16.1.17

EXPERTS SHOULD BE SEEN AND NOT HEARD.

Last week, I suggested that, in a provocative way.

Now comes Bloomberg's Tyler Cowen, clarifying the provocation.  "Sometimes the People Need to Call the Experts."  (Yes.  If there's an invisible man on the stairs, call Ghostbusters, not Jimmy John.  Bases loaded in the last of the ninth with a one-run lead, call Rollie Fingers.)

That "sometimes," though, is highly contingent on the complexity of the challenge.  We have, for instance, a constitutional republic in part because emergence is messy, and distributed knowledge more likely to get things right.
I prefer the citizens for broad questions of policy and society. The citizens are more likely to be in touch with the concerns of everyday life, and less likely to embrace utopian schemes. They are more likely to be politically and culturally diverse. Overall, they are more conservative in both the "small c" sense of that word and the more political sense.
Expertise, on the other hand, has its value, once the problem to be worked is well-defined.
The faculty would also underestimate the backlash from the American public for their social engineering. It’s a good rule of governance that policy cannot race too far ahead of the citizenry, and I don’t view faculty as a class of people well-suited for that kind of humility.

Nonetheless, when it comes to the nuts and bolts of governance, typically I would prefer to be ruled by the Harvard faculty, even recognizing the biases of experts. They understand the importance of applying expertise to complex problems, and they realize many issues do not respond well to common-sense fixes. The citizenry usually cannot make good decisions, or for that matter expert appointments, when technocracy is required.
The "faculty" reference is to an old William Buckley quip about preferring to be ruled by Bostonians randomly selected from the 'phone book rather than by the Harvard faculty.  Given the Best and the Brightest and Vietnam and the Great Society and the health insurance reforms, that has stood up pretty well.  At root, Mr Cowen is making a case for the experts being put into well-defined boxes, and to the public watching the boxes carefully.  That appears to be Arnold Kling's point.
Joe Citizen may have less knowledge than Professor Jones, but Professor Jones could be more dangerous. That is because Professor Jones may over-estimate his suitability for telling other people what to do.

Compared with academics, business executives and military leaders have more experience with the challenge of implementing ideas. A good business executive would not take it for granted that a web site is going to work. A good general would emphasize all of the difficulties and risks of trying to shape the Middle East.
Perhaps I wasn't being so polemical after all. "The true expert might be the person who knows when it's best to leave well enough alone, rather than to intervene, to tweak, to anticipate every nuance and complexity."

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