Servant or partner? The role of expertise & knowledge in democracy


EXCERPT: . . . We desire expert input into democratic deliberation and decision-making, but not so much as to dominate the discussion. As a result, most of us are tempted by the quest for a Goldilocks principle that establishes “just enough” expertise. But it can be unclear whether the servant or the partner role offers the best chance of achieving that Goldilocks principle. In our populist times, many are attracted to the servant role because it promises to keep a kind of watertight compartmentalisation between expertise and democracy, and thus safeguard democracy from technocracy. But I suggest only the partner role truly works to attain a serviceable Goldilocks principle of “just enough” expertise.

[...] One reason we all struggle to know how much is “just enough” expertise is that none of us is perfect. We tend to move from loathing to liking experts through the middle ground of admiring technical skill but not social application. Consider three stories about expertise in democracy that illustrate this ambivalence. [...] What we have in these stories is nothing new. Plato suggested we leave complex things to experts and Aristotle suggested we leave them to the people. That tension has carried through to debates about whether knowledge professions are sources for the common good or for monopoly power. Most of us intuitively grasp that experts might be dangerous because of the same autonomy that conditions their utility.


[...] If experts can be dangerous, we have good reasons for limiting their role in democracy, and none of those reasons rely on worrying that science cannot “know reality” with absolute certainty.

The first reason is because of the threat of the “scientisation” of politics. Too much expert input can narrow the scope of democratic discussion, because scientific analysis and technical planning take prominence in setting agendas and determining social choices. By this model, our mechanisms of political decision-making become mere agents of a scientific intelligentsia.

The second reason is that experts can endanger democratic civility because of information asymmetry. Experts can persuade other experts and non-experts. But non-experts struggle to persuade experts, leaving ordinary citizens susceptible to being the losers in the game of scientising politics.

The third reason is that experts disproportionately define what counts as reality for political purposes. Examples include the nature of hazards, the capacity of machines, and the relevant consensus about a technical question upon which political discussion might be grounded. This expert influence over “the real” is a source of power in democracies, and all power should be held accountable.

Unfortunately, it is just a short hop from there to a more radical and populist position. The radicalism relies on the insinuation that experts and citizens represent poles of a spectrum from technical to sociocultural reasoning. Experts are painted as limited to an abstract and impersonal kind of reasoning. In contrast, ordinary citizens are pictured as capable of much more communally sensitive reasoning – something that is better equipped to handle uncertainty, the unanticipated and value judgements. Experts are thus treated as a kind of class prone to infect any communicative exchange into which they enter, with their supposed dogmatism making experts like a disease of the body politic.

[...Populism is anti-elitist, anti-pluralist and appeals to the general will of the people. It is also a thin-centred ideology that inserts itself into more specific policy proposals. Anti-pluralism refers here to a strong challenge to the legitimacy of independent institutions within democracy...]


Conceptions of a servant role for experts thus threaten to devolve into populism – if experts are treated as an infectious class, and/or the populist’s anti-pluralism is implicitly replicated, and if a reduction of democracy to just “opening up” also hitches along for the ride. if we are to treat experts as partners in democracy, we must of course avoid devolving into technocracy. [...] The risks of the scientisation of politics, and the incivility lurking in the information asymmetry between experts and citizens, must be always born in mind. But a partner role for experts differs from a servant role for experts in four crucial ways.

One, a partner role for experts explicitly resists the insinuation that experts are a dogmatic class [...] Failure to resist that insinuation is the path to populism.

Two, experts as partners commits us to thinking through the positive functions that expertise plays in democracy. [...]

Three, partner conceptions of expertise explicitly deny that authority relations trade-off against citizen autonomy. [...]

Fourth, whereas the servant role for experts is extremely anxious about the way authority relations can impact citizen autonomy (and thus hopes for some kind of watertight compartmentalisation between experts and citizens), the partner model adopts a complacent attitude. [...]


RELATED: The Death of Expertiese, by Tom Nichols
First, what is so wrong about populism in a democracy? Being largely comprised of ordinary people, why shouldn't their voices take some degree of precedence in their own governance? It seems that anything actively seeking to stifle ordinary voices is also seeking to stifle democracy. Replace it with a plutocracy or oligarchy of the elite, of one fashion or another.

Second, people who claim others are "climate deniers", or otherwise seek to use science as a cudgel in politics, are the ones who disenchant people with "experts". All the damage done to the regard and respect of experts has been largely self-inflicted.
"The populist surge features strident rhetoric and emotional appeals by charismatic leaders. But populism is more than this. Even if it lacks the kind of theories or canonical texts that defined the great isms of the 20th century, it has a coherent philosophical structure.

Populism accepts the principles of popular sovereignty and majoritarian democracy. But it is skeptical about constitutionalism inasmuch as formal, bounded institutions and procedures impede majorities from working their will. It takes an even dimmer view of liberal protections for individuals and minority groups. While liberal democrats typically understand “we the people” in civic terms—fellow citizens regardless of religion, customs, race, ethnicity and national origin—populists distinguish between “real” people and others, often on ethnic and religious lines, and between “the people” and the elites. “The people” have one set of interests and values; minorities and the elites that protect them have another set, fundamentally opposed. This construction is inherently divisive. Within the context of popular sovereignty, dividing a country’s citizens this way implies that some of them are enemies of the people.

The populist conception of “the people” as a homogeneous population is contrary to fact. In circumstances of even partial liberty, different social groups will have different interests, values and origins. Imposing an assumption of uniformity on the reality of diversity elevates some groups over others. No form of identity politics can serve as the basis for a modern democracy, which stands or falls with the protection of pluralism.

The presumption that “the people” have a monopoly on virtue also undermines democratic practice. Decision-making in circumstances of diversity requires compromise, which is hard to achieve if one side believes the other is evil or illegitimate.

Populism requires constant combat with these enemies and endless struggle against the forces they represent. It plunges democratic societies into an endless series of moralized zero-sum conflicts; threatens the rights of minorities; and enables strong leaders to dismantle the safeguards that keep society off the road to autocracy.

Defenders of liberal democracy must respond when populists move to undermine freedom of the press, weaken constitutional courts, concentrate power in the executive, or marginalize groups of citizens based on ethnicity, religion or national origin."---

Possibly Related Threads…
Thread Author Replies Views Last Post
  Proposal: It's time to reboot the relationship between expertise & democracy C C 5 859 Jun 18, 2017 04:50 PM
Last Post: Secular Sanity

Users browsing this thread: 1 Guest(s)