Decouple the language of rights from their theological foundation and rights become mere assertions.
Recently, protestors converged on state capitals inexplicably bearing, in some cases, both “Fire Fauci” signs and face masks to protect against a virus many want to fire him for allegedly exaggerating. That same weekend, Joe Biden took to Twitter and confirmed the Third Law of Political Motion: An insipid action will be met by an equally insipid and opposite reaction.
The targeting of Dr. Anthony Fauci—not on the basis that he does his job poorly, but rather because he adulates President Trump insufficiently—is politically and constitutionally problematic insofar as it classifies as heresy any expression of views in the executive branch that are independent of the person who occupies the White House. The president should supervise the executive branch, of course, but he should also have the self-confidence to encourage independence. He should show prudent deference to those agencies that do their work best when subject to general political supervision rather than political interference. Fauci has not even criticized Trump outright. He has gone well out of his way not to contradict him. But his independent thought has not always conduced to what is perceived to be Trump’s political interest.
Still, Biden’s theory on the matter is equally problematic. He tweeted it on April 19: “No President can promise to prevent future outbreaks. But I can promise you that when I’m President, we will prepare better, respond better, and recover better. We’ll listen to the experts and heed their advice. And I will always tell you the truth.”
To be sure, the modesty of the first sentence—presidents are leaders of the executive branch, not faith healers—is admirable. The second sentence is controvertible but, within the bounds of campaign promises, unobjectionable. As for the fourth sentence, no prudent politician any more than any sensible spouse “always” tells the literal truth, but fine. In pandemics, they should come close.
The problem lies with the third claim: “We’ll listen to the experts and heed their advice.” Listening to experts is often advisable. Promising to heed their advice—in other words, to cede prudential judgment to technical experts—abrogates politics and evades responsibility.
This is an attitude with deep roots in the Progressive movement. It received its clearest explication as Progressivism was cresting. In his fall 1932 Commonwealth Club Address, Franklin Roosevelt proclaimed his interest in talking “not of politics but of government.” What was the difference? Roosevelt provided the Progressive answer a few moments later:
Our task now is not discovery or exploitation of natural resources, or necessarily producing more goods. It is the soberer, less dramatic business of administering resources and plants already in hand, of seeking to reestablish foreign markets for our surplus production, of meeting the problem of under consumption, of adjusting production to consumption, of distributing wealth and products more equitably, of adapting existing economic organizations to the service of the people. The day of enlightened administration has come.
Never mind the assumption that politics was all economics. Aristotle dispensed with that well before 1932, but since Progress necessarily values the contemporary over the ancient, Roosevelt was probably just batting for his team. The more serious danger is this: “Enlightened administration” meant government by technicians—people who were objectively correct. This meant that politics was not an ongoing conversation about layers upon layers of competing and realigning values but rather a simple battle between reason and unreason.
As commentators from Edmund Burke to Frank S. Meyer have noted, the difficulty with conceiving of politics in this way is that those who disagree with the prevailing consensus are not only wrong but also irrational. This attitude rejects the limitations of human reason. It is prone to abuse, since there is no reason to converse or compromise with irrational people. It is better for the ideological descendants of Robespierre to straighten the imbeciles out with whatever brute force is required.
Most of all, though, the politics that results—or rather the politics that is sublimated into the ideology of Progress—is barren of all that makes political life ennobling. It does not call on us to consider questions of the good, only the technical. It prioritizes antiseptic administration over the complexities of prudence. Self-government, which requires the virtue of responsibility from citizens and leaders, thus defers to rule by experts, which does not.
All this deference to technicians might be more defensible were it technically feasible. But blind deference to experts is also impossible, insofar as any complex problem involves expertise from several disciplines whose aims and advice inevitably strain against one another. In the COVID-19 crisis, which experts would Biden “heed”? Economists or physicians? Political scientists concerned with social fabric or public health officials emphasizing social distancing? And each of these disciplines is riven with its own divides. Which economists, for example? Retro-Keynesians, classical liberals, or neo-communitarians?
These, of course, are false choices. That is exactly the point. No expert possesses the fullness of wisdom, nor does even a unified discipline of experts, if such a thing exists. Indeed, the monomaniacal attention to ever-smaller specialties that makes experts so indispensable (there are not only microbiologists but virologists, and not only virologists but specialists in coronaviruses, and surely subdivisions of subdivisions beyond) also precludes attention to the full sweep of the statesman’s concerns.
The statesman must balance competing values and apply them to competing information. He or she must decide when public health outweighs economics, or at what point massive, long-term unemployment is a graver social ill than a lethal pandemic. These are not choices for the fainthearted. Neither are they decisions for the impulsive, and still less for those whose bandwidth is limited to certainties.
Precisely because the statesman must do this work with the public good in mind, a prudent one will listen to expertise, especially where he or she lacks it. He or she will have the strength of character and of ego to encourage independence and dissent.
Also because statesmanship must be oriented toward the public good, reflexive dismissal of expertise is no more tenable than reflexive deference to it. The impulse to reject elite condescension is healthy. It may be akin to an effort to grope toward a prudence that embraces politics, but it risks total politicization. Prudence does not rush to reflexive or categorical judgments, nor does the prudential pursuit of the common good preclude healthy respect for those elite experts who demonstrate genuine excellence in their tasks. Here the danger of equating the common good with the good of one politician is especially evident. Elite condescension helped pave the way for Trumpism. The insistent rejection of elite advice even where it is actually valuable may now be killing—literally—latter-day Know-Nothings who would rather own the libs than stay off ventilators.
What is required is neither partisan opportunists nor technical experts but rather prudence that mediates between politics and science. Prudence—that ability to see, however dimly, through the fog that necessarily envelops political life—combines the humility that accepts our limitations with the decisiveness that statesmanship cannot elude.
The Progressive dream of technical answers to all problems rejects politics. The reactionary rejection of all expertise politicizes everything. Neither is helping, and there is ample blame to go around for everyone to wallow in partisan opportunism. But this much is clear: The most important problems of this pandemic have been ones not of science or of policy alone but rather of prudential judgment. Accordingly, the best preparation for the next pandemic would be neither electoral victories nor scientific research alone but rather the cultivation of prudence that can orient both to the public good.