As the coronavirus spreads, advice from public authorities continues to change. But one admonition remains constant. No matter what, we are told to “trust the experts”. At the March Democratic debate, Joe Biden promised that he, unlike Donald Trump, would “listen to the experts” and “listen to science again”. Lindsey Graham (pictured) said that any lifting of the lockdown needed to be “scientifically blessed by the experts”.
Medical knowledge is of course required to battle the virus. But the experts that we are told to trust claim a much broader expertise. They aspire to manage public opinion. They seek to suppress dissent by presenting contestable political conclusions as incontrovertible deliverances of science.
For instance, the Center for Disease Control and World Health Organisation have said that masks are not effective in stopping the disease. But this is, at best, a dubious claim. It appears to be aimed at the management of behaviour (preventing mask shortages) rather than the promotion of medical truth.
For more than 100 years, a professional managerial class has been gaining power in American society. These people, sometimes described as “the new class”, have a different claim to rule than older authorities. Instead of basing their claim to legitimacy on title, property, athletic prowess, military service or religious ordination, they stake it on their possession of technical, bureaucratic and scientific mastery of human affairs.
Elites often justify their power by tying themselves to religious authority, national loyalty, and a heroic past. The members of the professional/managerial class are different. They exalt private judgment over religious authority, cosmopolitanism over loyalty, and a gleaming future over a purportedly benighted past. They attack competing elites’ sources of legitimacy – such as religious institutions or the ethnic political machines that once flourished in American cities – as backward, bigoted, unscientific and undemocratic. The experts, by contrast, are unbiased arbiters of public disputes, guided by fact and reason.
The claims of this class have power because true scientific expertise really has led to marvels. But social science is less rigorous than physics. People are less predictable than gravity.
Our elite’s pretensions to scientific expertise lack basis in reality. Their appeals to “science” perform the same role as used to be filled by the idea of the divine right of kings. It serves to justify the existing regime. In confronting coronavirus, our actions should be guided by sound medical advice. But we should not merely submit to the new elites.
Like “believe the children” or “believe all women”, “trust the experts” obscures the fact that the class it names is not monolithic. Experts often disagree. Even when they agree, their advice can only inform, and never determine, our decisions. Political actors will still have to decide what they most value, what they must save and what they can sacrifice.
Popular mistrust of experts is to a great degree justified. Robert McNamara’s “whizkids”, brought from the corporate world into the Department of Defense, failed to deliver success in Vietnam. Foreign policy experts with impressive posts at various centre-right and centre-left institutes have united in support of interventions that now appear to be misguided. This is why it is so disastrous to frame sound medical advice as a matter of trusting the experts. It is bound to make people resist.
Unless our experts can govern more competently, they will eventually be swept away. In the late 11th century, Muhammad al-Mu’tamid, last of the Abbadids, realised he could no longer defend the Muslim holdings in the Iberian Peninsula. He decided to yield power to his internal opponents, the rough, religious, nomadic, and militant Moravids of northern Africa. “I have no desire to be branded by my descendants as the man who delivered al-Andalus as prey to the infidels,” he wrote. “And, for my part, I would rather be a camel-driver in Africa than a swineherd in Castile.”
Would our elites ever say the same? Would they be willing to yield to their political rivals rather than suffer defeat at the hands of foreign powers? Perhaps so. But recent events are not encouraging. Rather than acknowledge the American people’s desire for a new foreign policy, they concocted an implausible story of foreign intrigue in order to oust Donald Trump. For many Americans, these people are the faces of “expertise”.