Three decades, Three debates

Will the most important debate of next decade be about the role of experts in society?

Mandel Ngan/AFP

The public policy debates of the aughts could be largely characterized as the hangover from 9/11. At the outset of the decade, a traumatic national security event occurred. In its aftermath, many high stakes decisions were made and various policies were adopted. We had the passage of the Patriot Act, the reorganization of the federal intelligence services, and the creation of the Department of Homeland Security. And, of course, and perhaps most importantly, there were the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Many commentators argued that these decisions and policies were rash and ill-judged, and we spent much of the remainder of the decade debating their (de)merits.

The public policy debates of the teens could be largely characterized as the hangover from the financial crisis and the resultant Great Recession. Just prior to the outset of the decade, a traumatic economic event occurred. In its aftermath, many far-reaching decisions were made and various policies were adopted. We had the economic relief and recovery measures of the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) and the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), the bailout of the auto industry, and then later an overhaul of federal financial regulation via the Dodd-Frank Act. Many commentators argued that these decisions and policies were rash and ill-conceived, and we spent much of the better part of the subsequent decade debating their (de)merits, as well as of the movements that arose in reaction (the TEA Party and Occupy Wall Street, e.g., and plausibly the Bernie Sanders presidential candidacies and the associated resurgence of interest in socialism).

And so, we come to the current decade. At its very outset (in fact, the first cases were reported in Wuhan on the last day of 2019), a public health emergency transpired. In response, many consequential decisions and sweeping measures were taken, including curfews and lockdowns, mandated business closures and face coverings, and dramatic economic relief measures. Many have alleged that these decisions and measures were ill-advised, either because they went too far, or because they did not go far enough, or because they were delayed too long to do any good. And now, it seems a wise bet that we will spend the next 10 years or so Monday morning quarterbacking the policy responses and intellectual maneuvers that we see playing out before our eyes.

So, if the 2000s conversation was a referendum on the merits of neoconservatism and the 2010s conversation was, in effect, a referendum on the merits of neoliberalism, what will the 2020s debate be about? I humbly submit that the debate of the next decade will be on the authority of expertise itself. One way to look at this is as follows: what did the two previous decadal debates have in common? In each case a prevailing “expert class” had promised us worldwide global moral transformation and betterment, if only their preferred policy programs (militarized regime change, globally liberalized free trade and market fundamentalism) were fully pursued. And in each case there arose a widespread perception that these promised results failed to materialize as advertised. The controversial decisions at the center of current events have thrust public health and epidemiological experts to the forefront of policy decision-making. While it is too early to say which of their predictions and models will have been reasonably on target and which will have been most off the mark, there has been such a wide range of predictions made, and recommendations implemented, that it seems well-nigh inevitable that some high-profile decisions will go down in history as proverbial “epic fails.”

Leaving aside the merits of either of the previous two decades’ “neo-” ideologies or their critiques, it seems quite plausible that the widespread judgment as to their undelivered promises and failed visions has contributed to what Martin Gurri has called “the revolt of the public.” We’ve seen it in the recent surge of populist political movements. We’ve seen it with Brexit. We’ve seen it in continued resistance toexpert consensus regarding climate change. And now we seem to be seeing it in the various forms of dissatisfaction with our official responses to the novel coronavirus. Yet what’s salient about this dissatisfaction is its partisan and ideological heterogeneity: whether one thinks that our national and international institutions over- or underreacted—whether one thinks that they reacted too sluggishly or too rashly—nearly everyone, it seems, is convinced that our experts have failed us.

At this point I must pause to address a concern that is likely to arise in the minds of many readers, namely, that it is impossible to ignore the events of recent weeks—in general, of course, but also with respect to their bearing on my present thesis. Indeed, the recent weeks’ protests might suggest to some that what we’re witnessing is something bigger—not just a revolt against expertise (or even just against what we might term “authoritative expertise”).

