Should Democracies Be Run By Experts?
The policy decisions taken by democratic governments to deal with the recent coronavirus pandemic as well as the rise of populist regimes across the world have raised questions about the existing lack as well as the dire need for expertise in policymaking. (Bansal 2020) As early as the 4th century BCE, Plato proposed the idea of “noocracy,” an aristocracy of the wise. In his book Republic, he prescribes that philosophers who see the sun of truth should govern the masses who live in a cave of ignorance. (Plato 189-193) He viewed politics as a ship that needs to be controlled by those who know how to. This view was further upheld by his student Aristotle who differed with him on various other subjects. (Baggini 2018) Plato’s idea of noocracy is manifest in various concepts such as epistocracy – a rule of the knowledgeable, meritocracy – a rule of the meritorious, and technocracy – a rule by technicians. In modern times, epistocracy has gotten some practical value as a form of government whose chief aim is to ensure the right decisions. Walter Lippman, in his controversial book Public Opinion, suggested that social scientists should nudge policy decisions and generate propaganda in order to consolidate public will. (Lippman 276)
Scholars ranging from classical thinkers like J.S. Mill and Max Weber to very 21st-century thinkers like Jason Brennan and Duncan J Watts have argued against democracy for its failure to promote the right decisions. (Runciman 2018) They make a case for an increased if not total control of decision-making by the ones who have the necessary expertise. For promoters of epistocracy, it is the epistemic value of the decisions taken in a system of governance that matters the most, not the process through which they are arrived at. This is in line with Jean Jacques Rousseau’s theory of correctness. (Rousseau 57) The concept of epistocracy, and thus the importance of experts in a democracy, has attained great value in recent times. This paper seeks to examine the case of an expert-run democracy closely in light of the recent rise in majoritarianism and the ‘unscientific’ decisions being taken by the Indian government and understand its relevance in the Indian context.
The Case for an Expert-Run Government
In his 2016 book Against Democracy, Jason Brennan prescribes epistocracy as an alternative to a popular government. He states that democracy is overrated and has not necessarily been any better at empowering citizens than other forms of government. (Illing 2018) Duncan J Watts, in his book, Everything is Obvious, discusses the problems democracy faces because of citizens voting on the basis of identity and misinformation. (Runciman 2018) J.S. Mill, an influential liberal thinker and defender of universal suffrage, also pointed out several problems with this. A look at Mill’s writings shows us that he moved from being a youthful defender of democracy to a more sceptical pragmatist. (Smart 1990) He did not despise democracy as a whole but pushed for an expert-led democracy that could gradually be passed down to the masses. In his book On Liberty, he emphasizes the importance of recognizing individual talent in a democracy in order to prevent majoritarian mediocrity from taking over the world. (Mill 130, 2003)
Democracy and Correctness
As mentioned earlier, Rousseau proposes a theory of ‘correctness’ by which all decisions need to be judged. For him, political decisions are only legitimate if they are correct, and the correctness of these decisions is calculated independent of the procedures used to arrive at them. To a very large extent, thinkers like J.S. Mill and Jason Brennan are inspired by Rousseau. This brings us to the concept of epistemic democracy, whose proponents opine that the epistemic value of the decisions arising out of democracy is what justifies democracy as the right form of government. Epistemic democrats position themselves in opposition to proceduralists who maintained that democratic procedures have a value of their own, irrespective of the decisions they arrive at. But they sought to build on the deliberative theory of democracy put forward by thinkers like John Rawls and Jurgen Habermas, which emphasized popular deliberation on public issues in addition to mere voting as what makes democracy legitimate. Epistemic democrats considered deliberation to be a key factor in producing the right decisions. (Schwartzberg 2015) In Considerations on Representative Government, Mill advocated for deliberation in the representative assembly as a means of expressing the variety of opinions in the nation as a whole. (Mill 283-284, 2001) Through the interactions of a variety of opinions, a suitable political decision can be manufactured.
Can Democracy Be Run By experts?
