The folly of blindly trusting experts

Politicians, policymakers, and the public rely on hundreds of thousands of experts to help them decide the right course for government action. We need experts to help make policy (they are, usually, the only people who know how the place runs!). We also need the best out of our experts.

However, there is a major problem with relying on experts. Experts are not always independent, and this is not always evident.

This concept is far from novel. Plato’s solution to dependency problem was a republic governed by policymakers who could not own property or have families. However, there are easier ways than imposing hard constraints on the personal lifestyle choices of experts.

Economists David M. Levy and Sandra J. Peart examine the independence of experts and provide a few of their own suggestions on how to improve the consideration of expert analysis in a new book, “Escape from Democracy: The Role of Experts and the Public in Economic Policy” (University of Cambridge Press).

Levy and Peart’s latest book builds on a theme of analytical egalitarianism started in their earlier book, “The Vanity of the Philosopher: From Equality to Hierarchy in Post-Classical Economics” (University of Michigan Press). When the expert is a discussant, it places them in the group with everyone else, rather than above the group.

We humans tend to form factions, as James Madison observed. Moreover, experts are not unlike the rest of us. The goals of the faction are not always independently determined or aligned with the public’s goals. Peart and Levy point out that if they were, “the implementation of policy [would be] fundamentally an engineering calculus.”

The endogeneity of policy development makes policymaking by experts problematic. You see that “once a policy decision is made,” Levy and Peart argue, “the overwhelming temptation for those in charge is to avoid continuous review and discussion.”

Policy experts are reluctant to go back and check to see if something is working. Rather, there is a tendency to move on to the next, more interesting problem to solve that is consistent with their own goals.

To improve the independence of expert analysis, Levy and Peart recommend transparency, competition in models, and ethical standards in expert analysis. Full transparency, they say, is best. Transparency of what is non-transparent is second best.

Techniques by the experts, such as adding lots of math to a formal model, can conceal their own goals about the importance of market imperfections, bad institutions, or bad government. Moreover, policy experts have a tendency to come up with a bunch of factors to explain away their faulty predictions when the quantitative evidence shows up that refutes the public goals.

Nevertheless, transparency, competition, and ethics alone are not sufficient.

Discussion, based on mutual respect and civic participation, is also critically important to achieving public goals rather than just those of experts. Levy and Peart suggest, “Transparency is key to ensuring that groups obtain the benefits associated with expertise.” Discussion helps us become “aware [of other people’s preferences] and self-aware [of our own].”

As the economist and Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen expressed, “public reasoning is not only crucial for democratic legitimacy, it is essential for better public epistemology that would allow the consideration of divergent perspectives.”

Levy and Peart show that classical economists understood the importance of discussion. For instance, Adam Smith believed that “trade depends on language; it is fundamentally an act of persuasion.”

J.S. Mill also believed “discussion is central to self-government.” Furthermore, J.S. Mill believed “discussion was the means by which individuals come to more fully understand what they believe … the exchange of words and discussion, constitutes the means by which we come to moderate our selfish impulses and, increasingly, to cooperate.”

Discussion also helps one to appreciate the goals of others thereby inducing “moderation and perhaps even something we would today refer to as toleration.” To be persuasive to our trading partner, Adam Smith believed, we needed to imagine how the trade would benefit them. We need to see things from the other’s perspective. We need to sympathize with them. Therefore, reciprocal trade, made though discussion and sympathy, begets civility.

Furthermore, transparency could “yield more public spirited actions” through approbation. Bad actions are shamed and good actions are praised. Therefore, discussion and transparency facilitates cooperation when private and public benefits are not aligned.

There is a growing response to disregard expert analysis when it disagrees with one’s own preconceived ideas, especially in policymaking. The experts in the policy community should do more to give faith to our common group to combat this dangerous tide. We need more discussion and more transparency in our policymaking process. Expert models should be open and analysts, at a minimum, should be clear about what they are not divulging or do not know. We should have debate that is more open in order to understand one another.

Most importantly, we should be humble rather than above the fray.

Paul Winfree is deputy director of the Domestic Policy Council and director of budget policy  for the White House. Previously he was director of the Thomas A. Roe Institute for Economic Policy Studies at the Heritage Foundation.

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