Experts and Government
An essay in the The Australian touches on issues that I often write about on this blog.
The tendency to regard public opinion as the prisoner of irrationality informed the attitude of the elite towards the public display of emotion throughout most of the 20th century. Officials and opinion makers were particularly worried about the capacity of radical ideologies to generate too much political emotion. The passion and anger of protesters on the streets were regarded as the antithesis of reasoned and enlightened democratic process. Furthermore, it was generally assumed that, once mobilised, irrational emotionalism could vanquish the forces of rationality. That is why economist Joseph Schumpeter argued for the need to limit access to public affairs. Schumpeter believed that “utilitarian reason was simply no match for the extra-rational determinants of conduct”. The social sciences, and specifically sociology, continually communicated a sense of distrust towards the views and opinions of the public. Haney notes that in post-war America many prominent sociologists possessed a “profound suspicion of the character and inclinations of the American people”.
It is a long, erudite article. If readers of The Australian are game for this sort of essay, they must be an impressive lot.
The essay ends rather weakly, in my view, with a plea for generalists rather than specialists. I think that the larger implication of much of the analysis in the essay is that we ought to lower our expectations for expertise, particularly in the social sciences (one is tempted to use scare quotes for “sciences'”)