This paper argues that a democracy cannot be run by experts. The reasons for this are fourfold. Firstly, even a very basic Lincolnian definition of democracy as a rule “of the people, for the people and by the people” denotes that a democratic regime derives its legitimacy from the people and not by virtue of being more knowledgeable in political matters. The major factor that separates democracy from other forms of government is popular legitimacy. Experts do not have this popular legitimacy. While it is possible to engineer a mechanism to elect experts as representatives in a democracy, they derive their power from the fact that they won by popular vote, not because they are experts.
Secondly, even if it is permissible for experts to take the helm of democracy, determining who constitutes an expert is a task in itself. This is further complicated by the fact that the role of government is not to decide on specific technical subjects but on political matters and matters of life. Policymaking involves normative and moral questions. This makes us wonder whether there are genuine experts on normative political matters. There is no universally agreed-upon definition of expertise on political matters. Modern regimes have attempted to solve this question by creating ranks of bureaucracy to assist democratically elected leaders. Firstly, this does not qualify as an expert-run democracy because bureaucrats are mere generalists and not experts. This is very well manifest in the fact that the allotment of portfolios to bureaucrats is not done based on their prior training or experience in that field. And in democratic regimes, bureaucrats only assist political leaders.
The third reason is that decision-making by experts entails the introduction of a criterion to assess the quality of democratic decisions. Such a criterion unfairly privileges the experts who design it. The non-experts are forced to adhere to the standards set by experts. This creates an uneven playing ground for deliberation, and public deliberation is key to democratic functioning. This not only violates the tenets of democracy but also poses the danger of an aristocratic hijacking of democracy. Apart from that, this reduces the cognitive diversity within policymaking. By making it inaccessible to vast sections of the public, policymaking turns into an echo chamber of homogenous thought. This can narrow the scope of democratic discussion. This also raises the issue of information asymmetry between experts and the common population. (Samaržija 2017)
Finally, there is no solid evidence to say that an expert-run democracy is essentially good for the public. Experts identify with their own disciplines and might frame problems in a way that falls within their sphere. Experts are also individuals with self-interests and ideological commitments. This can influence their judgements. Expert decisions are not free of errors, and giving them a free hand would let these errors go unchecked. Additionally, by making policy discourse inaccessible to the common public through ‘scientization’, experts bypass democratic forms of criticism and observation. (Holst and Molander 2019) Such a mode of governance would be beneficial to the public only if under the assumption that experts are absolutely perfect in their judgements. The same way Walter Lippman says that an individual cannot make a political decision since their idea of their world is limited to their immediate surroundings. The scope of expert observation is limited to their discipline, which creates the possibility for several underrepresented groups to be excluded from decision-making. (Lippman 1922)
Experts as Partners to Democracy
Through my previous stance that experts cannot run a democracy, I am not insisting that experts be totally excluded from democratic decision-making. Darrin Durant, a shrewd researcher of science and technology studies, stresses the attainment of a Goldilocks principle of incorporating ‘just enough’ expertise in a democracy. He defines two ways in which experts can be included in democracy. The first one is by treating them as ‘servants’ to policymakers, and the second is by treating them as ‘partners.’ According to Durant, giving a ‘servant’ role to experts has the potential to devolve into populism quickly. He advocates for a ‘partner’ role. Experts need to be partners to democratically elected leaders and offer them the necessary advice. Such a partnership between leaders who represent the people and experts who represent their own disciplines can serve as a way to attain the Goldilocks principle of just the right amount of expertise in a democracy. (Durant 2018)
While this paper’s argument is against an expert-run democracy, it does not rule out the importance of expertise in decision-making. In the absence of expert controls, democracy has the potential to disintegrate into a populist regime easily. Executive bodies that are not elected, such as courts, administrative bureaucracy, law enforcement agencies and defence forces, have coexisted independently with the democratic legislature for ages. While these bodies cannot be called experts, they provide us with an idea of how experts can be incorporated into a democracy. Experts need to act as partners to democracy, as Durant suggests. A partner role for experts can actively resist the breakdown of democracy into populism. Expertise can inform deliberation and increase its quality. Expertise can also act as a negative power to countervail state, corporate or majoritarian attempts at coercive action or passive inaction. (Durant 2018)
Experts as Aristocrats
