Experts and Citizen Governance09-30-2021
Recent years have not been kind to experts, technocrats, and specialists in government. Amidst our hyper-partisan politics, there is a desire for policy to be made by experts who are thought to be neutral, objective, and informed. But experts have continually proven mistaken in their response to Covid-19, leading to the politicization of expert-driven policies. The experts in the U.S. military bungled the pullout from Afghanistan. And experts in climate change have repeatedly made policy recommendations that go beyond their expertise, leading to skepticism about the science of climate change. Much of the populist revolt in the United States and around the world is attributable to the increasing distrust of expert governance.
One response to the distrust of experts in politics is to return to a politics of plurality in which all voices are taken equally. This does not mean that experts are ignored or irrelevant; they have deep knowledge and experience that are essential to any political judgment. But it would require admitting two things. First, that experts often disagree and that they frequently know less about what to do than they would like to admit. And second, that much of the appeal of experts is that they serve to neutralize political disagreement by an appeal to an expert consensus that is less accurate than it is consensual. This means that experts represent a particular prejudice, a belief in the regularity, comprehensibility, and transparency of human actions.
Above all, experts appeal to what Hannah Arendt called our fundamental prejudice against politics. Since politics is dangerous—it can lead to war and real conflict—we turn to experts as a path towards peace and prosperity. The cost of the turn from politics to expertise, however, is that increasing segments of the population are disempowered and disenfranchised and denied political power.
Returning power to the people to make decisions is one large part of the appeal of democratic experiments with sortition, citizen assemblies, and citizen juries. This is the topic of the upcoming Hannah Arendt Center conference Revitalizing Democracy: Sortition, Citizen Power, and Spaces of Freedom.
A related response to the distrust of experts is to improve expert judgment. This is the approach advocated by Rihard Hanania. Hanania recognizes the failure of experts but instead of seeking to return power to non-experts, he suggests that we can use expert-driven programs to improve on our expertise. Hanania writes:
A program to put expertise on a stronger footing should involve both new laws and changes in the wider intellectual culture. Government should set up forecasting tournaments and remove regulatory barriers to establishing prediction markets, in addition to funding them through programs like DARPA and the National Science Foundation. Robin Hanson, an economist, has suggested conditional markets, which would take bets on, say, what will happen to the price of a stock if a C.E.O. is removed or the impact on gross domestic product that the adoption of a bill or regulation will have, and then using the results to inform decisions like removal or adoption.
In the same way that the business press reports on stock prices and political reporters use betting markets to discuss possible election outcomes, conditional markets can provide information on the wisdom of proposed policies. Pundits debate questions like how much inflation would result from President Biden’s signing a new infrastructure bill, but there is no reason to rely solely on these largely unaccountable voices to forecast outcomes. We can most likely get better results by letting people bet on their beliefs — and then using that data to inform debate. A wide body of research shows that prediction markets almost always either tie or beat institutions like polls and committees in terms of accuracy.