The Unbearable Necessity of Experts

Right-wing populism’s disdain for the opinions of experts can be mistaken for the Left’s scorn for technocracy. But democratic principles and mass politics are the real antidote to the appropriation of power by experts.

US president Franklin Delano Roosevelt with his “Brain Trust” of expert advisers. (Keystone-France / Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)

The rise of populist movements has impacted political struggles over marquee policy challenges such as climate change. As a result, the question of where expertise and “evidence-based policy” fits into democratic political life has attained a new pertinence.

Most recently, in Canada, opposition to carbon pricing from the Conservative Party, amid an increase in the Liberal government’s levy, prompted hundreds of economists to sign an open letter defending the measure. They used the occasion to “encourage governments to use economically sensible policies to reduce emissions at a low cost, address Canadians’ affordability concerns, maintain business competitiveness, and support Canada’s transition to a low-carbon economy.”

In reply, the Conservatives declared that they won’t be heeding the advice of “so-called experts.” They took the opportunity to remind anyone who’d listen that taxes are bad and the country’s ongoing affordability crisis makes them worse, whatever climate change might have in store for us. The reply was reminiscent of Trumpian MAGA politics south of the border — sneering, anti-intellectual, and counterproductive. The economists who signed the letter weren’t signing as political partisans or even as defenders of the government. They signed as experts supporting a policy tool.

It’s worth noting that expertise in public policy — the offering of communication-tailored data for politicians, staff, the public service, and/or a mass audience — takes on a different significance in the context of an engaged citizenry who can process that information and assent to or reject it. The output of experts, where mass politics obtains, is, in fact, grist for the decision-making mill. But absent a healthy democratic ecosystem, experts can get into trouble fast.

Whose Populism?

The rise of Western right-wing populist movements — which we perceive as astroturfed, authoritarian, or grassroots depending on the variety — tend to be wary of expertise and claims of “evidence-based” policy. After all, this is the terrain of the elite, of the gatekeepers, and what do they know about ordinary people? Admittedly, these same ordinary people have every right to be distrustful of elites, including those on the center left who ostensibly represent them while demanding unconditional fealty to the party under threat of ostracization from flyover-country pit stops and factory-visit backdrops.

As a style of politics, populism separates the world into camps — the at-best questionable elite and the noble people. Who are the former to tell the latter what to do? There is a long left-wing history of populism that, weary of elite power and its expression as technocracy, trades in a similar concern. It’s a mistake to reduce left-wing populism to right-wing populism as a rule, assuming that the construction and critique of the elite in each case is identical and therefore identically wrong.

Indeed, the particular constructions of different groups of elites may vary. Take the World Economic Forum (WEF), for instance, which has long received criticism from the Left and more recently from the Right. Where the Right might see an authoritarian globalist conspiracy in the WEF, rooted in, among other things, antisemitic tropes, the Left levels a mundane economic critique aimed at elite institutions that seek to set rules favorable for the capital class at the expense of workers. The Left’s critique, at its best, is bereft of the exciting yet paranoid pyrotechnics of its right-wing counterpart. There’s no conspiracy or minority scapegoating in a properly structural critique of power.

In February, the Pew Research Center found widespread support for democracy around the world, including in Canada and the United States. However, roughly one-third of respondents expressed skepticism toward self-government, finding it “somewhat” or “very” bad. But Pew also found “considerable” support for technocracy, or rule by experts, with a global average of 58 percent ranking it as “somewhat” or “very” good. In Canada, 49 percent shared the sentiment while in the United States 48 percent did compared to 47 percent and 50 percent who did not, respectively. These are distressing margins.

“Trust Me, I’m an Expert”

Support for technocracy indicates, among other things, that people want effective problem-solving but that they distrust, or at least discount, democracy’s capacity to achieve it. The populist pushback is an inversion of that distrust. The tension between the two is important, and potentially dangerous as we stare down democratic erosion, climate change, health care, housing crises, and more.

Democracy isn’t mob rule, and the electorate is not a gaggle of rubes. Nevertheless, the role of expertise in policymaking in advanced industrial states is both crucial and thorny. The question is how to balance the need for expertise with the democratic necessity of doing politics in the open and running it by and through the people.

The first thing to consider is, as democratic theorist Mark E. Warren puts it, that expertise has no prepolitical authority in a democracy. That means that democratic politics is an inevitable part of policymaking, and the legitimacy of outcomes is acceptable only after they have been put to the democratic test, directly or indirectly. “Trust me, I’m an expert” simply doesn’t pass the democratic test.

Expertise is also not infallible. Experts disagree with one another all the time. Experts can be wrong. Experts may be working with imperfect information. Experts may change their mind. Policies enacted during the pandemic provided numerous examples of these challenges. Moreover, experts may advise us in favor or against some measure and we may in whole or in part disagree because we have different, perhaps conflicting, priorities or desires.

We must consider expertise and work it into our politics and policies. We must take experts seriously — especially when there is a (near) consensus among them, as there is with the carbon tax debate. Evidence-based policy is good. But the population must still be convinced through reason-giving, deliberation, debate, and other types of consultation up to and including elections. If politicians can’t obtain and maintain public support, policy — for better or worse — may be doomed, and voters alongside politicians may have very good reason to demand a change.

Experts for Democracy

All in all, experts play an essential and invaluable role in democratic policymaking. However, even though disregarding their guidance may produce suboptimal — or straight-up bad — outcomes, their perspectives and advice must nonetheless compete in the public arena. And we ought to welcome that as the price of democracy.

Cynically dismissing experts as experts, however, as the MAGA lot and Canadian Conservatives do, is another matter. It’s the inverse of technocracy and poses a threat to self-government. Expertise is a vital component in the process of working out what we should do and how we should live together. Disregarding it from the outset denies the public the opportunity to collect all the information it may need or want when making decisions about what ought to be done.

We should be wary of both those who insist we defer to the experts and those who dismiss them out of hand. Policymaking is a messy process — it is inherently complex and contentious, involving competing groups and individuals striving to garner and maintain public approval.

A healthy public is better off remaining open to hearing out experts. In the absence of expertise — data about phenomenon in the world — we are denied the chance to think through thorny issues. But this healthy public assumes and requires mass democracy such that the people, as a people, are truly and deeply involved — not as mere objects of governance, but as active participants in self-government. The public nonetheless retains the right to plug its ears. It then becomes the duty of others to persuade them otherwise. There’s something frustrating and beautiful about that. And thoroughly democratic, too.