Authority minimization

We've all seen this wonderful New Yorker cartoon by Will McPhail:

There are real tensions between democracy and technocracy. The cartoon shows an example where, in fact, technocracy should rule. The people should defer to the experts.

But if you think of yourself as pro-democracy, I hope you thought the question through a bit more than "Ha ha, take that MAGA blowhards!"

If you think of yourself as a small-d democrat, you should recognize that there are serious tensions between democracy and technocracy. Democracy is based on the notion that everyone should have a say in how affairs are governed, because no one other than each and every one of us for ourselves has authority in deciding what ends we should pursue. Technocracy justifies itself by pointing out, accurately, that the broad public is incapable of devising means that will actually achieve its desired ends. You need experts for that.

Unfortunately, distinctions between means and ends blur in practice. We all share many values, but we weigh them quite differently. Experts can, and too often do, quietly presuppose a prioritization of values — and therefore of ends — that would reinforce their own status and role, and then demand deference as they move on to prescribing means.

During the financial crisis, once "financial stability" was the priority — rather than keeping people in their homes, or winding down and replacing pernicious institutions, or ensuring distributive justice — then of course we had to listen to bankers as to means. Who else understood the plumbing of the system we were stabilizing? Such a shock, then, that the means the best experts offered involved bailing out banks and their creditors while squeezing debtors with mortgages.

The continuing COVID fight between "listen to the science" Blue America and Plandemic Red America is really a proxy war over whether disease minimization should have been the overwhelming priority, or ends like personal liberty and supporting commerce should have weighed more heavily in the mix. The public health community predictably presumed that preventing disease should be the overwhelming priority. (Predictably, since that is both a reasonable choice, and the choice that would maximize its own status and scope for discretion. I certainly agreed. I still do!)

The public health community didn't mean to enter partisan politics. But unlike bankers, who very much did mean to take control in their own interest, public health will see its status and perhaps its funding diminished going forward, because it is now perceived by much of the country not as a neutral arbiter of facts and evidence, but as a usurper of discretion that properly belongs to the democratic public. We will all, unfortunately, be even less prepared when the next public health crisis hits. (I hope not soon.)

It is good that members of a democratic public jealously guard their right to have opinions and to have them heard on questions of ends. The public ought to be suspicious of technocratic claims that circumscribe their ability to assert agency over public affairs. Expert communities really do snow the public, all the time. (I don't know whether COVID was lab-leak or zoonotic, but I think the case is pretty strong that expert communities put their thumb on the scale early on in favor of zoonotic, in part to protect parochial interests.) But if the public becomes so allergic that we never defer to expertise, well, then bridges will collapse and planes will crash and all of our medicines will be snake oil.

Democracy places an ethical demand upon experts that they on the whole are failing to meet. That demand is radical humility. It is human — and career-advancing — to play up ones abilities and accomplishments. Many of us quietly believe that if we had more say in how things are run, things would be run much better. Humility just at the moment when you might make a difference is a hard ask. But key to an expert's job is to actively minimize the scope of their claim to authority. When communicating with the public or with political figures, they must strive to impose the narrowest set of constraints their expertise will allow, because their duty is to support, not to gainsay or foreclose, the democratic public's discretion.

Legitimate authority derives not from expertise alone, but from expertise in service of the democratic public. If you intend to wield your expertise as an activist, if you learned about climate science to change the world, great. Present yourself as an informed advocate, make your case to the democratic public, educate, convince, try to help them understand things as you do.

But if you demand deference, if you claim that by virtue of superior knowledge, failing to adopt your policy positions is failing to "follow the science", then you are mixing the roles of expert and advocate. The name for people who do that is "hack". The prevalence of hacks in this sense — on cable TV, in think tanks, on social media, even among well-meaning scholars — has replaced a lot of public trust in experts with earned hostility. How are you supposed to feel about people who are actively disenfrachising you?

Expertise can be a resource to a democracy. It can be the weapon of a faction. But it cannot be both at the same time.

You can be both a citizen with an opinion and an expert with knowledge that less knowledgeable people should defer to. But you must keep those roles distinct. As an expert, you must present the largest space possible of options that might under anyone's values be reasonable to pursue. You must report, to the best of your abilities, the consequences and uncertainties surrounding each option without fear or favor. Even when that means people whom you think are terrible might get their way.

If you put your thumb on the scale, if you present as authoritative claims that are tailored to further your own contestable priorities — however virtuous your priorities may in fact be! — you are heightening the contradictions between democracy and expert authority. You are tacitly making the case that meaningful democracy is impractical, and therefore one form or another of authoritarianism is inevitable.

No, New Yorker cartoon, the democratic public should not try to fly the plane. But the pilot, for his part, must fly it to the place the passengers contracted to go.

If some kind of science fiction catastrophe were to occur, and the plane must divert to a final destination from which rebooking will not be an option, then taking a vote of the passengers would absolutely be the right thing to do. If, when the pilot presents the destinations they have fuel enough to reach, she leaves out places she would disprefer... Well, she might get away with it! Or she might not.

Regardless, it would be a sin.