The outpouring of anguish and anger that has erupted nationally—indeed, globally—in the wake of the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery seemingly reveals a deep-seated and widespread distrust of authority in general. The immediate focus is specifically on police authority, of course, but there seems to be some evidence that the mistrust and the anger is directed more widely than that. It’s the entire “system” that’s thought to be racist, and patterns of racially disparate treatment by police are seen as but one facet of that wider phenomenon. So this raises the question: is the coming decade’s debate really going to be about expertise? Or is it instead going to take the form of a more widespread mistrust of authority in general?

There’s some reason to believe that it’s authoritative expertise that’s going to come in for quite a reckoning, rather than generalized authority itself. First, the broadly “distrust authority” framework—as manifested on either the Left or the Right—lacks the degree of coherence that would seem a prerequisite for its serving as the organizing framework for a decade long policy debate. From the Left: we were urged to curb our public protests out of deference to local public health authorities, until we decided that protest (and its associated destruction, injury, and death) was too important to postpone merely for the sake of public health. And Greta Thunberg’s injunction to “listen to local authorities”—especially medical authorities—doesn’t extend to local coroner’s offices when they produce autopsy reports that clash with expectations (as the Tweets assembled here indicate).

And from the Right: we marched on state capitals with guns, intimidating state lawmakers out of anger at the measures they had taken to curb our liberties and curtail our livelihoods. But when it comes to the demonstrations that have erupted in recent weeks in response to police behavior, the prevailing message from this portion of the political spectrum has been calls to respect authority and for law and order.

Further, beyond this lack of sufficient coherence, there’s the lack of sufficient plausibility and palatability. I just don’t think that the more radical anti-authority mantras we’ve been hearing lately will command continued allegiance over the medium- and long-run. I expect that, once the current passions and protests evolve into more policy-oriented conversations (as they typically do—a process some decry, though, as the “loss of momentum” or “return to the status quo”), the calls we’re now hearing for “disbanding” or “defunding” the police will fall away. In terms of longer-term movements or policy objectives, these proposals seem to me—for now!—to be simply non-starters.

Which leads back to the debate about expertise. There are two ways that this debate might play out—one less likely to be constructive than the other. In the more pessimistic scenario, we have an unproductive debate about the very idea, and legitimacy, of expertise itself. In this debate, a large, vocal (and quite populist) contingency expresses fervent across-the-board skepticism at the very notion that any so-called experts—with all their fancy training and book-learning—know better than anyone else how things work, or what we ought to be doing, at least in matters of government and public affairs.

In the more optimistic scenario, though, we have an ongoing civil discussion about the merits of perhaps “recalibrating” our understanding of, and attitude toward, and deferential posture with respect to, the experts. Specifically, this recalibration should take something like the following form: we’ll begin to distinguish an understanding of experts that regards them as having the best, or the smartest, or the wisest possible take on matters, from an understanding of experts that regards them as having the best, or the smartest, or the wisest extant take on matters.

A constructive recalibration conversation might involve both sides—the defenders of experts and expertise, and their populist skeptics—acquiescing on certain key points. The expert-defenders might concede that the experts aren’t infallible—indeed, far from it—and that experts shouldn’t be afforded automatic or total deference. But still—and here the skeptics too must concede ground—while the experts don’t always possess the best possible understanding of their subject matters, they’re still in all likelihood the people who know the most, and know best, about their domains. So their perspectives are not to be discounted lightly.

In other words, we might get to a place where we can all agree that, while the experts don’t know everything, they still know many things, and that, while they’re not infallible, they’re still informed. If this happens, then the debate—or, we might hope, the conversation—over the coming decade might shape up into a general meditation on the proper relationship between expertise and policy-making and statecraft, for, presumably, few if any among us have much appetite for an outright technocracy.

At the same time, there are likely few of us who believe that expert perspectives must be wholly excluded from the policy-making process. (We needn’t go so far as to erect, to adapt Thomas Jefferson’s famous phrase, a “wall of separation” between academy and state.) But working out the proper balance here—a fundamental question of governance and political philosophy that, until now, has received scant explicit attention—is the task for a republic. And if it takes the better part of a whole decade to get it right, then we will have accomplished something admirable.

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