Expertise and Its Discontent
When my friends refer to me as “Doctor Warner,” I know I am in trouble. They are mocking my Ph.D. Indeed, democracies are based on the equality of citizens. Each qualified person has the same vote whether or not they have degrees in political science, listen to the news or read several newspapers a day. My friends are gently reminding me that “one man, one vote” means just that. We are all equal.
But sometimes we are not equal. I do not perform surgery or fix car engines. I may be able to give tennis lessons, but I would not be able to perform with the Swiss Romand Orchestra. I am supposed to have expertise in several fields – you don’t have to remind me that I predicted Hillary Clinton would win the presidential election – but that expertise has its limits.
In Switzerland, for example, at the cantonal and federal levels executives are not selected because of a specific expertise. Micheline Calmy-Rey was the Geneva executive responsible for the budget; later she was Swiss foreign minister. Ueli Maurer was federal councilor for defense; now he is head of the Federal Department of Finance. Public executives in Switzerland are not required to be experts in the departments or ministries they are heading.
The rise of populism has called into question the role of experts. Donald Trump was elected against the expertise of Hillary Clinton, on paper one of the candidates best prepared to be president. Trump famously declared that if elected he would not choose people with perfect résumés in his government. (The fact that he has several former Goldman Sachs executives in his government is one of the many ironies of his administration.) Trump had no prior experience in governing, unlike the popular Ronald Reagan who had been governor of California. Trump’s lack of expertise in the public sector, his anti-Washington fervor, was part of his appeal to voters.
While his lack of expertise was appealing, the inexperience of his administration in passing a healthcare bill highlights the difference between campaigning as an outsider and governing. France has a specific educational institution, the École nationale d'administration, to prepare future executive civil servants. But doesn’t Marie Le Pen’s populist following also reject the elitism of those French who have graduated from les grandes écoles?
Is the French system more democratic than the Swiss? Are you an expert on any subject? Is there something you know better than most people? Economists tell us that each individual has some comparative advantage. But does that mean that each of us is an expert? And what does it mean to be an expert? As a student once boldly questioned me: “Dr. Warner, If you are so smart, why aren’t you rich?”
To be truly democratic, one has to accept the equality of all politically. Given minimum standards, people are equal when voting. However, this does not mean that all people are equal in everything. Expertise and competence are based on merit. And that merit can be limited to a very specific area. While it may seem elitist and unfashionable to recognize expertise, it makes sense to look for expertise if one is going to be operated on or going to a concert. I may have equal rights with others to vote but that does not mean I can perform cardiac surgery or play a piano concerto.
Many years ago New York City tried an experiment. In several districts they allowed “the community” to run the schools. Expert educators were deemed incompetent. Parents and others living in the community would run the schools, selecting teachers, etc. After years of failure, the City took back running the schools. While the previous expert educators may not have been totally successful, the community-run schools were even worse.
How to be democratic while recognizing merit and competence? How to accept the Swiss system of rotating executives while not being outraged by the neurosurgeon Ben Carson’s nomination as U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, a position he admitted to being unqualified for?
Democracies are under stress. Populism has called into question what it means to be democratic. Can we be democratic while at the same time recognizing expertise? Is being an expert necessarily undemocratic? The pendulum of history swings back and forth. While Trump’s populist anti-elitist narrative won the election, he will finally be judged by his expertise in running the country. In the final analysis, expertise trumps populism.