I think Burke was on to something.
To be clear, I don’t think educated people are better than anyone else, and I certainly don’t believe that there should be a limited franchise. To be a bit colloquial, elites can often get a bit big for their britches. Nevertheless, I think that elites are elite for a reason. Often, they have immense experience and training, and they are experts at what they do. While economists don’t have a perfect track record, I trust them a lot more than some Bernie supporter who read a Vox article on the minimum wage. Moreover, as someone who studies politics and economics and hopes to make a career out of it, I’d like to think that all this time and money that I am spending on learning history and public policy is worth it. Maybe I’m an elitist, but I honestly believe that people who spend time learning deeply about a field should be taken seriously. In this sense, at least, I agree with Burke.
Sadly, I’m worried that we are witnessing the death of expertise because more and more people think they know just as much as experts when in fact they don’t. Elites are not better than anyone else. They are people just like you and me, and while they may know more about their specialized field, that doesn’t make them any smarter than the rest of us. It does, however, make them more qualified to have opinions on certain issues. I understand that with the rise of innovative blogs, the proliferation of fascinating podcasts, and the 8th wonder of the world – yes, I am speaking of Wikipedia – it’s easy to assume that we all know just as much as experts. Let me tell you, as someone who studies under true experts, none of us even come close. The depth of knowledge real experts have is truly astonishing, and they really do deserve to be taken seriously. Reading a few partisan things on the internet is simply insufficient, and this attitude of intellectual parity between specialists and the general public has dangerous implications for democracy, as Dr. Tom Nichols points out:
I like the democratization of knowledge and the wider circle of public participation. That greater participation, however, is endangered by the utterly illogical insistence that every opinion should have equal weight. How? Because people like me, sooner or later, will tune out people who insist that we’re all starting from the same point, which is to say from intellectual scratch. And if that happens, the experts will only talk to each other, and the public can go whistle. And that’s bad for democracy.
Now, I’m already hearing protests (especially from my father). Politics is not like every other part of life! We live in a democracy, and we all have a say! Because Dr. Nichols’ piece is so persuasive, I’ll let him take this one as well:
Democracy… denotes a system of government, not an actual state of equality. Having equal rights does not mean having equal talents, equal abilities, or equal knowledge. It means, instead, that we enjoy equal rights versus the government, and in relation to each other. It assuredly does not mean that “everyone’s opinion about anything is as good as anyone else’s,” because no one really lives that way.
He’s absolutely right! No one really lives that way. After all, when you have a cavity, do you fill it yourself? Of course not. It’s not because you’re dumb. It is simply because dentistry is a specialized field that requires training. The same is true for politics. In fact, just this election cycle we saw what happens when a person with no formal training in anything relevant to public policy tries to be president. Yes, I am talking about Ben Carson. He’s an absolutely brilliant man, someone I would certainly consult if I had a brain problem. Policywise, he comes off as a fool. He based his tax plan off biblical tythings, he thought Joseph of technicolor coat fame built the pyramids to store grain, he pronounced Hamas as hummus, and he didn’t even realize the Baltic states were part of NATO. Again, he’s not dumb. He is probably one of the smartest, most accomplished people of his generation. Nevertheless, he looked quite foolish when he tried to explain a coherent policy platform.
This death of expertise is scary, not only because it might mean I’m useless out of college, but because laypeople are simply not qualified to be making decisions about public policy. It is a surprisingly counterintuitive field, and it takes true experts to actively manage it. That is, after all, why we have a professional bureaucracy. Somebody has to clean up after the untrained imbeciles that make up the legislature. We now live in a world where everyone thinks that they are an expert on everything, and this is bad for reasons beyond just politics. Look at public health, for example. Despite living in a highly developed industrialized country, we suffer from measles outbreaks now because hippies in California think they know more about vaccine safety than trained doctors. Rejecting experts is rejecting science and rationalism. It is rejecting an epistemological development that helped extricate us from the Dark Ages. While experts are often wrong, they are wrong a lot less frequently than the average person.
Now, I understand that many people who reject experts believe that the elites and experts in Washington have failed them. They are convinced that the experts have let them down. Even though I have said over and over again that America is doing quite well, to some degree this viewpoint has merit. From the Iraq War to the 2008 Crisis to the rise of ISIS, our policymakers and leaders have dropped the ball. However, just because Washington is dysfunctional doesn’t mean elites shouldn’t be trusted. That is to throw the baby out with the bathwater. I think a good analogy for a current crisis is a burning house. One can do nothing and hope the fire department shows up (stick with the dysfunctional system we have now), or one can pour gasoline on the house (reject experts and the establishment). Letting it continue to burn is bad, but gasoline is only going to make it worse. The burden of proof is on those who reject experts. They must demonstrate that their radical alternative will improve the system. Being different is not enough. One must also be qualified and talented at what they do.
I hope that this trend towards rejecting experts’ opinions is only a temporary thing because the idea of American policy being based on nothing more than some random citizens views on economics or nuclear policy scares me to death. Everyone has a right to have an opinion, to vote, and to shape the country in a way that they think is best. However, people also have a moral imperative to defer to experts in areas in which they are not familiar. As Americans, our vote affects the 315 million people living in this country as well as the billions of people that are indirectly affected by American foreign policy. Thinking that we know as much as experts is arrogance plain and simple. To quote Tom Nichols one more time, “Your political opinions have value in terms of what you want to see happen, how you view justice and right. Your political analysis as a layman has far less value, and probably isn’t — indeed, almost certainly isn’t — as good as you think it is.” I know many experts personally, and I promise they are not as incompetent or foolish as the media might portray them as. They are an integral part of our modern democracy, so please do not give up on them yet.