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Why does our expert class fear democracy?

Credit: Jack Taylor/Getty Images

Credit: Jack Taylor/Getty Images

February 21, 2019   4 mins

When Friedrich Hayek wrote The Road to Serfdom in the midst of World War II, United States government spending accounted for over 40% of the American economy, up from a mere 3% in the 1920s. Of course, there was a war on at the time. Saving the free world doesn’t come cheap.

Hayek worried that the government’s stranglehold over the economy would continue after the war, not just in the United States but throughout the Western world. To some extent, his fears were justified. But not to a very large extent. Few of us in the Western world are serfs to our governments. French farmers maybe. But then, France is where feudalism all began.

Most Western democracies have gone down a different road to serfdom, a road that led not to central planning, but toward the increasing role of experts in public policy. In the twentieth century, domain after domain of public life has slipped out of the realm of democratic governance and into the realm of expert oversight. Democracies are increasingly governed, not by the people, nor by their representatives, but by experts.

The road toward expert government has been a long time in the making. From the very birth of modern representative democracy, experts have been looking for ways to keep power away from the people. America’s favourite rap founding father, Alexander Hamilton, argued vehemently in Federalist No.68 that the President should be chosen “by men most capable of analyzing the qualities” of the candidates, so that “the office of President will never fall to the lot of any man who is not in an eminent degree endowed with the requisite qualifications.” No prizes for guessing what he would have thought of Donald Trump.

As US states quickly moved toward universal (white) male suffrage, the experts increasingly took refuge in the courts. In 1803, the United States Supreme Court unanimously asserted the power of judicial review – the principle that the courts have the final say on all actions of government. The last president to seriously challenge this was Andrew Jackson. The courts have been the experts’ favourite branch of government ever since.

The courts were just the beginning. First in 1791-1811, and then in 1816-1836, America’s expert class created an independent central bank to take the management of government finances out of the hands of the country’s elected representatives. Though the cantankerous Andrew Jackson thwarted them again, and the US didn’t get a permanent, independent central bank until the foundation of the Federal Reserve System in 1914.

Lest American readers roll their eyes at the very idea of a supreme court or central bank being subject to the political oversight of a country’s elected representatives, the Bank of England only got its political independence in 1998, and the UK didn’t get an independent Supreme Court until 2009.

In practice, the experts started assuming control in the UK much earlier, but as recently as the Black Wednesday attack on the Pound in 1992, it was the elected government, not the Bank of England, making interest rate and currency exchange policy.

The latest takeover target of the expert class is education. The United States, long the bastion of locally-elected school boards, is rapidly moving toward a national Common Core curriculum. England has had a centralised national curriculum since 1998; the other nations of the United Kingdom have since followed suit. Australia started implementing its national curriculum in 2014. The days when parents decided what their kids would learn in public schools are disappearing into folk memory.

The expert class has now taken over so many areas of public policy that we have forgotten that, at least in the Anglo-Saxon democracies, most of the policies that affect our lives used to be decided at the ballot box. The expert class have even taught us to like our collective democratic amnesia. They call it “good governance” or “professionalisation” or (if they really want to obscure things): “depoliticisation”.

In a healthy democracy, depoliticisation is a dangerous cancer. It literally means to take decisions out of the realm of politics – i.e., out of the realm of democracy. To be sure, depoliticisation may often produce better public policy. But it does so by opting for less democracy. The modern European welfare state was invented by the German “iron chancellor” Otto von Bismarck; great policy, terrible democracy.

The American newspaperman H.L. Mencken famously defined democracy as “the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard.” Mencken was no more a democrat than Bismarck or Hamilton, but he did get to the heart of the matter. Everyone wants to have a democracy where the people make good decisions. The going only gets tough when the people make bad decisions. That’s the litmus test of democracy.

Bestselling books with titles like How Democracies Die, The People vs. Democracy, Anti-Pluralism: The Populist Threat to Liberal Democracy, and (most alarming of all) Can It Happen Here? Authoritarianism in America would have us believe that the rule of the people – call it ‘majoritarian’ democracy, or ‘populism’ – is the biggest threat facing democracy today. They are confusing threats to democracy with threats to the continued dominance of the expert class. They are confusing threats to democracy with threats to themselves.

The United States just experienced the highest voter turnout ever recorded in a midterm election – American democracy is in rude health, thank you. Meanwhile British commentators, consumed with Brexit fever, seem not to have noticed that in 2017, the combined vote of the two major political parties shot up to a level not seen since Britain joined the European Economic Community (precursor to the European Union). Allowing the people a say on Brexit cleared the detritus of five decades of discontent with the creeping Brusselisation of government and restored meaning to domestic party politics.

People these days may have had quite enough of experts, to paraphrase the British MP Michael Gove, but the experts are still in power all the same. We are still traveling that particular road to serfdom, and even if we have hit a few speed bumps, we have certainly not thrown the engine into reverse.

Our democracies are still in good repair, a little better now than three years ago, but the road ahead leads in the wrong direction nonetheless. In an era when politicians of all stripes feel compelled to run on a platform of β€˜change’, we can only hope that some of them will get the message before it’s too late.

Salvatore Babones is an associate professor at the University of Sydney and the author of The New Authoritarianism: Trump, Populism, and the Tyranny of Experts.


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