The incentives and knowledge of bureaucrats create another peculiar problem for “rule by experts”. On the one hand, the bureaucrats that operate the various governmental agencies are necessarily the “experts” on these programs. Who can be expected to know more than the managers of the myriad administrative fiefdoms? On the other hand, these specialists are the least likely people to desire limiting these bureaucracies, because they have self-selected to their agency of choice. Milton Friedman makes this point in his typically understated manner on pages 186-187 of Capitalism and Freedom:
The issues involved become very technical and complex. The layman is often incompetent to judge them. Nationalization means that the bulk of the “experts” become employees of the nationalized system, or university people closely linked with it. Inevitably, they come to favor its expansion, not, I hasten to add, out of narrow self-interest but because they are operating within a framework in which they take for granted governmental administration and are familiar only with its techniques…
Effective control by Congress over the operations of such agencies as the Social Security Administration becomes essentially impossible as a result of the technical character of their task and their near-monopoly of experts. They become self-governing bodies whose proposals are in the main rubber-stamped by Congress. The able and ambitious men who make their careers in them are naturally anxious to expand the scope of their agencies and it is exceedingly difficult to prevent them from doing so. If the expert says yea, who is there competent to say nay? So we have seen an increasing fraction drawn into the social security system, and now that there remain few possibilities of expansion in that direction, we are seeing a move toward the addition of new programs, such as medical care.
I just finished reading Sowell’s Knowledge and Decisions and thought I should transcribe one of his critiques of expertise for this series. It’s difficult to decide what part of the book to offer, as one of the book’s main two themes is a criticism of “rule by experts”. Three fourths of the last eighty-page chapter constitute a sustained blistering criticism of the political contributions of “intellectuals”. But I think the heavily abridged selection below from pages 102-104 presents a coherent (and less polemical) version of his argument.
Sowell contrasts different decision making processes. He calls the process of intellectuals “articulation” – linguistic elaboration of premises and logical conclusions. Social and economic processes, on the other hand, may be completely unarticulated, in that no particular individual may be able to explain why they are beneficial. Nonetheless, through price (and other feedback) systems they effectively convey objective knowledge about costs and preferences, despite their silence on the exact source of this information.
Given the imperfections of language and the limitations of specific evidence, it is by no means a foregone conclusion that the mere formally logical articulation is in fact more rational, much less empirically correct When the choice between the two processes is not within one individual but between one individual and another (or between one group and another), it is even less likely that the more articulate position is the more valid position. This is not an argument for mysticism rather than logic. It is simply a recognition that the weight of generalized but unrecorded experience – of the individual or of the culture – may be greater than the weight of other experience which happens to have been written down and spelled out….
When culture is conceived of as an evolutionary product – an ecology of human relations – it is by no means clear that any and all well-articulated reasons for changing particular parts of this social ecology must be valid. Even if plausible in the specific case, a policy’s unintended consequences throughout a complex system is a weighty consideration. Articulated rationality can seldom predict very far or very specifically, and much depends on the speed and accuracy of social feedback mechanisms – and on whether the feedback includes incentives to adjust or abandon counterproductive policies….
In short, the Darwinian “natural selection” principle may mean a natural selection of the “fittest” situation or process, not necessarily individuals. The degree of rationality in the process is by no means limited to the degree of rationality of the individuals, as is often erroneously claimed. Rather, “mankind has achieved things which have not been designed or understood by any individual,” though their value has been retrospectively authenticated by millions who could judge the results without being able to judge – much less design – the process.
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.