Getting Sound Advice in a Democracy

Posted: Mar 20, 2006 4:06 PM

One of the major problems in a democracy is getting sound advice on the best course to take in matters of public policy. If your house has a plumbing problem, you call a plumber. If your appendix is painfully inflamed, you go to a doctor -- and probably, after that, to a surgeon. We sensibly solve many of life's problems by seeking the most authoritative advice available.

But when it comes to deciding major questions of public policy -- should we bomb Iran, drill for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, or grant amnesty to illegal aliens? -- a democratic society is to some extent a prisoner of its own principles. If we were a dictatorship, the big decisions would be made by professed experts (people, say, particularly well versed in interpreting Marx's laws of history). But a democratic society gives everyone an equal vote in choosing those who shall make the big decisions -- subject, of course, to continuing pressures on them to decide in particular ways. And anybody who has an opinion is entitled to speak up and let his views be known, whether he knows anything about the subject or not.

This was first brought home to me by a fellow senior in college who once said to me, "I am getting a little tired hearing what some freshman thinks about Greece." He had a point. We spend an enormous amount of time listening to the views of people who haven't the slightest credentials on the subject they are talking about. There's nothing wrong with this, if we believe they are at least intelligent observers, capable of thinking logically. But all too often the loudest voices belong to people who are no such thing.

Often their views will be peddled as some sort of unassailable collective wisdom. People with credentials as "scientists" of one sort or another are among the worst examples. We are forever being told, for example, that "ten thousand climate experts are united" in warning us against the perils of global warming. But, as economist and former Chancellor of the Exchequer Lord Nigel Lawson wrote, in a highly intelligent article on the subject in March 11's The Spectator, "I readily admit that I am not a scientist myself; but then the vast majority of those who pronounce with far greater certainty than I shall on this aspect of the issue are not scientists either; and the vast majority of those scientists who speak with great certainty and apparent authority about climate change are not in fact climate scientists at all."

The truth is that scientists and other alleged experts enjoy shooting off their mouths on subjects outside their field of expertise as much as anybody else, and are not above passing themselves off as entitled to special attention when they do so.

Far worse is the case with denizens of that screwball sanctuary called Hollywood. To be sure, an actor or actress has as much right to an opinion on public issues as anybody else, and there is no natural law that says their opinions aren't worth listening to. (One lifelong actor, after all, became an eminently successful president of the United States.) But why anybody should feel obliged to listen to, let alone value, the political opinions of Barbra Streisand, George Clooney or Sean Penn simply beggars the imagination.

Their sole qualification is that they are celebrities -- famous as entertainers. Most Hollywood "stars" got there simply by having looks that register well on camera. Unlike actors on the stage, they don't even necessarily have to know how to act -- able directors, using short takes and enough repeats, can sooner or later get what they want out of them. A good many have made their way upward via the casting couch. And it's a safe bet that there are plenty of vivacious starlets who would be hard put to come up with a high school diploma.

But they are indisputably famous, and they are just as opinionated as college presidents, and so their views on Iraq, etc. are dinned into our ears ad nauseam. (Not, by the way, that college presidents are infallible, but they do have the minimum credentials to be listened to.) Decisions on public issues are hard enough, without having to be arrived at with the advice of a bunch of witless singers and piano-players.