Our So-Called Experts

by Jim Manzi

Ron Brownstein wrote an article in National Journal arguing sorrowfully that America is the only democracy cursed with a major political party that gives voice to skepticism about the science behind anthropogenic climate change. Jonathan Chait chimed in, and asked at TNR, “Why are American conservatives the only climate science skeptics?”

I was going to comment on this, but Ross Douthat made my points faster and better. The essence of Ross’s reply is that actually public opinion in many major European democracies is surprisingly similar to that in the U.S. — so the really interesting question is why the U.S. political system is the only one that gives voice to this skepticism. After all, in a democracy, when 40–50+ percent of the population has an opinion on a topic of immense public importance, one of the parties will normally reflect this, if only to get votes.

The most interesting reply to Ross that I saw was by Ezra Klein, who called this “convincing,” and was admirably willing to call a spade a spade:

This isn’t a very popular statement, but there is a role for elites in public life. Just like I want knowledgeable CEOs running companies and knowledgeable doctors performing surgeries, I want knowledgeable legislators crafting public policy. That’s why we have a representative democracy, rather than some form of government-by-referendum. But of late, the elites in the Republican Party are abdicating their roles, preferring to pander to the desire for free tax cuts and the hostility to Al Gore than make tough and potentially unpopular decisions to safeguard our future.

It’s not so obvious to me that Republican elites have suddenly started to pander any more than the Republican and Democratic parties have for many, many decades. I have followed the climate change debate in the UK reasonably closely, and spoken at a number of panels on the subject in Europe, and it seems far more plausible to me that the tangible and enduring differences in the rules of the game that define the representative democracies account for this difference, at least between the U.S. and the UK.

Of the things that I think create significant structural advantages for the non-elites in the U.S. versus the UK, two stand out: open primaries, and lack of membership in a supra-national organization like the E.U. Party elites have vastly greater say in picking who gets on the ballot in the first place in the UK (as a thought exercise, imagine the Tea Party movement without the ability to challenge incumbents and establishment-backed candidates in Republican primaries). Further, many of the most important decisions relevant to the issue are taken by an E.U. apparatus that is, even seen in its most democratic light, democracy on a very long leash. The elites therefore have an easier time suppressing a popular uprising on the topic before it can get off the ground.

It is interesting that in the U.S. the greatest successes for important emissions mitigation restrictions appear likely to arise from the threat of regulatory action by the EPA, supported by a Supreme Court decision. That is, it threatens to come from those components of the American system that are most insulated from direct democracy.

Both the UK and U.S. experiences appear to validate what Matthew Sinclair — the amazing research director of the Taxpayers Alliance in the UK — has called the iron law of climate-change policy: Restrictions will always proceed by the least democratic route available.

Of course, the reply of a progressive to this observation is presumably: Bravo, the system is working as intended.

But I think this raises the crucial question in this debate: What is the valid scope of expertise?

In the case of climate change, there is actual scientific knowledge about the properties of CO2, but advocates of emissions mitigation schemes constantly attempt to drape the mantle of science, or more broadly expert knowledge, around public policy positions that, as I have argued many times, do not follow even from the core technical reports produced by the asserted experts.

Bill Buckley famously said that he “would rather by governed by the first 2,000 names in the Boston telephone directory than by the Harvard faculty.” So would I. But I would rather fly in an airplane with wings designed by one competent aeronautical engineer than one with wings designed by a committee of the first 20,000 names of non-engineers in the Boston phonebook. The value of actual expertise in a technical field like wing design outweighs the advantages offered by incorporating multiple points of view.

The essential progressive belief that Klein expresses in undiluted form is that crafting public policy through legislation is a topic for which, in simplified terms, the benefits of expertise outweigh the benefits of popular contention. Stated more cautiously, this would be the belief that the institutional rules of the game should be more heavily tilted toward expert opinion on many important topics than they are in the U.S. today.

This would be a lot more compelling if the elites didn’t have such a terrible track record of producing social interventions that worked when subjected to rigorous testing.

An aeronautical engineer can predict reliably that “If you design a wing like this, then this plane will be airworthy, but if you design it like that, then it will never get in the air.” If you were to build a bunch of airplanes according to each set of specifications, you would discover that he or she is almost always right. This is actual expertise. I’ve tried to point out many times that the vast majority of program interventions fail when subjected to replicated, randomized testing. Our so-called experts in public policy talk a good game, but in the end are no experts at all. They build castles of words, and call it knowledge.