Is Politics Too Important for the Politicians?

I was pleased and grateful to read this editorial in Nature in defense of National Science Foundation funding for political science. It’s frankly nice to know that someone’s got our back at a time when people want to defund political science because we’re not sufficiently scientific, or we make lousy predictions, or just ‘cuz.

But this passage left me uncomfortable:

The idea that politicians should decide what is worthy of research is perilous. The proper function of democracy is to establish impartial bodies of experts and leave it to them.

Is that really the proper function of democracy? I tend to advocate more responsibilities for elected officials, not fewer. I’d rather see elected officials in charge of things like redistricting, budgeting, nominating judges, etc., if for no other reason than that these activities give elections meaning. Voters should be able to get the government that they want — or something close to it — by voting people who believe as they do into office, and if they vote out the incumbents in favor of something different, they should get something different.

Government by “impartial bodies of experts,” conversely, is the antithesis of representative democracy. It means, in its purest form, that you’ll continue to get the same policies regardless of which party or candidate you vote for.

Now, I’ll certainly concede some roles to the impartial bodies of experts. I tend to think that the Fed being in charge of our currency is better than having Congress do that, and having special committees for things like military base closures is probably a good idea. In such situations, the potential for individual political gain causing serious problems elsewhere in the country runs pretty high.

But the NSF situation is different. Members of Congress are certainly competent to judge our work, and  defunding our research, while a bad idea for a number of reasons, is not likely to seriously harm the nation in the near future. Rep. Flake and those who supported his amendment are simply making a political judgment. If that’s a bad judgment, people should stand up and oppose it, and if that fails, they should take the struggle to the ballot box. But there’s nothing inherent in our line of work that places us beyond politics.  We elect people to make decisions about the use of our money. By all means, let’s try to influence those decisions. But let’s make sure that those decisions are made by elected officials. That is the proper function of democracy.

[Cross-posted at Mischiefs of Faction]

Seth Masket

Seth Masket is an associate professor of political science at the University of Denver.