The Authoritarianism of Experts

January 23rd, 2008

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

Have you ever heard anyone make the argument that we must take a certain course of action because the experts tell us we must? The issue might be the threat of another country or an environmental risk, but increasingly we see appeals to authority used as the basis for arguing for this or that action.

In a new book, David Shearman and Joseph Wayne Smith take the appeal to experts somewhat further and argue that in order to deal with climate change we need to replace liberal democracy with an authoritarianism of scientific expertise. They write in a recent op-ed:

Liberal democracy is sweet and addictive and indeed in the most extreme case, the USA, unbridled individual liberty overwhelms many of the collective needs of the citizens. . .

There must be open minds to look critically at liberal democracy. Reform must involve the adoption of structures to act quickly regardless of some perceived liberties. . .

We are going to have to look how authoritarian decisions based on consensus science can be implemented to contain greenhouse emissions.

On their book page they write:

[T]he authors conclude that an authoritarian form of government is necessary, but this will be governance by experts and not by those who seek power.

So whenever you hear (or invoke) an argument from expertise (i.e., “the experts tell us that we must …”) ask if we should listen to the experts in just this one case, or if we should turn over all decisions to experts. If just this one case, why this one and not others? If a general prescription, should we do away with democracy in favor of an authoritarianism of expertise?

10 Responses to “The Authoritarianism of Experts”

  1. lucia Says:

    Did the former Soviet Union do this with the economy?

    One difficulty is that even true experts may be wrong at least for the time being. Depending on inclination or historical period, they might fall prey to new pet theories, or be overly cautious.

    The other difficulty is that when one sets up an oligarchy or any sort, ambitious people whose primary goal is political power may work hard to become recognized as a expert. Unfortunately, they may work harder at becoming recognized than actually becoming expert. (So, for example, being a recognized member of the communist party might have been more important to gaining recognition than actual economic credentials back in the former Soviet Union.)

    So, there is no guarantee that specialists most competent in their fields would end up making decisions under this sort of system.

    Though imperfect, overall it’s probably better to do what we do now. Most experts become so primarily as a result of contribution to their field. Others listen to the experts– and are free to take their advice. To the extent the experts are convincing, we are more likely to make the correct decision than in the other system.

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  3. jmrsudbury Says:

    Ha ha. We beat you to it. Canada already has an oligarchy. Don’t waste your time with this. Just look north to see how much of this AGW issue gets brought to our supreme court. They may just read in another human right on our behalf that will enable us to fight global warming.

    If this happened years ago, then the experts who believed, with a consensus, that the earth was flat may have ruled that no ships should try to sail around the world looking for a passage to the orient. If we close our minds and only listen to the experts, what other opportunities will be miss? For some reason, I can picture Al Gore saying something like “I am not a climatologist, but I play one on TV,” and people giving him credit because he has listened to scientists.

    John M Reynolds

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  5. Arthur Says:

    “The urge to save humanity is almost always a false front for the urge to rule.” – H L Menken

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  7. Mark Bahner Says:

    [T]he authors conclude that an authoritarian form of government is necessary, but this will be governance by experts and not by those who seek power.

    Now I know where Jay Leno’s writers are! ;-)

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  9. JohnM Says:

    “[T]he authors conclude that an authoritarian form of government is necessary, but this will be governance by experts and not by those who seek power.”

    This is hardly a new phenomenon. Karl Popper devoted one volume of the “Open Society and its Enemies” to Plato, whose vision of an ideal society was one ruled by disinterested philosopher kings. That sounds exactly like the above quote.

    Popper correctly surmises that such a society would be a totalitarian nightmare.

    In addition we have “the Road to Serfdom” by Hayak which identifies the danger of assuming society can be successfully run by expert planners.

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  11. Scott Pierce Says:

    Wow. I am always surprised, though I don’t know why anymore, when people so grossly misinterpret human nature. It reminds me of one of those awful Star Wars movies, who could remember which boring one it was but one of the latter ones, when Anekin is laying in the grass with the Queen or Princess or whatever and is all morally superior about how Senators should just do what is right.

    I’m sure “rationalist” autocrats wouldn’t abuse their authoritarian position. Wait a minute, that sounds like a return to the guillotines of the French Revolution.

