Not-So-Expert Government

Washington Post columnist Neil Irwin celebrates, kind of, the rise of independent experts over elected politicians. It’s happening all over the world, he writes. In the United States, an Independent Payment Advisory Board (IPAB) will decide how to keep Obamacare spending under control, and a global warming policy empire is being stick-built, one rulemaking at a time, by the EPA. Congress is awol. Irwin’s chief example, predictably, is the rise of central banks, here and in Europe, as central decision-makers in the 2008 crisis and ever since. Irwin isn’t terribly fond of the trend, but despairs of political institutions and their ability to act. “When the world is on the brink,” he concludes, “decisive problem-solving trumps the niceties of democratic process. I won’t like it much—but I’ll take it.”

Let the record reflect that I, too, prefer expert interventions—however dubious—to global annihilation. Beyond that, though, I’m rather more skeptical of the experts’ record. I’m not at all sure Irwin has the analysis right, and I suspect that his expert heroes may be in for a crash landing.

Way back in the 1960s, the “experts” (along with every other major institution) lost their credibility for well-rehearsed, public choice-ish reasons: they were “captured” by regulated industries; maximized their budgets rather than public benefits; hankered for post-government employment, etc. That critique has lost of a lot of its oomph. We quickly concluded that we need the experts for the things that democratic institutions (especially parties and parliaments) are bad at: values and stability. What we did, then, was to reform expert institutions: insulate them against “capture,” subject them to publicity and “reasoned deliberation” requirements, and above all give them better tools: cost-benefit analysis. Really nifty macro-economic models. And now, behavioral economics!

How is this working out? Not so well, in my judgment—not for the pubchoice reasons of old, but for more Hayekean reasons.

For starters, it’s obvious that the experts don’t have a clue. The Fed’s pronouncements anno 2007, to the effect that everything was firmly in hand, are the stuff of legend, and its models have proven lamentably inaccurate in predicting even short-term economic performance. As for the experts’ climate change models about the planet’s behavior a century hence, right.

Even so, expert government proceeds on an implied premise of omniscience. The intergovernmental committee that decides, under and pursuant to the Endangered Species Act, whether the One-Eyed Toad shall live or die is called, only semi-ironically, the “God Squad.” (That would have been a terrific title for IPAB, but it’s already taken.) The squad’s reasoned decision-making is one step up from shooting dice. We can live with that, even if the toad cannot. However, expert ignorance increases with the scale, scope, and complexity of the experts’ mandate; and when we’re taking about the U.S. economy or the planet, that’s biggish. Still, we’re supposed to believe that there’s nothing wrong with the attempt to predict and manage these systems—nothing, that is, that can’t be fixed by an econometrician in the Fed’s basement or perhaps the Mann Brothers’ Earth Band (Michael with the hockey stick and Manfred with the keyboards).

Hard to say, from where I sit, what’s worse: the dark suspicion that the experts may actually believe their own models, or the fact that they’re putting on a game face in public and, in so doing, impede a serious discussion over what the institutions can and cannot do.

Nothing to worry about on that score, says Irwin: “The technocrats can make complex decisions quickly, quietly and efficiently.” Hm. Like they did in the European financial crisis, now in its glorious fourth or fifth year, with no end in sight? Its (for now) latest installment, the Cyprus “crisis,” was predictable; predicted for over a year; and teensy in scale. What does it say about the capacity of expert institutions that even that sort of thing can’t be handled without global fuss and agony?

(No, this does not have to do with global connectedness, complexity, or some other Tom Friedman trope. GM is a complex, worldwide enterprise; it doesn’t go into full-scale crisis mode over a failed dealership in Dubuque. It’s the institutions.)

Final and to my mind crucial point: I’m not at all sure Irwin’s dichotomy between democratic and expert institutions captures what’s going on. It’s true that parliaments around the globe have dithered and lost or surrendered authority. But power hasn’t migrated exclusively or even primarily to independent expert bodies; it has also migrated to executive bodies. (See, again, Chris DeMuth’s essay on that topic.) While it’s hard to tell which of these tendencies is dominant, the most salient fact is that independent and executive agencies are now joined at the hip. The experts remain independent in the sense of being unelected. But the age of politically independent institutions is over: they’ve long inherited the political instabilities that they are supposed to contain and have become political players and partners. Bailouts, the business cycle, financial regulation, structural reforms of entire countries, the control of rising health care costs and sea levels—all these are (or will be) joint executive-“independent” undertakings.

