Monday, August 15, 2011

The Danger of Expertise

On a recent episode of Bill Maher's show astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson was a member of the panel, and on the subject of government he began to pontificate that one of the problems with American democracy was the high percentage of lawyers (and businessmen) who go into politics, compared to the relatively low percentage of experts in other fields. His concern was that lawyers are, in a sense, professional debaters, and their job often involves making an argument that they themselves don't have to be entirely convinced of the validity of in order to make the case. The obvious implication being that this inclination to argument-making contributes to the divisiveness and inefficiency of government. His observation has some value, but it's limited, and it raises some related and broader issues.

First is the question of what could be done to remedy the situation. We can't stop lawyers from running for office and we can't stop people from voting for them. Neither could we very easily convince scientists, historians, and poli-sci majors  to go into politics en masse, or necessarily convince people to vote for them if they did. With the "problem" being primarily located on the running end, rather than the voting end, there's virtually nothing to be done except to hope that fewer lawyers run and more 'everyone else' runs, and then support those people if they ever do run, while ceasing to support lawyers. Though this is a bit silly because once someone has decided to run for office, voters usually only consider whether or not they've been successful in other endeavors, they don't care much what the endeavors were. Voters are -- sensibly enough -- much more concerned about the person's character, integrity, governing philosophy, past success, agenda, values and beliefs than their previous career (as long as it is some kind of 'respectable' career).

The much more interesting question that arises -- somewhat tangentially -- is whether or not we should desire to be ruled by a cabal of experts, of any kind, even if it were a practical possibility. There is a temptation to think that if we simply transfer power to the most highly educated among us, or those with the most education on matters pertinent to governance, our situation would improve dramatically, but history tends to attest powerfully against this assumption.

In his book Intellectuals and Society, Thomas Sowell catalogs the many failures throughout history of just this kind of consolidation of power among experts. Two of the many problems that Sowell highlights are: a) when experts are trusted on matters that are outside the realm of their expertise, especially while in a position of power, or in a position to influence those in power based on their expertise and b) when the consequential knowledge that they possess is assumed to be large, but is actually very limited compared to that of the masses.

Not accidentally, an example of the former is what I chose to begin this post with. And while the danger of the former may be intuitive enough, the latter is a more subtle point and could use further explanation. Here is Sowell briefly introducing these ideas:


  1. While not a fan of lawyers by any stretch of the imagination, I would have would have to give them credit for having studied the law and so conclude they may have some expertise in how to make laws. However, how to make good laws vs. bad laws will require a mixture of people as you listed above. I would put political scientists and political philosophers near the top of that list along with business administrators and investors with real world experience.


  2. You make a very good point that didn't even occur to me. Namely, that LAWyers seeking and occupying political positions whose job is primarily making LAWS is completely logical, thus an abundance of lawyers in politics makes perfect sense. Who else would be interested in a career of law-making/law-writing/law-voting?

    As for political philosophers and political 'scientists', they would fall firmly into the camp of 'intellectuals' in the sense that Sowell lays out i.e. people whose 'end product' is ideas, and whose ideas are thus are prone to experimentation and are largely immune to the crucible of experience. I'd want them to remain the extreme minority voice that they naturally are. Voters have it right in not electing many of them and/or they themselves have it right in not running for office.