Experts and Democracy
Tod Kelly wondered whether the Internet was making us stupider and less inclined to listen to experts on various fields. Various OTers pointed out that distrusting expert is a very old American tradition and has existed long before the Internet. I think the real issue is that experts often forget that they are human and have never really learned to work in the world of representative democracy.
The United States is a representative democracy for better or for worse. Maybe we should elect people more for their judgment and expertise even if we disagree with them but ultimately most people are going vote for the candidate that advocates closest to said voters social and economic and other wants and desires. A lot of experts are seemingly not very good at rhetoric or convincing people. The standard expert seems to think that their research speaks for itself and is unsure how to talk to people beyond asking people to read their white paper or just to trust said expert.
A big part of this is because a lot of experts are introduced to the American public as being closely identified to one political party or through a think tank with known political and ideological leanings. Paul Ryan is often presented as the Republican Party budget expert. He often tries to present himself as a GOP expert and that he is a nerdy numbers guy. This might be true but to accept Paul Ryan as a budget expert means you need to start with agreeing with the Republican vision of limited government. This is not about whether the Republican vision is correct or incorrect, I am merely noting that there are a lot of people in the United States who disagree with the Republican vision of government and this makes them less inclined to see Paul Ryan as a budget expert. A true budget expert would be able to look at the budget without an ideological issues. If the people wanted a generous welfare state and universal healthcare, a true budget expert would be able to devise a budget that incorporated these desires. There would be nothing about debating whether these things should be part of government spending. The same is true if the majority disliked welfare spending.
The centre-left version of this is probably New Urbanism. The New Urbanists argue for policies that prefer use density, public transportation, and mixed used buildings because it has less of an environmental impact than sprawling suburbs and going to and from work by car. They also tend to be unrepentant neo-liberals with a “grow, grow, grow” mantra. I think they are right. I am also still fairly young and childless and enjoy being able to walk to grocery stores, restaurants, bars, movies, the library, and other places. One of my least favorite things to do in the world is to look for parking. However, I am not as young as I used to be and it is starting to be more annoying to deal with the person in the apartment building next door who likes to play thumping club music relatively loudly. It is also starting to be more annoying to hear twenty-somethings doing coming home at 2 in the morning while they are being very drunk and very loud. I think these things will continue to be annoying as I get older and maybe one day I will prefer peace and quiet to being able to walk to a movie theatre or the grocery store or the gym. The New Urbanists generally seem to place much value in peace and quiet. I imagine if you brought up these concerns to a new urbanist, they would tell the person to invest in a white noise machine or a set of noise-cancelling headphones.
The last issue is that I think most people (whether they are honest about it or not) start with the conclusion and then work backwards to find the evidence. I wonder if this partially comes from the fact that America works on an adversarial mode of litigation where lawyers, who usually end up as politicians because lawyers are interested in law making (shocker!) are supposed to be zealous advocates for their clients and not for what is necessarily the truth. Texas once again looks like they are going to execute a seriously mentally ill man despite the United States Supreme Court declaring this to be unconstitutional. This is not the first or last time I will read a story like the Slate article. There is not only still profound ideological disagreement about the death penalty but I suspect that there is profound ideological disagreement about whether we should execute mentally ill people or not. The cynic in me wonders if there are still a lot of people with quasi-eugenic or eugenic based belief systems and these people think they are doing humanity a favor by removing a paranoid-schizophrenic from the earth. So to believe experts on whether someone is mentally ill or not is probably going to require a universal consensus that it is at least unconstitutional and immoral to execute people who are mentally ill. Without this consensus, a prosecutor is merely going to go expert shopping until they find an expert that is willing to say “This defendant is mentally competent to stand trial and face the death penalty.” I would applaud a prosecutor who tells the press that defendant X is too incompetent to stand trial even after Defendant X committed a horrible crime but I have doubts about how often that will happen. There are no incentives to reward that kind of ethics and morality in our system.
There is a famous scene in Citizen Kane where Orson Wells as Kane brags and celebrates about taking all the top newspaper men from his competitor. Joseph Cotton’s character depressively wonders about why these top guys would go from supporting the competitor’s policies to supporting the policies of Kane’s paper. Everett Sloane’s character, Mr. Bernstein, simply replies because the top newspapermen are just like everyone else and they have families to feed but the difference is that they are the top newspapermen.
The other thing is that experts often seem to be blissfully unaware that they are also human and like all humans are prone to ideological beliefs, confirmation bias, and error. I wonder how many experts become experts because they have a vision of how the world ought to be instead of wanting to work with the world as it is and this includes people and all their contradictory desires. When I get angry at experts it is often because they are all but admitting they would like people to be programmable robots instead of being the messy, emotional, and social creatures we are.
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