Year ago, a neighbor was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. A cancer diagnosis is always worrisome but pancreatic is particularly threatening. They were about to start him on a regimen of particularly toxic chemotherapy, but he decided to get a second opinion at another hospital in a distant city. It fortunately turned out to be just a serious infection treated with strong antibiotics over several days. He listened to experts, but he also got a second opinion. He lived to survive a plane crash and passed away last year almost 90 years old.

We rely on experts, but we need to understand their limits. Progressivism grew from an intellectual school that believed that the scientific certainty applied to our understanding of the natural world could be applied to our understanding of humanity. Sociology, history, and politics could be understood with the same forces of reason used to unlock the secrets of math, physics, and astronomy. With this scientific understanding the knowledgeable could predict the course of history to which man is only a pawn. Only the ignorant would trust the future which can be known to qualified experts to the whims of uninformed voters and uncontrollable markets. The threat of this social scientific outlook is to deprive man of his basic freedom of choice to make his own future.

At its worse this delusional certainty led to the abattoirs of Europe in the 20th century. Socialism, communism and fascism all grew from the waters of historicism that the future was a determined path that required compliance over choice. Tempered by the constraints of our constitution and our cultural skepticism of authority, the fundamental assumptions of this school of thought still dominated progressive thought in this country and led to a new faith in government and a worship of expertise in all areas of government.

Division of labor was a great advance in our economic system, and this is predicated on the co-ordination of specialists and experts in a market economy. Experts compete to provide you with critical parts or critical advice and services. This provides alternatives, new ideas, and improvements that often come from the least expected corners of our economy.

When we rely on expertise in government, we forfeit the competition of experts. Worse, the government expert is subject to a narrow set of qualifications rather than the broad criteria a varied market would demand. The lack of competition means new ideas and progress are restrained, and their expertise is tempered with political considerations. Expertise in the social and human realm is based on the scientific certainty applied to realms where it does not apply, leaving us with a false confidence in government institutions to solve our critical problems.

In a complex society we must depend on experts; but we also depend on the proper functions of markets where experts compete. The problem is not lack of respect for expertise, but the understanding of the proper role of experts, and the false confidence in expertise in areas of our existence that defy expertise. Scientific reasoning does not apply to areas of humanity that requires moral judgment and social and economic tradeoffs, where there is not a single absolute truth to be unveiled. Without a competition of ideas, progress and improvement are stifled.

We live in a dynamic complex world that depends on trusting educated experts. We also live in a society of choice and judgment and depend on the availability of second opinions.

PS 05 09

The Fallen State of Experts