The world is a bit more democratic, and quite a bit less technocratic, than Neil Irwin makes it out to be. Whether that’s a reason for confidence is a different matter.

Michael S. Greve

Michael S. Greve is a professor at George Mason University School of Law. From 2000 to August, 2012, Professor Greve was the John G. Searle Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, where he remains a visiting scholar. His most recent book is The Upside-Down Constitution (Harvard University Press, 2012).

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  1. Choey says

    It appears that 0bama’s choices rest more on their political loyalty to 0bama than technical competence.

  2. says

    Power–and far too much of it–has also migrated advocacy groups (NGOs in UN-speak) such as the environmentalists. It’s not just experts who’ll be deciding the fate of that One-Eyed Toad. Its a Sierra Club with members who live far from the toad’s habitat and thus aren’t impacted by ‘save the toad’ policies.

    And there’s a lot of hypocrisy in the movement. While in grad school, I worked doing maintenance in an office building in an upscale Dallas neighborhood. The owners lived in the building and one evening the family matriarch caught me glancing through a magazine article about the Sierra Club’s efforts to save a small island off the SE US that’d been bought by Arab developers, who wanted to build a resort there.

    The island was undeveloped and the Sierra Club wanted to keep it that way. The Arab developers, however, had made a clever move. The island’s residents were mostly impoverished descendants of former indigo-growing slaves. The promise of good jobs at the resort had persuaded them to agree to the development.

    Noting what I was reading, that matriarch informed me that she and her family were heavily involved in aiding the Sierra Club in that fight. Why were they involved? We it seems they were the ones who’d owned the island and sold it to those Arab developers. Why they’d think Arabs would want to subsidize a nature preserve in the U.S., was beyond me. But I couldn’t help but note (to myself) that if this wealthy family had wanted that island to remain undeveloped, they could have donated it to a group like the Nature Conservatory rather than sold it to those Arabs for a tidy profit.

    A lot of our destructive policies are being driven by activists with feel good agendas that cost them little or nothing. And that’s distorting our politics as badly as the experts and the politicians.

    –Michael W. Perry, author of Chesterton on War and Peace

  3. Rick Caird says

    Experts inevitably turn out to be not so expert. However, when the “expert” course is taken and fails, it is never the experts fault (for some reason.). As far as I can tell, none of the experts who assured us the housing crisis was contained ever suffered any consequences from that error.

  4. Finrod says

    The problem with ‘expert institutions’ is the same problem with nearly every organized group on the planet: they fall to Pournelle’s Iron Law of Bureaucracy:

    Pournelle’s Iron Law of Bureaucracy states that in any bureaucratic organization there will be two kinds of people: those who work to further the actual goals of the organization, and those who work for the organization itself. Examples in education would be teachers who work and sacrifice to teach children, vs. union representative who work to protect any teacher including the most incompetent. The Iron Law states that in all cases, the second type of person will always gain control of the organization, and will always write the rules under which the organization functions.

  5. Mike Mahoney says

    It is stasis versus dynamism with expets and their models necessarily reliant on the former in a world run exclusively in the latter. People will always wiggle out of their pigeon holes to fly free, given half the chance.

  6. says

    And just how do you determine who is an “expert?” The right degree from the right school? Wrote the right op-eds? Agrees with you? The “experts” that Obama has nominated to cabinet positions are not those who I would call expert in much of anything, and the vast majority are pretty darn frightening. Real expertise does not necessarily advance to the pinnacle of an organization. The bigger the bureaucracy, the harder it is to recognize expertise.

    Many experts become so narrow in pursuit of their position that they are ignorant of that which is outside their area of focus. Oddly enough, it is freedom from regulation and individual freedom that produces true expertise. The cream rises to the top. Natural leaders emerge, knowledge and skill becomes apparent, free people pick their own leaders. The controllers are seldom expert, and free people select their own leaders. Freedom to strive and freedom to fail produce real experts.

  7. R Richard Schweitzer says

    In the United States, and largely so elsewhere that pretends to “representative” government through legislators, those legislators no longer have principal functions as representation of principles and interests, they have become the public delegates for the selection of managers. In some degree, the legislators themselves have morphed into managerial characteristics.

    As the functions of governments have expanded exponentially through legislative actions, the capacities of legislators to control those functions effectively have required delegations to managers. Thus, the Administrative State.

    In the United States, we no longer elect representatives, we elect delegates to designate managers.


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