Opinion: Daily Journal

Our so-called ‘expertise’ can sometimes be enshrined in law

I read an interesting story the other day. Colorado anesthesiologist Tim Farnum wants his state to prohibit retailers from selling smartphones for use by anyone younger than 13. After noticing his children became “moody” and “withdrawn” when on the devices, Farnum created a group called Parents Against Underage Smartphones to push for reform. He requires about 100,000 signatures to get a proposed referendum on the state’s ballot for 2018.

It’s easy to understand why Farnum feels this way. I’ve seen my kids turn into zombies after about 15 minutes with my phone. It’s also true, as he points out, that we prevent children from consuming alcohol and tobacco and subject adults who facilitate underage drinking and smoking to harsh penalties. We can all see significant problems in the execution of Farnum’s proposal and many of us might question why the poor smartphone has been singled out. What about the brain-numbing properties of the 65-inch TV? Still, Farnum’s motive is to protect the wellbeing of children and cannot be faulted.

Farnum calls himself “fairly libertarian” and usually opposes the state’s intervention into matters like kids’ smartphone use. But as a doctor and, with five children, a “professional” father, he knows a lot about this issue. This provides him with a level of personal conviction and credibility with others. It also gives him an air of moral superiority.

For me it’s his tone that rankles. And it’s a tone we hear a lot today. America is increasingly becoming a kind of technocracy, a society in which experts in narrowly-defined fields drive policymaking and decisions are based upon scientific knowledge so complex it defies proper review. This is at odds with our republican system of broad participation, deliberation, and accountability.

Perhaps I am being a little harsh. Farnum is working to get the proposal turned into law through the political process — by requesting the state legislature put it to a referendum. I also don’t have a problem with people working in their own self-interest. In fact, I happen to think like our founders, that it’s simply human to be motivated principally by one’s own preferences.  Our positions on issues will naturally be shaped by personal experience.

We also need expertise. People with specific information and technical skills should occupy designated positions in government. We need lawyers in the Department of Justice and economists at Treasury. I tend to think informed generalists often serve the public better because they are more capable of understanding the commonalities across issues, integrating the views of diverse interests, and applying basic philosophical principles, but so long as experts are deployed in an advisory capacity they can generate a great deal of value.

It’s when experts act as though they have formal authority to make decisions on behalf of the public that our system is undermined and a technocracy emerges. Energized by a moralistic zeal, many experts believe their views are self-evidently superior to others. Any attempt by policymakers to check them constitutes a denial of the truth and is met with accusations of ignorance.

School administrators may know the optimal approach to children’s education, but they should remember it’s parents who must assess it against familial interests and their kids’ futures.  Environmental scientists can quantify the effect of auto emissions, but the American people pay the costs of ameliorating them. Perhaps because they are so narrowly trained or repeatedly told how wonderful they are, today’s experts seem incapable of placing their views in broader social, economic, and moral perspective.

We have become so enamored by expertise that it is sometimes enshrined into law, particularly at the state and local level. In many cases only the views of certified engineers are allowed to direct land-use and planning decisions. North Carolina forces school district superintendents, who do make policy affecting the education of over 1.5 million children, to have certain qualifications and specific administrative experience.

It could get worse. There are some who seem to advocate an “emotocracy.” This is where policy is made by decision makers selected not through some democratic process or because of what they know, but for the intensity of their feelings. Just one example: On college campuses speech codes are often written to reflect the interests of the most sensitive.

I might worry too much. After all, to some extent the energy that took Donald Trump to the White House last year was built upon the kind of skepticism for technocracy I’m advocating. Regardless, we should continue to nurture yet constrain expertise. At its best it informs democratic and deliberative political processes. At its worst it enables dictatorship by scientists, professionals, and engineers who adamantly believe they, and they alone, know what is best for the rest of us. People like Tim Farnum, regardless of their intentions, often need to be checked.

Andy Taylor is professor of political science at the School of International and Public Affairs at N.C. State University. He does not speak for the university.



  • ProudlyUnaffiliated

    Parents who get a kid under 13 yo a smart phone need to have their heads examined. The phone is certainly smarter than they are.