Expertise and Democracy

This post is going to discuss the very modern topic of expertise and democracy, but let’s start with an ancient story. Those familiar with the Bible, or for that matter the musicals of Andrew Lloyd Webber, know the story of Joseph and how he became the Pharaoh’s right-hand man. Pharaoh dreamed of seven fat cows devoured by seven scrawny cows, and seven healthy stalks of grain consumed by seven shriveled stalks. Joseph interpreted the dream as a prediction that there would be seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine. Pharaoh put Joseph in charge, he amassed a huge rainy-day fund of grain during the seven plentiful years, and during the seven years of famine, Egypt was good while the surrounding lands suffered.

The Problem of (with) Democracy
One way to look at the story is that it’s about joining political power with wisdom. That’s not a marriage to be taken for granted. Political power through the ages has been acquired in various ways that require little or no intelligence, e.g. being born the son of a king and/or murdering your rivals. For centuries, people pinned their hopes on a ruler who, if not wise, at least had wise councilors, variations on the Joseph theme. But for most of history, the best political thinkers agreed that democracy was the farthest thing from wise government you one could imagine. Rule by the people? You must be joking. They knocked democracy as mobocracy, sinking to the lowest common denominator, leading sooner or later to anarchy, and then tyranny. It was Athenian democracy, people recalled, that killed Socrates, who was, like, the smartest guy in the city, just because he asked a bunch of uncomfortable questions.

Over time, however, a person couldn’t help but notice that his overlords, no matter how benevolent, tended to look out for their own interests a lot more than his, and if he wanted government to meet his own needs, he had to have political power. So government of the people eventually became by and for the people. Or at least that was the idea. Elites raised the same concern about democracy descending into chaos. But when democracy reemerged in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth centuries, it was as part of an Enlightenment movement that promoted the power of reason. Just as democratic government confronted arbitrary privilege, science questioned unfounded prejudice. Universal free public education also became a thing, and free inquiry into matters once ruled out of bounds by priests and kings went from unthinkable to commonplace. The basic premise of democracy was that through education and the freedom to exchange information and ideas, the truth would emerge, and the majority of people, who were sovereign, would make smart choices.

Today, in order to promote intelligent policy, we increasingly turn to science and other forms of specialized knowledge. In the US since the 1930’s and the New Deal, the growth of administrative agencies and the expansion of cabinet departments in the executive branch brought new levels of expertise into government. Scientists, social scientists, engineers, lawyers, and intelligence experts brought their particular knowledge to bear on various problems facing society. Government was where citizens looked for protection against contaminated food and impure water, against occupational hazards, and yes, pandemics. As Michael Lewis writes in his recent book The Fifth Risk, the federal government is now tasked with managing “a portfolio of risks that no private person, or corporation was able to manage. Some of the risks were easy to imagine: a financial crisis, a hurricane, a terrorist attack. Most weren’t: the risk, say, that some prescription drug proves to be so addictive and so accessible that each year it kills more Americans than were killed in action by the peak of the Vietnam War. Many of the risks that fell into the government’s lap felt so remote as to be unreal. That a cyber attack left half the country without electricity.”[1] Government needed whole squadrons of modern-day Josephs to assess these risks, interpreting not dreams but data and evidence.

Rise of the Misinformants
But there has been a countertrend in this country in recent years, a skepticism of science and other forms of expertise. Climate change denial against all the evidence comes to mind. You might think that skepticism of science supports what all those political thinkers said about democracy as mobocracy inevitably sinking into stupidity. Look a little closer, and a different story emerges. The main culprits are not the rabble (you and me), nor any other natural person for that matter, but rather certain corporate special interests. These corporations use science for their own ends. But when it serves their interest in profit maximization, they systematically spread confusion and science skepticism, taking advantage of the complexity of the science and the human tendency to underestimate intangible risks. Think fossil fuel companies, tobacco companies, and pharmaceutical companies, underplaying or sowing confusion about the harm caused by greenhouse gases, cigarettes, or opioids. And other special interests have gotten into the act. The NRA not only denied the link between gun deaths and the lack of gun safety laws but effectively lobbied to forbid the federal government to study any such link until Congress allocated a modest $25 million last December. Such misdirection was abetted by a well-funded right-wing propaganda machine that cut and pasted distorted facts and outright falsehoods into a narrative about the evils of big government, and whose highest idea of liberty was allowing large corporations to do as they please.

Another reason, it must be said, for the mistrust of experts is their own tarnished track record, e.g., the Iraq War and Viet Nam wars, the deregulation of banks, and factory floors filled with job-stealing robots, all done at the direction of the best and the brightest. Ideological blind spots, unconcern for a policy’s human costs, and a cozy alliance between technocrats and elites has brought discredit to the former.

All this has created a space that’s been filled by the demagogic faux populism of our current chief executive. He teaches by tweet and example that there's no need to wonder about answers to the complex problems of the day, because the answers are already to be found in one’s own prejudices, as articulated by him. The current administration has become notorious for shunning expertise, for labeling career civil servants as the “deep state.” Having to heed expert advice limits the discretion of the ruler to do what he wants, and that is as tasteful to the current occupant in the White House as a kale smoothie.

This is not to say that we should have a rule by technocrats in place of democracy. The information generated by scientists and other experts will have to be applied, and that application requires value judgments within the political arena. But scientists and other experts have a crucial role in defining the problems that confront us and offering the most feasible solutions. They are a critical part of the democratic process by which the people and their elected representatives collectively search for the best answers to the problems at hand. When powerful special interests wage campaigns of misinformation and demagogues encourage disregard of science, that process is gravely undermined.

Science to the Rescue?
Most recently, with the Coronavirus crisis, as the hospitals get overwhelmed as the bodies pile up, even our President has been forced to listen – to some degree at least – to medical expertise. Doctors and scientists take the presidential briefing stage, and are now and then able to get a word in edgewise about the actual state of things. It is to be hoped that as 2020 gives way to 2021, and as we (fingers crossed!) enter both the post-Coronavirus and the post-Trump era, democracy will begin again to realize its promise as a collective quest for the best answers to the problems that plague us, and science and other forms of expertise will again take their deserved place in that quest. As we face an impending climate catastrophe, that expertise will become more, not less, important. In a democracy, the Pharaoh is us, and we need our Josephs if we are to avert calamity and prosper.


[1] Michael Lewis, The Fifth Risk (2018) 25.

                                                                                            Robert Katz

Robert Katz served as a staff attorney and supervising attorney at the California Supreme Court from 1993-2018. Before that he was in private practice representing public agencies, and worked as a newspaper reporter covering local government in Santa Cruz County. He has a Master’s Degree in Political Science from UC Santa Barbara and a JD degree from Stanford Law School.

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