There has been much talk about experts of late – ’round about the time the very inexpert (in politics, at least) Donald Trump came along, all of a sudden, our experts were full of worry that we yokels were not paying sufficient attention to the experts. I’ve written on this before, but I want to quote a longish passage from one of the works of Chesterton – who lived at the dawn of the Age of Experts:
Now the peculiar peril of our time, which I call for argument’s sake Imperialism or Caesarism, is the complete eclipse of comradeship and equality by specialism and domination.
There are only two kinds of social structure conceivable — personal government and impersonal government. If my anarchic friends will not have rules — they will have rulers. Preferring personal government, with its tact and flexibility, is called Royalism. Preferring impersonal government, with its dogmas and definitions, is called Republicanism. Objecting broadmindedly both to kings and creeds is called Bosh; at least, I know no more philosophic word for it. You can be guided by the shrewdness or presence of mind of one ruler, or by the equality and ascertained justice of one rule; but you must have one or the other, or you are not a nation, but a nasty mess. Now men in their aspect of equality and debate adore the idea of rules; they develop and complicate them greatly to excess. A man finds far more regulations and definitions in his club, where there are rules, than in his home, where there is a ruler. A deliberate assembly, the House of Commons, for instance, carries this mummery to the point of a methodical madness. The whole system is stiff with rigid unreason; like the Royal Court in Lewis Carroll. You would think the Speaker would speak; therefore he is mostly silent. You would think a man would take off his hat to stop and put it on to go away; therefore he takes off his hat to walk out and puts it on to stop in. Names are forbidden, and a man must call his own father “my right honorable friend the member for West Birmingham.” These are, perhaps, fantasies of decay: but fundamentally they answer a masculine appetite. Men feel that rules, even if irrational, are universal; men feel that law is equal, even when it is not equitable. There is a wild fairness in the thing—as there is in tossing up.
Again, it is gravely unfortunate that when critics do attack such cases as the Commons it is always on the points (perhaps the few points) where the Commons are right. They denounce the House as the Talking-Shop, and complain that it wastes time in wordy mazes. Now this is just one respect in which the Commons are actually like the Common People. If they love leisure and long debate, it is because all men love it; that they really represent England. There the Parliament does approach to the virile virtues of the pothouse.
The real truth is that adumbrated in the introductory section when we spoke of the sense of home and property, as now we speak of the sense of counsel and community. All men do naturally love the idea of leisure, laughter, loud and equal argument; but there stands a specter in our hall. We are conscious of the towering modern challenge that is called specialism or cut-throat competition — Business. Business will have nothing to do with leisure; business will have no truck with comradeship; business will pretend to no patience with all the legal fictions and fantastic handicaps by which comradeship protects its egalitarian ideal. The modern millionaire, when engaged in the agreeable and typical task of sacking his own father, will certainly not refer to him as the right honorable clerk from the Laburnum Road, Brixton. Therefore there has arisen in modern life a literary fashion devoting itself to the romance of business, to great demigods of greed and to fairyland of finance. This popular philosophy is utterly despotic and anti-democratic; this fashion is the flower of that Caesarism against which I am concerned to protest. The ideal millionaire is strong in the possession of a brain of steel. The fact that the real millionaire is rather more often strong in the possession of a head of wood, does not alter the spirit and trend of the idolatry. The essential argument is “Specialists must be despots; men must be specialists. You cannot have equality in a soap factory; so you cannot have it anywhere. You cannot have comradeship in a wheat corner; so you cannot have it at all. We must have commercial civilization; therefore we must destroy democracy.” I know that plutocrats have seldom sufficient fancy to soar to such examples as soap or wheat. They generally confine themselves, with fine freshness of mind, to a comparison between the state and a ship. One anti-democratic writer remarked that he would not like to sail in a vessel in which the cabin-boy had an equal vote with the captain. It might easily be urged in answer that many a ship (the Victoria, for instance) was sunk because an admiral gave an order which a cabin-boy could see was wrong. But this is a debating reply; the essential fallacy is both deeper and simpler. The elementary fact is that we were all born in a state; we were not all born on a ship; like some of our great British bankers. A ship still remains a specialist experiment, like a diving-bell or a flying ship: in such peculiar perils the need for promptitude constitutes the need for autocracy. But we live and die in the vessel of the state; and if we cannot find freedom, camaraderie and the popular element in the state, we cannot find it at all. And the modern doctrine of commercial despotism means that we shall not find it at all. Our specialist trades in their highly civilized state cannot (it says) be run without the whole brutal business of bossing and sacking, “too old at forty” and all the rest of the filth. And they must be run, and therefore we call on Caesar. Nobody but the Superman could descend to do such dirty work.
