Tuesday 29 July 2014

In Defence of the Experts, by Fergus Butler-Gallie

“We have not overthrown the divine right of Kings to fall down for the divine right of experts.” So goes the famous quotation from Harold Macmillan.
It cannot be said, alas, that the current Prime Minister has followed much of his Etonian forebears advice in other areas.

Don’t sell off the family silver, being a start. Macmillan meant this with regard to the privatisation of gas and other utilities, but it could just as easily be said of the Royal Mail.
But, in this disdain for expertise, we can see a distinct similarity between the government of today and that of half a century ago.
The disdain for expertise then, as evinced by Macmillan’s quotation, had very different reasoning behind it than the disdain for expertise we see in the coalition today.
Macmillan was exhibiting (or, more likely, affecting) a distaste for ‘expertise’ as an example of bourgeois meddling.

For him, as with many other self identifying Disraelians of the time, the near-sacred bond between ruler and ruled could do without the opinions of white-coated ‘new men’ fixated with numbers and statistics.
How times have changed.
Arguably, the very reason why many, across the political spectrum, hold expertise in such disdain is precisely because they often can’t be valued in terms of numbers.
To the minds of many political commentators, many politicians and, arguably, many amongst the general public, if something or someone cannot be ascribed a distinct, empirical value, then it must be worthless.
This is often expressed in our political sphere in terms of ‘accountability’.

Because a member of the House of Commons has an exact numerical majority by which they can measure themselves, and because business leaders have empirical profit margins by which they might be measured, and shareholder targets to meet, they are held to be ‘accountable’, and therefore implicitly better placed to give their counsel than those who do not.
This fetishisation of empiricism in politics exists across the party divide. The opinions of those without a self-assigned numerical value measured in either votes or shares, have consistently been sidelined by the all three major political parties.
For instance, when Alan Johnson sacked Professor David Nutt his justification was clear: his opinion, as an elected official of a government with an ascribable majority and so on, trumped Professor Nutt’s advice.
So it has been also with Govian education reform. The non-experts, be they government ministers or parents with enough numerical wherewithal (read: money) to set up Free Schools, must trump the considered opinions of teachers with the expertise of experience.
It is curious, in a post expenses scandal world, where trust in both elected politicians and big businesses is inordinately low, that we as a society should chose to make the numerical hard fact of an elected mandate or an annual turnover the most important considerations in deciding whether someone ought to be listened to.
This has been clear recently in the continued fractious relationship between successive governments and the House of Lords.
As a result of the recent government reshuffle, for the first time in history the leader of the Upper House of Parliament will not sit in the Cabinet.
On 28th July the Lords passed a motion condemning this, tabled by Baroness Boothroyd, considered one of the finest Commons Speakers of modern times.
The response was immediate. Politicians and journalists took to Twitter to condemn such ‘navel gazing’. 

Stewart Jackson, the Conservative MP for Peterborough denounced it as an “unelected/unaccountable” body (note the elision of the two) just debating “their own powers and influence”.
The Lords were accused of being “out of touch” for daring to debate what actually constitutes an unprecedented constitutional change.
The implicit line followed by all within the political bubble who took it upon themselves to criticise was that, because they are unelected, the Lords have no right to comment.
That a global expert on the constitution such as Lord Norton of Louth, or any number of former ministers with years and years of experience behind them, have no right to discuss the implications of marginalising the Upper House of Parliament, whereas a man who owes his seat to 33,973 people in North Oxfordshire does. 
When Thomas Carlyle critiqued Benthamite Utilitarianism, he warned that it would reduce “the infinite celestial soul of mankind to a kind of balance for weighing hay and thistles on.”
He identified the dangers of a world whereby only numerical value is considered to be important.
We aren’t quite in thistle weighing territory yet.
But the concept that only those with a discernible numerical value, be that of a majority or sizeable annual turnover, have the right to pass comment and partake in the formulation of policy is a worrying trend that appears to be garnering support across the political spectrum.
I would humbly suggest that things ought to begin swinging back the other way- here’s to the (semi) divine right of the experts.

1 comment:

  1. This article repeats a common complaint from the proffessional classes but makes three errors which undermine it's argument.

    The first is to mistake expertise in a specific field with authority on a tangentially related political issue. In the instance quoted, that of David Nutt his knowledge related to the effects on health of cannabis smoking. But this is only a small part of the question of cannabis re-classification or legalisation which was the debate at the time. Even then the tone of journalistic questioning was one of incredulity that Johnson had not simply done as Nutt told him to.

    The second error is to ascribe expertise to groups, usually representative ones such as unions. However only an individual can posses expertise so the expressed views of these groups must be an average, that is well below the standard of the most expert.

    The third error is to ascribe disinterested motives to experts, it's obvious that those who work in a field have a vested interest in its' continuation; the obvious example is the oppostion of doctors to the founding of the NHS vesus there massive support for it now. Which experts were right?

    Finally there is no reason to suppose that politicians don't take and indeed follow expert advice. As voters we elect them rather than the experts to add their judgment to that advice as we do in our lives when taking advice.