A large part of the political narrative is the celebration of elites and denigration of populism, or vice versa. Personally, I find myself instinctively disgusted by the tone and politics of most politicians commonly described as “populist”. But I doubt that a more or less complete political ideology requires that one affiliate with one of the two camps. Definitions of elitism and populism range so widely as to border on absolute incoherence.
But there is one sense in which I think a philosophy glossed as “populist” has a crucial advantage over “elitist” conceptions. That is to the extent that populism distrusts the policy “solutions” of experts and specialists. In short, specialists err because of an insufficiently general viewpoint. While well informed as to the benefits of a certain market intervention, they rarely consider or care for the costs that these interventions will impose in areas outside of their purview. Furthermore, they often mistake the subjective preferences of some experts within a certain field for an objective preference.
Rather than trying to unfold this criticism in all its complexity myself, I will be initiating a Commentarius series quoting various theorists’ contributions to this series. The first quote is an extensive set of excerpts from pages 98-99 of Hayek’s Road to Serfdom. Hayek notes that specialists are frustrated by what they often fail to recognize is the multiplicity of ends. Their frustration can yield a desire to simply impose their own, necessarily subjective, desired ends.
There is little question that almost every one of the technical ideals of our experts could be realized within a comparatively short time if to achieve them were made the sole aim of humanity. There is an infinite number of good things, which we all agree are highly desirable as well as possible, but of which we cannot hope to achieve more than a few within our lifetime, or which we can hope to achieve only very imperfectly. It is the frustration of his ambitions in his own field which makes the specialist revolt against the existing order. We all find it difficult to bear to see things left undone which everybody must admit are both desirable and possible. That these things cannot all be done at the same time, that any one of them can be achieved only at the sacrifice of others, can be seen only by taking into account factors which fall outside any specialism, which can be appreciated only by a painful intellectual effort – the more painful as it forces us to see against a wider background the objects to which most of our labors are directed and to balance them against others which lie outside our immediate interest and for which, for that reason, we care less….
In our predilections and interests we are all in some measure specialists. And we all think that our personal order of values is not merely personal but that in a free discussion among rational people we would convince the others that ours is the right one. The lover of the countryside who wants above all that its traditional appearance should be preserved and that the blots already made by industry on its fair face should be removed, no less than the health enthusiast who wants all the picturesque but unsanitary old cottages cleared away, or the motorist who wishes the country cut up by big motor roads, the efficiency fanatic who desires the maximum of specialization and mechanization no less than the idealist who for development of personality wants to preserve as many independent craftsmen as possible, all know that their aim can be fully achieved only by planning – and they all want planning for that reason. But, of course, the adoption of the social planning for which they clamor can only bring out the concealed conflict between their aims….
The hopes they place in planning, however, are the result not of a comprehensive view of society but rather of a very limited view and often the result of a great exaggeration of the importance of the ends they place foremost.