Trust in Experts Over People, Research Time, 28/02/2017

You know, when I look in some of those classic John Stuart Mill essays, I find a lot that’s valuable for the current era. And I also find a lot that’s racist and imperialist. It’s the mid-19th century in England – What else could I expect?

But some of the truly intriguing moments in these texts comes when they discuss an idea so outlandish, yet so strangely logical, that its utter barminess is fascinating.

One of the highlights of the Brexit campaign was hearing Michael
Gove say that the British people were sick and tired of listening to
experts. On its face, it sounds ridiculous, as if people were
purposely choosing ignorance. But that's not what was happening.
Here’s an idea that I found perfectly barmy, totally out to lunch, but which had a weird resonance today. It’s about the role of an elected parliament in the government of a really complicated society.

Mill’s talking about a society about as complex as mid-19th century Britain. New infrastructure is being developed, new technologies integrated into existing infrastructure. The social and economic networks and relationships of society are fluctuating constantly.

For him, this is a world that needs keen scientific minds and powerful research institutions to understand it adequately. And I don’t have to tell you that, if the intelligence of the average MP is a reflection of their public statements, we aren’t necessarily dealing with the world’s most swift bunch of thinkers.

And I say this as not only a democrat, but as a member of one of Canada’s major nationwide political parties. I don’t just vote in the elections of these idiots – I help find these idiots, campaign for these idiots, and work with these idiots in intense political discussions about the future of our country. These idiots are my colleagues and friends.

One day, they might even talk me into becoming one of these idiots. I’d have to be an idiot to run for office myself.

"Sick and tired of experts" was another way of saying the Tory Brexit
slogan, "Take back control!" It meant that people felt that having a
regime of technocrats manage their governance for them was a
mockery of their freedom as people. And all David Cameron
could think of for the Tory Remain platform was to talk about the
financial benefits of EU membership. Not any of those values of
peace and solidarity the EU was actually founded on, no.
Mill, one of the Western tradition’s leading theorists of democracy, says we can’t actually let these idiots make the real decisions about how to run the country. A properly run, or even half-reasonably functional, government could never exist if ordinary people were in charge of crafting laws and carrying out the business of governance.

Only expertise – technocrats, essentially – can run the government well. So you might ask why you even need a parliament or representative institutions at all?

The primary role of parliament in governance, as Mill spells it out in his Representative Government essay, is to criticize the technocrats who actually run the government on behalf of the people. Setting broad priorities, making sure everyone does their jobs well.

It’s part of the theatrical function of parliaments too. Their debates and arguments articulate the ideological divisions of the wider population. Parliamentarians play those arguments out in a straightforward way – actually arguing face to face with each other. It stands in for* the genuinely messy, potentially much more violent ideological collisions in the chaos of daily life in wider society.

* And maybe sublimates if you want to risk getting a little creepy about it.

A philosophical argument among parties in a parliament works its society through that conflict of ideas without anyone having to get shot over it. Providing anyone listens, of course.

Yet it seems remarkable to me that democracy and freedom would be such a foundational value for the originator of the modern liberal tradition, and he denigrates the real power of ordinary people to govern their society effectively. The two would make a contradiction.

I always find it curious when I see a moment in a great liberal democratic political philosopher that expresses such little faith in actual people.

No comments:

Post a Comment