What's the Use of Experts?

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The elite have had a rough week in the nation's op-ed pages, having been ridiculed for possessing insufficiently down-to-earth pop culture tastes, and then getting scolded for attending Jon Stewart's supposedly sneering anti-regular-Joe Rally to Restore Sanity. But haters be damned, Ezra Klein has bravely stepped forth to defend people who know things about stuff.

In mid-October, another round of discussion of the role of elites by elites was kicked off by TNR's Jonathan Chait, who asked why American conservatives are climate-change skeptics, while European conservatives are not. Ross Douthat responded that European public opinion is just as split as Americans are on the subject. But European politicians, no matter their ideological leanings, prefer not to indulge the global warming deniers, instead deferring to experts. This is a classic example, says Ezra Klein, of one area where experts deserve a place "in public life." Belatedly, a handful of right-leaning commentators are debating his view of when, and in what situations, elite expertise should be trusted.

  • Experts Should Make Policy, The Washington Post's Ezra Klein wrote earlier this month. "This isn't a very popular statement, but there is a role for elites in public life," Klein confesses. "Just like I want knowledgeable CEOs running companies and knowledgeable doctors performing surgeries, I want knowledgeable legislators crafting public policy," he continues. "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."
  • But Experts Don't Have a Good Track Record, Jim Manzi cautions at The American Scene. "I think this raises the crucial question in this debate: What is the valid scope of expertise?" Manzi asks. In the case of climate change, those who want to control carbon emissions have offered policy proposals that don't have much to do with scientific research. "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," Manzi writes. They want to change Washington's rules so experts have more say. "This would be a lot more compelling if the elites didn't have such a terrible track record of producing social interventions that work. ... 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."
  • Elites Lack Crucial Knowledge, Megan McArdle chimes in at The Atlantic. The understanding of what it's like to exist under all those regulations, or to "support a family of four on $38,000 a year in rural West Virginia." McArdle continues, "The problem is not that the elites are venal self-interested autocrats out to screw the little guy and give their group more power; the problem is that, like every other group, they tend to understand the costs of programs that restrict their autonomy very well, and to be somewhat less sensitive to the freedom of others." Furthermore, "the other reason I don't necessarily trust elites is that they really like thinking big.  You don't get hundreds or thousands of people into a vociferous debate over making some modest improvement to Medicaid reimbursements; you get them animated by proposing a radical overhaul of the health care system.  Yet most innovation isn't big; it's continuous, incremental improvement."
  • So Let's Force Them to Acquire that Knowledge, Conor Friedersdorf argues at Forbes. Friedersdorf spoke to an Ivy-educated friend who opted to work for a consulting firm so she could put her public health career  on the fast track, instead of spending years in doing unglamourous work in hospitals or abroad. Friedersdorf ponders the incentives in place for young people with those fancy educations to skip "paying their dues" with years toiling in their field before rising to top decision-making positions. They want to graduate from college, get a prestigious internship, and immediately take a job figuring out how to better a system they've never really been a part of. The result is that "our meritocratic elite is often utterly unable to grasp how the systemic changes it proposes will play out at a practical level. ... I wonder if Manzi, McArdle, and Klein would all agree in the desirability of making 'on the ground' experience, broadly construed, a more formalized part of the expected prerequisites for the so-called 'perfectly credentialed' elite."

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