There are experts, and there are experts

April 12, 2019 (1081 words) :: Liberals love to scorn conservatives' dismissal of so-called 'experts'. But there is no ultimate technocratic authority to appeal to.
Tags: us-politics

This post is day 102 of a personal challenge to write every day in 2019. See the other fragments, or sign up for my weekly newsletter.

Thinking about this recent article by Bloomberg opinion writer Noah Smith: Republicans Turn Away From Experts and Economics.

Now, to be clear, I agree with the general claims of the article (that Republicans are making terrible picks for positions). I disagree with the reasoning, however. Noah Smith seems to be of a particular liberal, technocratic school of thought that fetishises expertise and “science” and assumes everyone else should, too. It’s taken for granted that those who have been conferred academic honours or whatever truly deserve them, as if there is some divine authority nodding in approval anytime someone with an economics award is appointed to the Federal Reserve. Here’s how the article begins:

In 2010, President Barack Obama nominated economist Peter Diamond to the Federal Reserve Board. A short time later, Diamond – a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology – received the Nobel Prize for his work on theories of the labor market. That pioneering research forms the basis of a whole branch of macroeconomic theory to this day.

But this brilliant academic career wasn’t enough for Republicans in the Senate, who repeatedly blocked Diamond’s nomination. […]

The last sentence comes off as either incredulous (how could the Republicans not bow down to this noted expert!) or snide (look at these idiot Republicans, once again proving their ignorance!) depending on how you interpret it. Either way, it implicitly assumes that we should trust this apparently brilliant academic in an important lever of economic power purely because of his purported expertise in a related topic.

And look, I have nothing against Peter Diamond. What I don’t like is the logical reasoning here, because it’s based on a false syllogism - one that’s often used against the left, as well. Republicans did not sideline him because he was an expert - they sidelined him because he was an expert who would not advance their political interests. Republican governments in the past have appointed similarly-decorated economists to important positions when they were considered politically aligned (e.g., Friedman).

The point is that no political party should be attempting to appoint people who disagree with their political positions to crucial roles with a political bent, and it would be unreasonable to expect them to. Strategically, Republicans are not unjustified in blocking the nominations of those whose political views they don’t agree with. (They are, of course, wrong for other reasons.)

Liberals, on the other hand, love the idea of triumphing over conservatives with logic and reason or facts and expertise or Nobel prizes or whatever. They like experts because many of the experts whose credentials they valorise tend to agree with them, because the institutions that constitute the expert elite primarily reproduce a particular political ideology, one that moreover styles itself as apolitical. So they think they’re being neutral, and rational, and apolitical, when really their conception of what is neutral is limited to what’s reasonably close to them on the political spectrum.

(Post-Trump/Brexit, I get the sense that the liberal lamentation over the decline of faith in “experts” comes out of a desperate fear that the credentials they believed in, whose superiority they simply took for granted for so long, are in reality little more than fading talismans. For these talismans to have any power, society at large has to believe in them, too. But as the centre ground continues to collapse, collective faith in the institutions that it gave rise to will sink as well. Not that this is necessarily good - there are worse things than liberalism, and some of them have managed to find their way into the light through the cracks in liberalism’s facade. But clinging on to the old expert-worshipping order despite knowing its flaws is not the progressive solution - it is, instead, the epitome of conservatism.)

The point is that experts do not exist in an ideological vacuum. It’s naive to expect an “expert” to be politically neutral. Politics is always contested ground, and it’s always a series of choices. Paul Volcker had all the nice credentials (Princeton, Harvard, LSE, relevant work experience), but, as this stellar n+1 article explains, his goal as Chairman of the Federal Reserve was to crush unions.

In the end, capability cannot be fully divorced from intent - there are many different paths that can take us forward, and we need more than someone who has the relevant knowledge to make informed decisions; we need someone who decides the right things. There is more to consider than merely expertise; there’s also the matter of whom someone empathises with, whose interests they hold dearest, and whom they’re fighting for.

If you had to pick between two people of equal knowledge/experience, but one was more sympathetic to your political values than the other, of course you should pick the first one. Sadly, such choices are rarely so easily comparable in real life; the more likely choice is between someone with all the right credentials but without an interest in actually using those for progressive ends, and someone with fewer credentials but a shared political goal. Who should you pick then? It’s not always clear, and it depends on the relative trade-offs, but I don’t think it’s necessarily wrong to pick the latter. There are dimensions other than expertise to consider.

This isn’t to say that all so-called experts are wrong, obviously. There are some domains where particular political views don’t matter as much, or where the political views can be more or less divorced from facts being presented. I just don’t think that questioning the merits (or relevance) of so-called experts is wrong in principle. Expertise is a good thing! It’s just sometimes presented as if it stands independent of political views - as if it’s somehow non-ideological. That’s dumb. Come up with anything sufficiently complex and ideology will inevitably seep in.

Now, as the Bloomberg article reports, economics as a discipline does seem to be moving leftward, as more and more economists are grappling with the brutal realities of the world they occasionally have to check in with in their models. That could be a good trend for the left (at least in terms of bringing in accreditated economists who have the credentials necessary to appease the establishment), but we shouldn’t see that as validation of using expertise as a dominating arbiter. Even experts are influenced by their personal political views; what we should be asking, in addition, is whether those political views are good.

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