We Americans sure do love us some experts. Utterly fixated on credentials, we believe degrees and titles confer, if not magical powers, then at least superior wisdom and intellectual capacity. We seem to forget that a credential is no guarantee of competence, much less understanding, as any business owner who has just hired a recent college graduate knows very well. We also, to our peril, ignore the fact that the experts are frequently wrong.
A greater problem, though, is that we all too often listen to the wrong experts. Yes, on balance, experts do know more about one specific subject than the rest of us and are therefore somewhat more likely (though hardly guaranteed) to be right when it comes to that specific subject. But there are experts and there are experts, and the ones with the biggest platform aren’t necessarily the ones with the most expertise.
In particular, in the age of technocracy, we have become enamored of government experts, assuming that because they work for the government — ostensibly, for the people — they must constitute the highest order of experts and have the least self-interest. Those assumptions are usually, tragically false.
Consider the health care technocracy, currently the driving force behind all our social policy. As a society, we have come to regard those government medical experts who regularly grace our TV screens as minor deities. They’re often described in glowingly hyperbolic terms, like “foremost experts” and “top doctors.” But are they really?
Do you know what government service pays? Better than most jobs, to be sure, but not as much as genuine “top doctors” can earn in private practice. Or at an elite university, where medical school professors and researchers can literally make millions. Given that reality, why would the best doctors in the country work for the government?
Also, let’s not lose sight of the fact that technocrats, for all their supposed technological expertise, are, first and foremost, bureaucrats (hence the term). And in a very real sense, bureaucrats aren’t really people—not when they speak as bureaucrats on behalf of the bureaucracy. Then they’re just members of the hive channeling the hive mind. And the hive’s first instinct is always self-preservation.
You may think the primary purpose of a bureaucracy is noted on the sign above the door: The school system exists to educate students, the DMV to issue drivers’ licenses, the CDC to control diseases, etc. Not so. The first goal of any bureaucracy is “to transmit itself unimpaired to posterity,” in Thoreau’s pithy phrase. And the first goal of any individual bureaucrat is to make sure they have a job in perpetuity. Educating students, issuing licenses, and protecting the public are important but secondary concerns for bureaucrats, including the technological kind