The criticism of expert involvement in democracy by proponents of proceduralism and direct democracy is based on experts not being accountable to the people. Experts are not mandated to further collective will since they are not elected by the people. This raises the question of accountability. By giving someone the helm of governance just because they are more knowledgeable than others, creates a sugarcoated aristocracy. Blood and lineage are replaced by expertise and knowledge. The privileged treatment of experts would thus seem particularly anti-democratic, being a form of favouring the elite. While, for example, affirmative action and the general privileging of the disenfranchised or the underrepresented are not considered anti-democratic, the privileging of experts can hardly be justified using democratic principles. (Samaržija 2017) This raises important questions about the legitimacy of expert rule. Experts also have a problem of not being able to translate arguments to an accessible and comprehensible format. They might take an elitist or paternalistic attitude towards the people and be unwilling to communicate with them. (Holst and Molander 2019)
Experts as Servants of the Establishment
The American political scientist Aaron Wildavsky raises an important question about the ‘loyalty’ of experts to the people. His worry is that while we can assume that experts are well-versed with decision-making, they belong to and identify with the societal elite. Experts are supposed to speak the truth to power, but their connections to the establishment (state or corporate) tend to make them more affirmative than critical of its powers. (Wildavsky 1979) This suspicion of experts is common not only among populists but also among anarchists and left-liberals. Experts being a part of the societal elite is not the only reason for this suspicion. In his book Fearless Speech, Michel Foucault points out that disseminating the truth requires utmost courage as it might involve both personal and professional risks. (Foucault 75) These risks are a way in which the establishment can consolidate its control over experts. If experts are nothing more than servants of the establishment, the epistemic justification of expertise in democracy is irrelevant.
Democratization of Expertise
The criticism of experts as a dogmatic, elitist body and as foot soldiers of the establishment ranges across the political spectrum. While some of that criticism is baseless and merely populist in nature, some of it has immense value. The answer to most of these criticisms is the ‘democratization of expertise in a way that provides it popular legitimacy, while also keeping it accountable, transparent and free from coercive controls of the establishment.
As emphasized by the British philosopher Bernard Bosanquet, the true spirit of democracy is to forbid an autocratic administration by the right person, but the expert should be an advisor rather than a dictator. (Bosanquet et al.) Over time, experts derive some legitimacy from the people through contestation and criticism. Durant says, “Citizens are not marginalizing experts when they contest and criticize their information and advice, any more than experts are marginalizing citizens when asking them to accept information or advice in a context of potential scrutiny and challenge. Both are making use of each other within the pluralized institutions of liberal democracy.” (Durant 2018) This form of interaction between experts and citizens (through elected representatives) legitimizes and solidifies the role of experts. Through two-sided ‘leakage’ of information between experts and citizens, plenty of room for mutual persuasion can be created.
A good example would be the case of Bt. brinjal in India. In 2009, the Genetic Engineering Approvals Committee of India approved the commercial release of Bt. brinjal, a genetically modified, insect-resistant variety of eggplant for cultivation in India. Following this, the then Union Minister of State for Environment Jairam Ramesh conducted public consultations in seven cities across the country, with farmers, activists, scientists and concerned citizens to deliberate on this. After these public consultations, in 2010, the Ministry for Environment imposed a moratorium on the release of Bt. brinjal citing multiple issues raised in the public consultations. (Special Correspondent) While some scientists termed this as anti-science and stated that science should not be ‘politicized’, some others appreciated the involvement of democratic procedures in scientific decision-making. (Shah 2011)
This case can be taken as an example of how expertise can be democratized. Expertise needs democracy as much as democracy needs expertise. Experts should be obligated to translate the materials they work with into a language and format accessible to the general public. Experts need to be held accountable through various democratic fora. These fora should include expert peer review, interdisciplinary review as well as public deliberation. Obligating experts to explain and justify their judgements to public fora consisting of both experts and non-experts is necessary, not only to uphold democratic procedures and accountability but also to improve the diversity and rigour involved in policymaking.
As such, democracy cannot be completely run by experts as that is in violation of the basic tenets of democracy. But it also takes a stance that democracy needs to partner up with expertise. It examines the existing arguments against experts being made a part of decision making and attempts to counter them through a process of democratization of expertise.
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