Democracy, Populism, and the Tyranny of the Experts, Part VIII
Freedom is better, even when it’s worse. We might think about experts the way we think about stop signs (bear with me on this…)
To understand the expert-stop sign analogy let’s begin with Arthur C. Brooks, who has written (in “Foreign Affairs” and elsewhere) about what he calls “the dignity deficit,” which he believes cost Mrs. Clinton the election. I’m putting words in Brooks’ mouth, but in essence he distinguishes between technical measures of a person’s welfare on the one hand, and being considered—and considering oneself to be—worthy of respect, on the other.
In other words, a government program can improve people’s nutritional levels or health, but if those programs view the beneficiaries as “liabilities to manage rather than as human assets to develop,” people aren’t helped, but hurt. The way welfare programs were designed in the late 20th century, for example, tended to cause the breakup of families, with the result that they did far more harm than good.
Brooks argues that America’s elites, especially those who push social welfare programs, thinking they know what’s best for everyone else, have treated certain kinds of people with contempt and that it was the backlash against this attitude that did Clinton in. In the welfare case, just as an example, it turned out that the freedom to live as an intact family should have been viewed as being more important than improved economic wellbeing: “freedom was better, even when it was worse.” In other words, it’s better to be poor-but-proud than to be better-off-but-humiliated.
With all this in mind, let’s return to stop signs. Not that long ago, say three generations, stop signs were rarified artifacts. I once drove with my grandfather from High Street in Mechanicsburg, Ohio to the nearby town of Springfield, a distance of 16 miles, without encountering a single stop sign. When stop signs were rare, we treated them with respect. They said “STOP” and we stopped.
But as stop signs proliferated like mushrooms, things changed. Today, I back out of my driveway en route to work and 6 ½ seconds later I’ve encountered my first stop sign. I encounter additional stops sign every 10 or 15 seconds all the way to my office, which is a mere 3 miles away. With so many annoying stops signs literally everywhere, we’ve learned that the word STOP means, “check for cops and keep going.”
When I was a cop I would park my squad car behind some bushes just off Post Road at 8:55 a.m., knowing that plenty of folks would be late for their 9 a.m. jobs and would be sliding right through the nearby stop sign. When I pulled them over and gave them a ticket they would inevitably say, not “I really should have come to a full stop,” but “I looked all around for cops and didn’t see one!”
We fully understand why stop signs exist, and even why there are so many of them. But that doesn’t prevent us from being exasperated by them and treating them like dirt. The state claims that we can’t drive a vehicle without a license, and that when we drive we have to follow all sorts of annoying rules or else. Fail to stop for a stop sign and, if there’s a cop around, you’ll be fined. Keep it up and you’ll be packed off to The Black Hole of Calcutta.
Besides, we can’t stop for all those stop signs. In the first place, there aren’t enough hours in the day—we’d have to get up at 3 a.m. to be at the office at nine, and we’d have to leave the office at noon to get home by six. Second, if we came to a full stop at two consecutive stop signs the folks behind us would murder us in our Subarus.
And so it is with experts. Back when experts were rare as hen’s teeth, people like Patient A respected them and, more or less, did as they were told. After all, if the only expert you were likely to encounter in your entire life was the doctor you saw once every three decades, it was no trouble. You were happy to have the advice.
But as experts began to proliferate like stop signs, things changed. Patient A was annoyed with his doctor in part because of all the things he’d already been told by the doctor to do: all the meds he’d been told to take, all the lifestyle changes he’d been told to make, all the tests he’d been told to undergo. But on top of that, Patient A’s doctor was merely the most recent in a long line of experts (including traffic control experts) who’d been telling him what to do all his life. He’s sick to death of it.
Patient A probably was better off in some measurable technical sense because of all the things various experts had told him to do all his life. But in a more important—a more Brooksian—sense, Patient A was much worse off. He was no longer an independent actor, a man who was responsible for his own destiny and who saw himself as a dignified human being worthy of respect. Instead, he was merely a “liability to manage,” a hopeless, error-prone fool who couldn’t possibly be allowed to make his own way in life, but instead had to be dictated to by his betters every step of the way. If he stopped taking expert advice he would be worse off in some ways, but much better off in more important ways: “freedom would be better, even when it was worse.”
Dorothy Parker once said of Ernest Hemingway, “Yes, he talks like he writes. Maybe liker.” In the same spirit, we might say that while experts are usually right, people who resent them are also right. Maybe righter.
Next up: DP&TE, Part IX