If you started paying attention to politics in 2017 for the first time in your life, you might get the impression that expertise doesn't really matter.
Donald Trump was elected president –– a man with no political experience, shady-at-best private success, and no clear interest in anything but himself. Some members of his staff and cabinet leave a lot to be desired as well. His son-in-law Jared Kushner was put in charge of peace talks between the Israelis and Palestinians, former Texas Gov, Rick Perry is head of an Energy Department he once campaigned on eliminating, and Ben Carson, a neurosurgeon, is running Housing and Urban Development –– his only apparent qualification being that he lives in a house.
There is an anti-expertise bias in America, as explained by professor Tom Nichols of the U.S. Naval War College in his timely and relevant 2017 book, The Death of Expertise. He contends that a combination of factors which include social media, partisan cable news, and celebrity health fads have brought Americans to a point "where ignorance … is seen as an actual virtue." Expertise in America is experiencing support from an unlikely source, though: millennials.
Contrary to expert opinion, this should be a cause for worry.
Pew released a report on Monday that surveys global attitudes on democracy, and the results are encouraging (for now). Despite the success of Trump's illiberal populism, support for representative democracy is still widespread –– 78 percent of people across the 38 nations surveyed say representative democracy is a good way to run a country, with North America and Europe showing the strongest commitment.
There's still a not-insignificant amount of support for non-democratic alternatives, with rule by experts (technocracy) among them. There might be a growing divide between experts and society as a whole, but younger generations embrace technocratic forms of governance significantly more than their elders. About 46 percent of Americans aged 18 to 29 say decisions in government should be made by experts instead of elected officials, compared to 36 percent of those 50 years or older. This divide between the young and old is even more pronounced in other advanced economies, such as the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, Japan, and Sweden.
It makes sense that younger citizens in the U.S. would be open to alternative forms of government, especially if you have come of age in the last 15 years –– a time of relative lousy economic performance, political gridlock, and rampant partisanship. Across the whole of Pew's survey, respondents in countries experiencing economic growth are more likely to express satisfaction with their government. Yet, in recent years, 70 percent of of American college students have graduated into a sluggish economy with student loan debt averaging around $30,000 per borrower. And the cities with the best job prospects have restrictive zoning laws that inflate the cost of living, making it much harder to relocate there.
There's also an intuitive appeal to technocracy. Doctors know what's best for my health, even better than I do. Mechanics know how to fix my car while I am completely car-illiterate. Accountants (or the good people who develop the software at TurboTax) make sense of the byzantine nature of the tax code. Richard Thaler, the most recent recipient of the Nobel Prize in economics, knows more about the economy than most could learn in a thousand lifetimes.
Does that mean experts should be making our political choices for us? No. This conflation of individual expertise with political and social wisdom erases the distinction between the intimate orders of personal life and the extended order of the market society.
An individual firm can centrally plan their operations and dictate, in great detail, the actions of its employees. Families can do this as well, as parents make choices for their children. But the extended order of the market in a globalized world consists of billions of individual actors pursuing their interests independent of other people.
It's a fantasy to believe that a single person or a group of people can effectively coordinate activity of this magnitude, regardless of how smart they are. Even something as simple as a pencil cannot be made without the cooperation of hundreds of people who are anonymous to one another. The social world is incredibly messy, and a degree and experience with economic science still doesn't mean you can control and manage the economy.
Experts in the social sciences have also been found to be overconfident in their abilities to predict outcomes in their own areas, as psychologist Philip Tetlock has shown. Experts are not much better than the rest of us in this regard. When asked big questions such as the likelihood of the economy sliding into recession, or who would win a given election, experts perform only slightly better than if they had made their predictions randomly.
When it comes to your personal life, you should follow the advice of an expert. If a doctor tells you to cut out junk food and exercise regularly, you should listen. But when experts claim to have an answer for big social problems, or a dire warning that if we don't heed their public policy preferences there will be economic ruin (or some other scary scenario), it's okay to be skeptical.
Jerrod A. Laber is a writer living in Northern Virginia. He is a Young Voices Advocate and currently a Writing Fellow with America's Future Foundation.
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