Arnold Kling  

Experts and Government

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An essay in the The Australian touches on issues that I often write about on this blog.

The tendency to regard public opinion as the prisoner of irrationality informed the attitude of the elite towards the public display of emotion throughout most of the 20th century. Officials and opinion makers were particularly worried about the capacity of radical ideologies to generate too much political emotion. The passion and anger of protesters on the streets were regarded as the antithesis of reasoned and enlightened democratic process. Furthermore, it was generally assumed that, once mobilised, irrational emotionalism could vanquish the forces of rationality. That is why economist Joseph Schumpeter argued for the need to limit access to public affairs. Schumpeter believed that "utilitarian reason was simply no match for the extra-rational determinants of conduct". The social sciences, and specifically sociology, continually communicated a sense of distrust towards the views and opinions of the public. Haney notes that in post-war America many prominent sociologists possessed a "profound suspicion of the character and inclinations of the American people".

It is a long, erudite article. If readers of The Australian are game for this sort of essay, they must be an impressive lot.

The essay ends rather weakly, in my view, with a plea for generalists rather than specialists. I think that the larger implication of much of the analysis in the essay is that we ought to lower our expectations for expertise, particularly in the social sciences (one is tempted to use scare quotes for "sciences'")

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CATEGORIES: Political Economy

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The author at false symmetry in a related article titled Friday Quick Links writes:
    Read about news, commentary and creationism ... [Tracked on September 11, 2009 3:42 PM]
COMMENTS (6 to date)
Yancey Ward writes:

Lets be honest- elites hate the mob when its opinions are different from theirs.

fundamentalist writes:

You have just pushed Caplan's button.

fundamentalist writes:

Great article! Thanks for the link!

“Critics of technocracy, particularly of its propensity for an elitist, anti-democratic orientation to public issues, are often dismissed as naive, simple-minded people who fail to comprehend the complexities of everyday life.”

This recalls the debate over what is the difference between liberals (socialists) and conservatives (socialist-lite). Socialists have to portray themselves as the smartest guys in the room. Their authority is derived from their intellect. They also must portray conservatives as dumb. They cast Eisenhower, the leader of Allied forces in Europe, as all smile and no brain. That’s why Saturday Nigh Live always depicts Republicans like Sarah Palin as stupid. Democrat candidates can be mean and petty (Hillary), arrogant (Biden), sleazy (Bill) or wooden (Barak). Democrats can be pictured as greedy, but never under any circumstances will any TV comedy show portray any Democrat as stupid. Stupid crosses the line. At the same time, they will never, ever portray any Republican politician as anything other than stupid.

Conservatives don’t understand the rules of the game because they don’t value intellect as much; in fact, they tend to distrust intellectuals. Conservatives cling more to traditional authority and values and wonder why Democrats place so much emphasis on being smart. Conservatives prefer a less intellectual president that shares their values. Poor stupid conservatives.

winterspeak writes:

Good lord, the elite tended to regard public opinion as the prisoner of irrationality long before the 20th Century!

Ever heard of a book call "Republic" by this guy called "Plato"?

There's also a reason that the US was founded as a Republic with a Constitution, and yes, it had something to do with concerns regarding the rationality of "public opinion".

History did not begin in 1901.

pedro from oz writes:

Nah, we're not impressive. Rupert wasted his money throwing pearls before we oafish swine.

Seriously, the Australian is the only local serious newspaper with a balanced op-ed page. Lots of good stuff on a regular basis.

Drewfus writes:

The Austalian is a touch Libertarian overall, so no suprises there.

If you don't mind, here's a link to something interesting in another Australian paper - The Sydney Morning Herald - about Liberals on campus.
Note that 'liberal' in Australia generally means 'classical liberal', or thereabouts, not progressive liberal. This is due to the name of the major conservative party in the country - The Liberal Party.

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