Opinion

The Tyranny of the Experts

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Posted: Oct 27, 2020 11:30 AM
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The Tyranny of the Experts

Source: AP Photo/Alex Brandon

In recent weeks, Joe Biden has made his willingness to “listen to the scientists” a central pillar of his campaign and a major point of contrast between himself and Donald Trump. He has even said that he would shut down the nation’s economy again to stop the coronavirus if scientists recommended it.

Unsurprisingly, Biden has since been endorsed by Scientific American and Nature, as well as 81 Nobel laureates, who praised him for “his willingness to listen to experts.”

All told, this represents a startling readiness on Biden’s part to cede much of his decision-making power to a small, unelected intellectual caste.

We live in a nation where citizens are given, at least nominally, a voice in public policy matters that directly affect them, and where the powers of government are restrained by the rule of law. All of this stands in stark contrast to the notion of rule-by-expert.

Indeed, if Biden sees himself as a mere conduit for the policy recommendations of experts, perhaps we should do away with the middleman. Instead of our three current branches of government, let us be ruled openly by an all-powerful council of experts, who shall issue their proclamations from on high with no check or balance on their authority. Perhaps the Iranian model will provide a useful blueprint, with the scientists standing in for the ayatollahs. Theocracy and technocracy are not so far off from each other.

If the experts truly aspire to call the political shots, then it ill-becomes them to hide behind a veneer of representative government. Permit us at least the dignity of honest tyranny.

Lest this sound extreme, it is worth taking a look at exactly what some of the experts are recommending. In a recent article, the oft-vaunted Dr. Fauci made calls for “radical changes” to “the infrastructures of human existence,” with the goal of “living in greater harmony with nature.” These are sweeping policy proposals, and the American people surely deserve some chance to debate them before they are implemented.

Although most experts are bright and well-intentioned people, this does not inoculate them from the human proclivity to be mistaken or corrupt – as attested to by countless historical examples, from the decades-long promotion of a deeply flawed Food Pyramid in the United States to the tragic legacy of Lysenkoism in the Soviet Union.

More to the point, the expert perspective is inherently limited. The lifetime pursuit of specialized competence within a narrowly defined subfield does not prepare experts for the sort of holistic big picture thinking of which a leader must be capable.

Even the very intelligent are susceptible to the phenomenon of inattentional blindness. In one famous psychological experiment, participants who were asked to count the ball passes in a video of two teams playing ball became so focused on the task at hand that they missed the gorilla walking through the scene. Our vision literally changes based on where we focus. This is the hamartia of expertise, and it is why no one should be in any hurry to appoint a scientist as supreme leader.

An expert criminologist, for example, could theoretically recommend abandoning the Fourth Amendment or diverting our entire national budget to policing in order to catch more violent criminals. It is not the job of a leader to “listen to the experts” here without taking all other considerations into account.

Similarly, an epidemiologist who recommends widespread lockdowns and other extreme measures to slow the ball passes of coronavirus transmission may miss the gorillas of economic devastation, suicide, drug overdoses, and deaths from cancer and other medical issues gone untreated – not to mention violations of our civil liberties, which should never, ever be dismissed lightly. Life is far more than a great game of whack-a-mole against infectious disease.

As Henry Hazlitt wrote, economists must look “not merely at the immediate but at the longer effects of any act or policy,” and trace its consequences “not merely for one group but for all groups.”

A good policymaker, in other words, must see both the ball passes and the gorilla. This is what Joe Biden will be called on to do if elected president, and a deferral of his duty to the experts will ill suit him. Experts ought to be given a fair but skeptical hearing, but final policy decisions should be based on an array of competing imperatives, within the bounds of government set for us by the Constitution.