Now (to reiterate my title) this is what is wrong. This is the huge modern heresy of altering the human soul to fit its conditions, instead of altering human conditions to fit the human soul. If soap boiling is really inconsistent with brotherhood, so much the worst for soap-boiling, not for brotherhood. If civilization really cannot get on with democracy, so much the worse for civilization, not for democracy. Certainly, it would be far better to go back to village communes, if they really are communes. Certainly, it would be better to do without soap rather than to do without society. Certainly, we would sacrifice all our wires, wheels, systems, specialties, physical science and frenzied finance for one half-hour of happiness such as has often come to us with comrades in a common tavern. I do not say the sacrifice will be necessary; I only say it will be easy.
Chesterton was writing before the experts left the factory and office and ensconced themselves in the government bureaucracy – but it is all the same. We must be bossed because in order to get things done properly: we idiots must be compelled to do it. And no debate! No long-winded speeches and objections from people who, at all events, don’t know what they’re talking about. We don’t really need elections and then debates in Congress – we really just need a President with a Pen and a Phone; a bureaucracy which will make up the rules as it goes along; a Supreme Court which will merely ratify what the experts decree.
The experts, of course, would have a case if they at least got things right from time to time. But, they hardly ever do – and when they do strike gold, it is more explained by happenstance than design. The reason for this is that the experts are still, well, human beings. In the aggregate, no smarter than anyone else out there. The chance that a CEO, General or President will be a genius is as small as the chance that any given musician will be a Mozart – almost zero chance, that is. Geniuses do come along; no one knows why nor can anyone predict where or when. When they come, the can shake up society in astonishing ways – some times in quite alarming ways. But you can’t take it into account – it’ll happen when it happens, and all anyone can do when confronted with a genius is deal with it. But almost all people at almost all times are not geniuses. And in this fact is why, on the whole, experts are the worst possible people to have in charge – once they self-select themselves and isolate themselves from the currents of society they lack sufficient input to arrive at valid decisions.
As long-time readers know, I have a fund of knowledge about history. What I’ll say now – and I really don’t like saying it, because it smacks of bragging – is that my knowledge of history runs to the encyclopedic. Something made me pick up one of my father’s books of history around about 1975 and I simply never stopped reading. So, I am an expert, as it were, in history – and thus pretty up on what people do and why they do it. But I’ve also got an advantage that more recognized experts don’t have: lacking credentials, I have nothing to fret about on the score of ability and I am also quite comfortable in talking about things, even deep things, with people who simply lack the knowledge I have. I can’t begin to count the times I’ve been caught short by the opinions of the ignorant – how something they will say or some point of view they have will shake the vision I have and bring it into great clarity…or even lead me down paths I never suspected. That is what the loud and unruly debate of a vigorous democratic Republic is for – to bring to light things we might not have considered. You simply cannot run a society unless everyone has their loud and boorish say. Unless the idiots, that is, are deeply involved in the creation of policy, the policies will certainly fail.
Had we been engaged in a genuine give-and-take debate among all the citizens, we simply would not have done some of the bone-headed things we’ve done. Take, for instance, Vietnam – a full airing of what was going on and what was proposed would have certainly run to the creation of a better policy regarding that. I know this because it certainly couldn’t have run to a worse policy. Take any political problem you like and run it through your mind – think what would have happened had there been a real debate, rather than decrees from on high. When did we have the debate about how many people should move here? When did we have the debate about what public education should be like? Where was the endless, contentious discussion about what trade policy is best with China? There has been no real debate – things are worked out by the experts and they present their findings to us, and demand we just go along…and subtly (and, these days, less and less subtly) call us wicked morons if we dissent from their shiny, new policy proposal.
It all comes down to what you want. If you want a tyranny which will decree, then advocate for that. But if you want freedom, then you can only have it when it is brash, loud, ugly and messy. The idiots must be in charge, or you simply won’t have a Republic.