Should We Rely on Good Sense or Expertise?

In public discussion today, expertise has acquired the authority once held by good sense.

The change reflects a change in attitudes toward society and politics. Educated, influential, and well-placed people now want a society run by global markets, financial institutions, and public administration based on supposedly neutral expertise. As such people’s response to Brexit shows, they believe that approach uniquely and obviously correct, so that opponents are stupid, willfully ignorant, and bigoted.

The idea is that technology—rational fitting of means to ends without much regard to history or custom—is the right approach to all practical issues. Natural and informally evolved social relations and understandings are unequal, unreliable, irrational, and oppressive. Traditional family life is sexist, traditional neighborhoods non-inclusive, traditional religion divisive and fanatical, the existence of particular peoples racist. All those things, our rulers are convinced, lead to war, poverty, and oppression, so if you want peace, prosperity, justice, and stability, you have to go with a universal scheme of social technology.

Under such conditions tradition and natural law carry no weight. Expressions like “natural” are thought deeply problematic, while “deeply rooted social stereotypes”—in other words, the views ordinary people tend to hold—are presumed destructive and wrong. So there is little use for the common sense of ordinary people, and very little public discussion of how government affects the normal course of life and the traditional and informal habits and arrangements that have always sustained it. Instead, we hear about experts, studies, interventions, pilot projects, and programs, all tending toward the destruction of whatever is traditional and informal in the name of efficiency, rationality, and equality, and all supposedly based on human rights and quantitative social science, but in fact with a large admixture of urban legends about the evils of customary arrangements and understandings.

Although such an approach has become authoritative in public life, it has a very serious problem. Technology has to do with quantity and mechanism, while human life is understood less through those things than through characteristic forms, functions, and goals. Quantitative and mechanical considerations are of course important when relevant—it matters whether there were 5 or 500 murders in Chicago last year, or whether birth control pills poison the water supply—and hard facts are often an indispensable reality check. Even so, we deal successfully with people less through quantitative social science than through good sense, experience, and recognizing what kind of situation we’re in and how it tends to work. Technological considerations are subordinate to the human element in most cases, and should never be interpreted without reference to them. Recent “nation building” efforts illustrate the point: expert consultants can retrain national security forces in accordance with international best practices all they want, but if the necessary loyalties aren’t there the effort is pointless.

Even so, it’s difficult to fight the technocratic tendency. It’s what people were taught in school, and what they read and hear about. It also suits the functioning and supports the power of bureaucratic and commercial institutions, so it has overwhelming institutional backing. To make matters worse, the issues are basic, so the relevant arguments tend to be abstract, and the ones that reflect the technological outlook are easier to understand from the standpoint of someone formed by today’s intellectual culture. Disputing such arguments is like arguing with a libertarian or a fast-talking salesman: we’re confident something has been left out, but it’s hard to say just what in a way that doesn’t invite endless predictable rejoinders (“that’s a stereotype,” “you don’t have bullet-proof studies,” etc.).

In an age of images, memes, one-liners, and Twitter, that kind of difficulty is hard to overcome. Even so, life continues to teach people effective ways of handling their own affairs that involve common-sense ways of thinking based on characteristic form and function. “Naïve” doesn’t mean “lacking in formal expertise,” but it does mean we fumble things, so we soon learn that common sense and practical experience are needed to find our way around situations and understand what’s really going on.

People have a hard time articulating such recognitions in opposition to what’s viewed as educated thought, but they respond to them when presented. So giving public discussion a better grip on reality—so that we stop, for example, thinking we will turn Syria into Minnesota by overthrowing the government and talking up democracy, or improve life for women and young people by getting rid of sex distinctions—will have to include bringing in ways of thinking that are found more in everyday life, thought, and speech than academic study. And that will involve finding better ways of presenting, articulating, and defending them.

Simple things can help. We should be cautious about changes in language, for example, especially use of technical terms and neologisms. The point of changing language is changing how things are understood, and the point of introducing new and technical expressions is to cast doubt on accustomed ways of thinking in favor of the often counterintuitive—which usually means “wrong”—views of supposed experts.

So we should say “sex” and not “gender” unless we’re talking about grammar. More generally, we need to point out the limitations of formal expertise whenever relevant. Academic thought, like academic art, has its advantages, but it doesn’t reach the highest levels and it doesn’t adapt easily to everyday practical needs. It’s produced by bureaucrats for bureaucrats, which is not the ideal setting for every kind of knowledge. Everyday life tells us that cookbooks and manuals leave out things users need to know, and the usefulness of the “rulebook slowdown” as a strike substitute shows the impossibility of turning even an industrial process into a system of formal rules.

Beyond that, we need repeatedly to point to common sense and the experience of daily life when discussing public issues. Tradition and custom are basically good things, and shouldn’t be shrugged off as “social stereotypes” that are presumptively false and oppressive. On that point we can even appeal to hipsters: traditional artisanal food with natural locally sourced ingredients is usually better. Why wouldn’t a somewhat similar principle apply in other settings? People’s minds are mostly functional—otherwise the human race would have died out long ago—so purging them of natural reactions isn’t likely to make them work better. If there’s something people always and everywhere do, it probably makes a great deal of sense, and if there are specific problems with it, a piecemeal approach will probably work better than wholesale replacement.

One point to emphasize is the lack of formal validation for the usefulness of formal expertise: studies show that studies are unreliable. Sometimes of course formal expertise is very useful. Trained engineers are needed to build jetliners, and trained doctors bring down death rates. But those benefits don’t extend very far in matters related to human relations, which after all include the whole of politics. Do teaching degrees make people better teachers? Does diversity training make people get along better? Do anger management courses actually help people manage anger better? All the additional money for schools has evidently failed to make kids smarter. Why wouldn’t apprenticeship or even the school of hard knocks work better for most practical pursuits?

There are of course limits to the usefulness of such populist arguments. A complete change of public outlook is needed, so we also need thoughtful and intelligent discussions of how good decisions are made. To that end we need to study history and literature, which is the written record of human experience. We also need to study writers like G. K. Chesterton and C. S. Lewis, who knew how to present traditional understandings to contemporaries in striking and understandable ways, and writers who deal with tradition and informal knowledge in ways that appeal to scholars, like Hayek, Oakeshott, and Edmund Burke. Those who can should try to follow in their footsteps.

How things will play out can’t be predicted. The dream of a universal techno-imperium—a sort of perfected EU writ large—will collapse at some point, though, and in the meantime our duty as citizens and Catholics is to promote something more intelligent, and more adapted to human life.

James Kalb

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James Kalb is a lawyer, independent scholar, and Catholic convert who lives in Brooklyn, New York. He is the author of The Tyranny of Liberalism: Understanding and Overcoming Administered Freedom, Inquisitorial Tolerance, and Equality by Command (ISI Books, 2008), and, most recently, Against Inclusiveness: How the Diversity Regime is Flattening America and the West and What to Do About It (Angelico Press, 2013).

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