Taking Sides on the Death of Expertise

| Wed Apr. 1, 2009 8:50 AM PDT

I've written before about the death of real expertise in Washington -- this nagging sense that if every learned person is pushing an agenda, and if every lawmaker listens exclusively to those learned persons that he or she already agrees with, policy debates will never seek out best solutions but instead necessarily devolve into partisan bickering matches. I'm not saying everyone must embrace bipartisanship and trend to the middle to find solutions that partially satisfy everyone (i.e. High Broderism). I'm saying that every once in a while, conservatives ought to be able to look at hard data and discern that what has typically been considered a Democratic policy solution to a particular problem works best to resolve that problem, and thus accept and vote for it. Liberals ought to do the same. And experts ought to be able to guide lawmakers to these conclusions, instead of always entrenching them further in their beliefs.

Now, all of that said, it is clear that Republicans have done more to bastardize the idea of expertise than Democrats. The most obvious example of this is global warming, where conservatives have spent over a decade not just ignoring a scientific consensus, but manufacturing scientific uncertainty in order to muddle public opinion on the issue. Scientific expertise -- from truly unbiased government institutions like NASA, NOAA, the EPA, etc. -- has long been ignored by a conservative movement that sees science at odds with business.

But it goes further. Conservatives have a built-in ideological reason for opposing expertise on all subjects, not just science and the environment. They fundamentally do not believe government should play an active role in Americans' lives. That has ramifications everywhere. If you believe that, you don't look for a way to manage the financial sector that protects investors, homeowners, and others who have a stake in Wall Street; you promote deregulation. You don't listen to career FDA employees who doubt the efficacy or safety of certain drugs; you push pharmaceuticals to market. And you slash budgets at places where federal employees develop expertise so that they can study the atmosphere, or keep our water clean, or prevent fraud in federal contracts and grants.

David Frum, who is emerging as the conservative movement's most prominent internal critic, understands this. A hands-off approach to government necessarily entails a denigration and depreciation of expertise. From the National Post:

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A [conservative] movement that had begun as an intellectual one now scornfully pooh-poohed the need for people in government to know anything much at all. But expertise does matter, and the neglect of expertise leads to mismanagement and failure — as we saw in Iraq, in Katrina and in the disregard of warning signals from the financial market. It was under a supposedly pro-market administration that the United States suffered the worst market failure of the post-war era, and that should have sobered us. Instead, we rallied to Sarah Palin and Joe the Plumber.

Disregarding evidence and expertise, we shrugged off warnings of environmental problems. One consequence: In 1988, the elder George Bush beat Michael Dukakis among voters with four-year degrees by 25 points. In 2008, Barack Obama won the BA and BSc vote, the first Democrat to do so since Lyndon Johnson in 1964.

Conservatives stopped taking governance seriously — and so Americans ceased to trust conservatives in government.

If Sarah Palin gets the Republican presidential nomination in 2012 or 2016 and Joe the Plumber runs for Congress, it will mark the Republican Party's final descent into anti-intellectualism. And only those who believe everyday horse sense is sufficient to run the American government -- the single largest undertaking in the history of the world -- will vote for it. I have to believe (hope?) that those people compose less than 50 percent of our voting public.

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