The ‘cult of experts’

Last month, David Brooks offered a compelling indictment against the Republican Party’s far-right factions, noting among other things that members of the GOP’s right wing “do not accept the legitimacy of scholars and intellectual authorities.”

This week, Jonah Goldberg seems to concede the point, arguing in his LA Times column that the legitimacy of scholars and intellectual authorities — he calls them “the cult of experts” — shouldn’t be accepted.

Goldberg’s piece meanders a bit, but the crux of the argument seems to be that experts in many fields — including politics, economics, and climate — are “very, very bad at telling people what will happen tomorrow, let alone next year or the next century.” The left, Goldberg argues, is especially misguided since liberals and Democrats are the ones who care so much about expertise.

The cult of experts has acolytes in all ideological camps, but its most institutionalized following is on the left. The left needs to believe in the authority of experts because without that authority, almost no economic intervention can be justified. If you concede that you have no idea whether your remedy will work, it’s going to be hard to sell it to the patient. Market-based ideologies don’t have that problem because markets expect events in ways experts never can.

No president since Woodrow Wilson or Franklin Roosevelt has been more enamored with the cult of expertise than Obama.

I’ve read the column a couple of times, trying to fully appreciate the underlying point, but it eludes me.

Apparently, the left believes there are experts in various fields, whose knowledge and proficiency with the details of different issues makes their judgment worthwhile. When making decisions about important policy challenges, the left is inclined to call upon those with an extensive background with the subject matter, who presumably know what they’re talking about.

This is not to say the experts’ judgment is always impeccable or that their track record is flawless, but it makes sense to go with the best available information, research, scholarship, historical evidence, and common sense. This is especially true in economics, where there are fairly reliable models and projections about the impact of various policies, and plenty of economists with track records of success.

This is how the presentation of new ideas is generally supposed to work — someone presents a solution to a problem, they try to bolster their argument with credible expertise, and they encourage policymakers to adopt their idea.

Goldberg seems to believe that this is all wrong, because sometimes, experts are wrong.

I’ll gladly concede the point that scholars and specialists can make mistakes, but the alternative is unclear. Goldberg has no use for the “cult of experts,” but he prefers what, exactly? Wild guesses? Dartboards? The free hand of unregulated markets, regardless of consequences?