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Power to the Experts! - A Solution to the Problem of Political Ignorance?

As I noted in my last post, some advocates of libertarian paternalism try to get around the problem of political ignorance by suggesting that their policies be implemented by government-appointed experts rather than by elected officials. This is not a new argument. Totalitarians from Plato to Lenin have argued that the ignorance of the masses can be offset by concentrating power in the hands of an expert elite. So too have some moderate liberal scholars such as Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer and even libertarian Bryan Caplan. Breyer, the libertarian paternalists, and Caplan would never think of taking the argument as far as Plato or Lenin. But the core logic is similar: the experts know better than the average person - and therefore they should make the decisions.

For advocates of limited government, the rule of experts is like the vampire that refuses to die no matter how often we drive a stake through its heart. We've been fighting it for 2500 years, but have never quite managed to finish it off. Nevertheless, I'm going to put on my vampire slayer hat, and take a wee little stab at it.

As a solution to the problem of political ignorance, the rule of experts has major shortcomings relative to letting individuals make their own decisions with the help of markets and civil society.

First, it is essential to recognize that individual consumers don't have to rely on government for expertise. They can hire their own experts in the market or rely on more knowledgeable friends and acquiantances. When I get seriously ill, I go to a doctor. When I decide how to invest my money, I rely on the advice of friends who work in venture capital and investment banking. The real question is not whether we are going to rely on experts to help us make decision, but who gets to choose the experts and whether or not the experts will have veto power over the final decision on what to do.

I. Who Gets to Choose the Experts?

If instead of each individual choosing his or her own experts, there is a single set of specialists chosen in democratic elections, then the quality of the decision is likely to be impaired by political ignorance - the very problem that the rule of experts is supposed to stave off. Voters' choice of experts is just as likely to be compromised by rational ignorance and rational irrationality as any other electoral decision. By contrast, market participants generally have much stronger incentives to pick experts wisely.

Of course the experts could instead be chosen by nondemocratic means and insulated from political pressure. Yet, in the absence of democratic control, it will be difficult to ensure that the experts are actually serving the interests of the people as opposed to their own. By contrast, experts hired in a competitive market have better incentives; they know that if they pursue their own interests at the expense of the consumer's, they are likely to be out of a job.

Finally, both democratic and nondemocratic means of choosing government experts have a common weakness: both eliminate the option of dispensing with experts entirely. For some people, that may well be the best choice.

II. Should the Experts Get the Final Word?

The second major shortcoming of government-appointed experts relative to those hired in the market is the fact that government coercion deprives the consumer of the right to make the final decision. If I hire an expert in the market, I retain the right to reject his advice and pursuing a different course of action. This is a vitally important option. Although the expert is more knowledgeable than I am about technical issues in his field, I am more knowledgeable than he is about my own values. An expert on smoking knows more about the health risks involved than I do. But I am in a better position to determine whether the enjoyment I derive from smoking (if any) is enough to outweigh those risks. This insight is central to Hayek's classic critique of economic central planning, and it applies also to less extreme forms of expert control.

Libertarian paternalist policies that use expertise only to "nudge" or "frame" decisions for individuals are less vulnerable to the Hayekian criticism than are more aggressive exercises of expert authority. Yet even relatively modest assertions of expert-driven coercion carry the risk of preventing individuals from applying their own knowledge by increasing the cost of doing so. In any event, as Glen Whitman points out, the libertarian paternalist agenda goes well beyond reframing decisions. In many cases, it seeks to dictate them.

Ultimately, it is a question of whether we control the experts or they control us. Personally, I prefer the former.

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