Information Landmine

"The Americans keep telling us how successful their system is. Then they remind us not to stray too far from our hotel at night." - An un-named EU trade representative quoted during international trade talks in Denver, Colorado, 1997.

Saturday, May 31, 2008

On the benefits of expertise

Zephyr Teachout makes an interesting case for populism at the Nation (cheers to Steve for the link). Her point is that modren western democracies are becoming increasingly reliant on "expertise" at the expense of popular input. I agree with her on some stuff, but I'm not sure about all the spleen she vents at experts (blindingly obvious full disclosure: I am a Ph.D student and thus hope one day to become an "expert" myself).

First off, she does identify quite a serious problem. "Serious" news outlets have been using the word "populist" a lot this election cycle, and it's not usually a term of approbation. But is democracy not meant to be about listening to the populace?If we've got to the stage where we use the term to mean both "catering to majority opinion" and "likely to be idiotic", what exactly does this say about the US (and UK) political system?

The thing is, on concrete examples, there are a lot of populist measures that look just that. The sad fact is that people will often demand stupid things of their governments. This leads the article into some pretty convoluted reasoning early on:

Not only are policy decisions measured against expert opinion, but the practice of politics is measured against expert opinion, so that (just to pick a random article--there are too many) a Reuters article about Obama's recent (disappointing) gestures away from diplomatically engaging Iran ended with a Rutgers professor approving of Obama's "correction", because it "makes sense politically" is "better for him to make that course correction now than later in the campaign." In the Reuters article you see two troubling trends in political reporting perfectly fused--tactics over content, experts over citizens.

Now it's fair to say that the news cycle focuses too much on tactics instead of content, but the fact is that Obama seems to be making a fairly "populist" move there. There are any number of pointy-headed experts who think that attempting negotiations with Iran might have some beneficial results, but he's tacking away from them and moving towards popular opinion.

I s'pose that might be unfair, since the article goes on to make the point that it's the lack of civic engagement that the writer (man or woman, by the way? Upadate: solved. Zephyr Teachout is female. Thankyou Wikipedia) has a beef with:

Skocpol, Toqueville, and Verba suggest something important for understanding populism, and for rebutting the anti-populists and expert-lovers. People are not necessarily engaged, they are not born as naturally great citizens--and they will not vote intelligently because Rock the Vote tells them its cool--but they can be, if we collectively choose to have a society in which politics is normal, in which the skills of understanding, debating and advocacy are learned in other ways.
So rattling the sabre at Iran probably qualifies as "pandering," rather than "true responsiveness": the sort of thing that will please the ideological voters who've been turned off to politics proper, but not something that would wash with a civicly engaged populace. It is, of course, an article of faith that a population with an interest in politics would reach a sane conclusion on Iran, but I'm enough of an optimist to agree that that's possible. But it seems to me that for that to happen in any sort of informed way, you're going to need a nuclear inspector or two.

While no-one is likely to quibble with the idea that more civic engagement is a good thing, but I don't think that means that expertise is bad. Suppose we get more people taking civic action about, say, climate change: presumably we aren't then going to fire all the climatologists because their "expertise" is a block on the democratic process. The same thing, I hope, goes for geneticists and all those other fancy "experts" on evolution. What about doctors? Even in the really social things, like law and economics, presumably a little bit of specialisation does help on some issues.

I think essentially the writer's confusing cause and effect. Yes, there's a lack of civic engagement, and yes, this means that a lot of politics ends up being for sale, and that includes a lot of the "experts" needed to run government. But that's not so much an over-abundance of "experts" as a lack of them. The truth is that the two processes are actually complementary: any sort of civic engagement worth wanting is going to be guided by some sort of expertise. That's pretty much right there in the definition of "reasoned debate."

This is not to say of course, that we should just trust whatever someone says because they're meant to be an expert, or that we shouldn't subject the procedures through which people get to become experts to a good deal of political scrutiny. But railing on expertise is not the solution.


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