To launch this series of posts with such a mouthful of a title — Democracy, Populism, and the Tyranny of the Experts (hereinafter DP&TE) — we’re going to engage in one of Your Humble Blogger’s notorious thought experiments.
Imagine that we have chanced upon a noxious, dystopian society we’ll call Acirema. This society consists of only two races, Masters and Slaves (yes, I know, Hegel and Nietzsche visited Acirema before we did). The role of the Masters, a tiny elite, is to instruct others in how to live their lives. That is, each Master is an expert in some field and has the power, under the laws and social policies of Acirema, to dictate to everyone else how they will behave in the specific area of the Master’s expertise. Failure to adhere to the instructions of a Master will result in a fine, imprisonment and/or abandonment and ostracism of the miscreant.
The role of the Slaves, who represent the vast majority of the population of Acirema, is to do as they are told. From the moment they awaken in the morning until the moment they fall asleep at night, they must follow the instructions of some Master or other.
Notice that Masters are also subject to the rule of Masters. A Master who is an expert in Field X can instruct everyone else — Master as well as Slave — in that field. But that Master must follow the instructions of another Master who is an expert in Field Y, at least as to activities undertaken in Field Y. But Masters don’t experience life as Slaves because they live among the elite. Within their spheres of expertise they are supreme — everyone must obey their dictates. (To analogize, a famous film star doesn’t feel demeaned by the fact that someone else is a famous opera singer.)
Masters can, if they wish, or if they conduct themselves improperly, cease to be Masters and become Slaves. For example, if Masters refuse to tell other people what to do or if they allow their expertise to deteriorate to the point where they are no longer experts (in either case thereby threatening the orderly operation of Acireman society), they become Slaves. Once they become Slaves, fallen Masters can regain Masterhood, but only by dint of extreme effort and acknowledgement of their errors, upon the completion of which they can be readmitted to Masterhood.
Masters therefore possess free will in a very real and useful sense. They can choose to remain as Masters, they can decide to become Slaves, and they can change their minds and rejoin Masterhood.
However, it is almost impossible for a Slave to become a Master. This is because it is extremely difficult to become a Master. The difficulty is associated with the complicated knowledge a Master must accumulate via many years of education and experience. In addition, every field has its own special, complicated requirements which must be met before anyone can claim to be an expert in that field. The combination of heavy educational requirements, long experience, and complex credentialing assures that only a small elite will ever become experts, and therefore Masters.
Slaves therefore possess free will only in a very limited and self-abnegating sense. Slaves can choose to be good Slaves and to follow instructions, or Slaves can rebel and refuse to follow instructions. But since the instructions of a Master represent, by definition of the society, the only proper way to behave, refusal sets a Slave outside the law and outside the community.
Slaves vastly outnumber Masters in Acirema, and therefore the seeds of rebellion cannot be allowed to flower. A rebellious Slave is committing the worst crime it is possible to commit in the society — high treason, actually — since it directly threatens the primacy of the Masters, and therefore the good of the entire society.
In addition to being quite limited, the free will of Slaves is also self-abnegating because it can accomplish nothing but the destruction of the Slave. A Master can sometimes be wrong, of course — no one is right all the time — but that’s not the point. The point is that Acireman society has, quite sensibly, chosen to be governed by experts, by people who have studied for long years, worked in their fields for long years, and become highly credentialed. Rebellious Slaves are, in effect, demanding to be governed by ignorance and stupidity, by people — Slaves — who know nothing. This is obviously dangerous nonsense, even to Slaves.
It’s important to point out that Slaves aren’t deadbeats. Most Slaves work and are skilled at something or other. It’s just that the things Slaves are skilled at aren’t the sorts of things other people need to be instructed in. A Slave might know how to drive a tractor-trailer, or to re-plumb a bathroom, and these are skills that everyone needs. But neither Masters nor even most other Slaves are interested in being instructed in truck driving or plumbing.
Because of the importance of the activities Masters are experts in, Masters tend to be much more affluent than Slaves. They live in their own communities, walled off (literally or figuratively) from Slave communities. They belong to their own clubs, they send their children to special elite universities, and so on. But note that financial inequality isn’t the point, it’s just a byproduct of the relative importance of Master versus Slave. Some Masters, even though they are very powerful, earn less than some Slaves. Some Slaves, even though they are impotent, earn more than some Masters.
Next week we will return to the real world, to America, and see whether or not the lamentable world of Acirema holds any lessons for us.
Next up: DP&TE, Part II