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  13. brent Says:

    David Suzuki on science, elitism and the apocalypse

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  15. TokyoTom Says:

    Roger, perhaps a more appropriate and fairer title would have been “the naivete of experts”.

    David Shearman sees a problem that he thinks needs urgent action (on which he might be absolutely right), but he despairs when he sees the nations of the world – and primarily the wealthy Western democracies – dawdling, and suggests that it is liberal democracy itself that is at fault. Is he wrong to be frustrated? I’d say not. However, Shearman clearly misunderstand the reasons for the delay, which lie not with the nature of democracy or its supposed deficiencies vis-a-vis an authoritarian order, but simply with the nature of our interaction with the atmosphere.

    Simply, the problem is a classic tragedy of the commons resulting from the incentives that face multiple users of a resource that none of them own and from which they cannot easily exclude others. The current lack of process has nothing at all to do with the political structure of any of the countries of the world, but rather with the diffiiculty that all nations face in reaching a shared understanding of the problem and in negotiating an enforceable agreement of how to balance potential collective future gains and future costs in controlling emissions of and bringing down atmospheric levels of GHGs. Even if all the countries of the world were authoritarian, they would still have the same difficulty in reaching a joint decision, and none of Shearman’s wishful thinking would make things any different.

    Of course, form of government matters in various ways, all of which cut against Dr. Shearman. Like the natural world, governments themselves are a form of commons in which different interest groups compete. While the Western governments are still plagued by rent-seeking from powerful insiders and elites who more or less effectively manipulate politicians and bureacucrats to obtain gains, authoritarian systems are orders of magnitude worse. Pollution problems in dictatorships are much worse, because the elites can live by fiat and have very little effective check from others in terms of property rights or laws/regulations. , and Shearman should be embarrassed to wish any of that kind of corruption on anyone.

    But perhaps Shearman has a slight glimpse of the real problem, which is that there are no effective owners of the atmosphere, and thus no one (or even a few) who can say hey! I like the world’s thermostat right where it is, any I’m willing to suffer the consequences of paying more for sequestration, conservation or different energy sources.

    Instead, we are stuck with the twin problems of international negotiations between a multiplicity of governments that have different interests (with no one from the future voting) and, across all nations, domestic struggles between interest groups to persuade government to choose the policies that benefit their interest group the most.

    Shearman’s not wrong to speak out, but he needs to do a little more reading on externalities and prinsoners’ dilemmas.

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  17. Engineer Says:

    And just who gets to select these “experts?”

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  19. Lisanne Says:

    I would not willingly give authority to any body of people to make decisions for me without the involvement of my own mind. Many people arrive at conclusions for different reasons. Even experts can have personal motivators such as the desire for money, religious beliefs, personal values. Even experts can be swayed by societal pressure. In fact, most people are swayed by the pressure of societies beliefs. Just look at religious beliefs. Most people who grow up in a society and in a family where there is a belief in god, automatically follow suite. They don’t even question this regardless of lack of evidence. They require evidence for all other new ideas, but they never require evidence for this one thing. Very few people require the same burden of proof for all things. Only a few people are so independent of mind that they look at every fact through a totally soientific or investagory lense, rather than a lense colored by their paricular life influences or values. Very few people are able to look across different cultures at people as a whole and evaluate what is best for humankind as opposed to what they have been taught is right and wrong. I would never willingly allow the substitution of my own thinking for someone else. Just because someone has knowledge, does not mean they see the facts clearly.

    Specifically on the subject of global warming. The public outcry has been huge. However, if you speak to astronomers, and I have spoken with some personally who manage world class institutions, they believe that the current global warming we are undergoing is a result of the natural cycle of the earths rotation around the sun. As we get closer to the sun, the earth gets warmer. In fact, a single volcano eruption can produce far more damange to our atmosphere than the total gas output by man globally. Global Warming is a fact. The cause is still very hotly debated by those who study the earth.

    Do I totally believe that man has no impact? I do not have enough evidence at this point. But I will make this decision on my own in time by looking at the facts. I will not join the mass societal hysteria about it.

    I live my life by the rule of my mind. Not by whether or not everyone else thinks I should do something or believe something.