When Experts Fail
By Arnold Kling
For better or worse, over the past 50 years we have concentrated authority in centralized agencies and reduced the role of decentralized citizen action. We’ve done this in many spheres of life. Maybe that’s wise, maybe it’s not. But we shouldn’t imagine that these centralized institutions are going to work perfectly or even well most of the time. It would be nice if we reacted to their inevitable failures not with rabid denunciation and cynicism, but with a little resiliency, an awareness that human systems fail and bad things will happen and we don’t have to lose our heads every time they do.
Read the whole column. I agree that it is counterproductive to react to institutional failure by denouncing individuals and piling on new layers of bureaucratic irrationality. However, he seems to imply that there is no constructive way to channel anger and frustration at expert failure.
Instead, I believe that a central issue for our time is excessive concentration of political power. One of the causes of this concentration is the ideology of “trust the experts.” To the extent that denunciation of expert failures serves to undermine this ideology, I think that is a good thing.
Many in the mainstream media, probably including David Brooks, tend to believe that a loss of trust in experts would be a bad thing. Trust in the experts is a key component of Progressive ideology. It goes along with the belief in social science, and the belief in elite education as providing a natural aristocracy.
As you know, I am very skeptical of experts. I think that experts undertook misguided financial regulatory policies that contributed to the crisis, experts over-rate their ability to steer the health care system toward higher quality and lower cost, and experts are overly confident that the stimulus improved the economy.
What experts are really good at is circling the wagons to protect themselves. Talking points get repeated. Evidence that appears to cast doubt on experts gets picked apart, while evidence that appears to favor the experts is uncritically passed on. Ben Bernanke enjoys protected status. The global warming believers enjoy protected status. Stimulus advocates enjoy protected status. Above all, the label “expert” is carefully restricted to those who can be trusted to respect other experts and to denounce skeptics.
As I have said before, this is the syndrome that David Halberstam identified in The Best and the Brightest as leading us into the Vietnam War. When experts fail, it may be immature to decry their imperfections. However, it is not mature to shrug helplessly. What would be truly mature would be to work for decentralization of power and to work against the concentration of power in the hands of experts.