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On Experts and Political Expertise, Again

This cartoon was circulated on social media last week by people concerned that the knowledge of experts is no longer respected in political matters.  Last week I blogged about the hatred of democracy that I think underlies this sentiment.  In November, I blogged about the “best and the brightest” political experts who were supposed to lead us into the path of peace and prosperity but instead enmired us in an unwinnable war.  I’m on an expert on some things.  I think that expertise should be recognized and I bristle when it is not, so I appreciate the concern that experts aren’t taken seriously.

But expertise when it comes to politics is a funny thing.  For one, there is the old Socratic problem of how you can recognize who the teacher is–who has the knowledge–if you–lacking that knowledge–need a teacher.  For another, there is the question of which expertise is relevant to which situation.  People said over and over again that Hillary Clinton was the most qualified person to be president, that she could get things done, but her expertise was, in the opinion of many, how to gut the welfare system, support policies that benefit Wall Street, drop bombs and support anti-democratic regimes in Central America.  Likewise, people voted for Donald Trump because he said he was an expert in business and people have long been saying that the country would best be run as a business.  Experts at Forbes and experts at The Washington Post and experts just about everywhere–even at The Federalist–call this a bad idea.  The goal of a business is profit not the good of the people.  It’s efficiency, not justice.  It tends to consider the expertise of those in charge rather than the expertise of those who know how things are working (as I discuss in my last blogpost about experts in political life).

Fine then, let us go to the experts in how we should live.  But who are they?  Economists can claim to be the experts who should tell us how we should live, but only if we assume in advance that expanding the economy is how we should best live.  Political apparatchiks can claim to be experts only if how we should best live is pushing legislation through Congress successfully.  But which legislation?  The political apparatchiks are not experts on which legislation will achieve the good life.  Aristotle would suggest looking to those whose lives exemplify virtue in order to see what it would be to be virtuous.  Unfortunately, many of the people who have developed academic knowledge on this area–ethicists–do not themselves exemplify such virtue as discussed here and evidenced here.  In a democratic regime, there is dispute over who is most virtuous, and it is precisely because of this dispute that every person is given a voice.  The problem with expertise in political matters is that politics is a dispute over how we should collectively live.  Efforts to put that judgment into the hands of experts is always an elitist exercise.

It’s elitist because as many people pointed out in response to this New Yorker cartoon, political life does not involve a particular area of expertise.  Aristotle importantly distinguishes politikê or what we call political science from technê, or craft and know-how.  Politikê isn’t political science in the sense of a science with principles that can be applied.  Politikê involves phronêsis, practical wisdom, that involves judgment in unique situations that require historical and contextual knowledge but also knowledge of one’s own character, the character of the community and a sense of what would be best and what could be accomplished.  As a student in government and history courses in college I loved hearing those stories of political operators who had that kind of judgment, who could act in a way that was not mimicking anything that had been done before but was original and the precisely right thing to do in the situation that presented itself.  That judgment is not a technê, but a kind of wisdom.  That’s the kind of wisdom that anyone could have, which is also why a lottery system is the best rejoinder to rule by experts.  Many many elected officials do not have this wisdom.  It would seem just as likely to find this wisdom among everyday citizens, who importantly, as Alex Guerrero argues in his support of lottocratic systems, haven’t sought those offices.

It remains a problem that people do not listen to experts.  But I think we need to distinguish between kinds of experts, and we need to be more careful about how far that expertise takes them.  In the Apology, Socrates recognizes that the experts in technê do have knowledge, but they think that having knowledge in one area they therefore have knowledge in all areas.  Experts can tell us that human beings have affected the climate, and that continuing to release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere will lead to certain consequences.  But they can’t tell us how to change human behavior so that people stop releasing carbon dioxide, they can’t tell us whether it is good to continue to have an inhabitable earth.  Those are judgments we collectively have to make.


One Comment Post a comment
  1. Excellent piece. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this pressing issue. 🙂

    January 8, 2017

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