Expertise and Prudential Politics

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.

The Progressive dream of technical answers to all problems rejects politics. The reactionary rejection of all expertise politicizes everything. Neither is helping.

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.

Reader Discussion

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on April 27, 2020 at 10:08:26 am

I guess I am still waiting for all of that "expertise" as it seems as if every single expert pronouncement and model has been painfully inaccurate, lacks transparency as to underlying assumptions and not unlike the scientific expertise the public is afforded by the Green New Deal global warming activists is repeatedly modified to fit the latest assumptions and / or flaws in the previous models data and assumptions.
Like Weiner, I, too, will criticize Trump but for a different reason. He has paid far too much attention and shown far too much deference to the "experts", all of whom are susceptible to the same problems that any bureaucrat is subject to: a view of the world dominated / constrained by their particular "subdivision" (as Weiner suggests), their own motivations to "fix" that which may or may not be broken and the inescapable, albeit, perhaps unrecognized need to advance the interests of their own agency.
Oh, if only it were limited to but "Fifteen minutes in the Spotlight" for these agency experts; regrettably it may become 15 months in the spotlight if one is to believe some of the experts now suggesting that schools may be closed for up to two years.
Oh, how they prance about and enjoy the satisfying recognition that finally after so many years spent studying and practicing in virtual anonymity, THEIR words are now actually being taken seriously.
But not by me - and a growing body of Americans who are more inclined to draw conclusions from reality NOT models.

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Guttenburgs Press and Brewery
on April 27, 2020 at 10:27:05 am

This essay is like a monologue on Morning Joe: Scarborough introduces his subject by recounting recent news, a retelling that is skewed because it was viewed through an always unfocused, usually partisan lens, and then Joe segues to his moralizing lecture, a discourse akin to that of a college sophomore who has just completed a course in politics and ethics.

This time the jumping-off point is news of the Corona Virus, the subject itself is the limitations of expertise and the righteousness lecture is from Aristotle on the prudence of a statesman.

When I was a college kid back in the Sixties, Time Magazine used to publish a weekly recitation of such scolding journalism. I appreciated the Time Essay then. Then I thought it enlightening; it made me want to be a better citizen.

But that was 55 years ago. Nowadays, only Joe Scarborough does it and calls it journalism.

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on April 27, 2020 at 17:37:21 pm

"Nowadays, only Joe Scarborough does it.."

BUT, he does it with Mika Bullshitsky! - so it must be "righteous". I wonder does she "scold him" - what else may account for the rather radical change in this former RINO'S worldview? Under Mika, he may have been influenced to change his positions. (I wonder if this will get by the censors -Ha!).

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on April 27, 2020 at 18:16:03 pm

HaHa, Mika changing Joe's position!
Love it.

You "wonder if this will get by the censors."
Of course it will get by the censors. Gabe can say what he wants, use whatever metaphor he wishes, change the literal and figurative positions of Democrat politicians or of TV hosts who do to their mistresses what they do to the country.
They'd never censor you. No way. L&L loves you. To censor you would be to offend natural right.

Me? Reinsch would toss me in a New York minute. Then I'd have to change my pseudonym and my email address for the 5th time.

BTW: I recall Imus once interviewing Scarborough and telling him he was a horrible journalist because Joe could not ask a question in under 50 words. Scarborough freaked out and using approximately 300 words replied that Imus was wrong.

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on April 27, 2020 at 19:16:59 pm

Here is my question regarding “Expertise and Prudential Politics”, would you trust the expertise of anyone, who, having defended the extreme measures taken in regards to the Shutdown in order that we may save lives, would then state, in an interview with Vanity Fair, in regards to “the new rules living with Coronavirus”, the following below, demonstrating he does not, himself, take his own recommendations seriously, and actually has poor judgement in regards to spreading the virus?


On the opposite side of that spectrum, people are cooped up, they’re a little stir crazy. If you’re swiping on a dating app like Tinder, or Bumble, or Grindr, and you match with someone that you think is hot, and you’re just kind of like, “Maybe it’s fine if this one stranger comes over.” What do you say to that person?

Dr. Fauci-“You know, that’s tough. Because it’s what’s called relative risk. If you really feel that you don’t want to have any part of this virus, will you maintain six feet away, wear a mask, do all the things that we talk about in the guidelines? If you’re willing to take a risk—and you know, everybody has their own tolerance for risks—you could figure out if you want to meet somebody. And it depends on the level of the interaction that you want to have. If you’re looking for a friend, sit in a room and put a mask on, and you know, chat a bit. If you want to go a little bit more intimate, well, then that’s your choice regarding a risk. The one thing you don’t want to do is make sure the person is feeling well. Even though there’s a lot of asymptomatic infections, that’s one of the things that’s really troublesome. That if everybody transmitted would only transmit when they’re sick, that would be much easier. But what we’re seeing, which becomes really problematic, is that there’s a considerable amount of transmission from an asymptomatic person. And we’ve got well-documented now, you know, that situation on the nuclear carrier, the Roosevelt, USS Roosevelt, where hundreds of sailors have gotten infected from people that were not sick. That’s tough“

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on April 27, 2020 at 21:15:25 pm

Good point, but I am sure that Dr. Fauci's inconsistencies are solely in recognition of Emerson's truism that "a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds." Further, the media loves the guy, so you are not allowed to criticize Fauci even for his serious misjudgments.

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on April 28, 2020 at 15:46:59 pm

Good catch, Nancy.

I guess my takeaway from the august Dr Fauci, he who has professed his love for the Fat Lady in a Pantsuit, Madame Hillary, is that one should not want to be "more intimate" with a person that is "feeling well" BUT rather we should be "more intinate" with those that are sick.
Now that IS sick.
Then again, this advice is on par with the rest of the expert advice on offer today.
In fact, it is right up there with a Washington State Chapter of the ACLU advocating, AND ALMOST succeeding in securing the release of convicted felons age 70 yrs or older presently confined in State prisons - AND knowing FULL WELL that such a selection criteria WOULD include Gary Ridgeway, aka The Green River Killer.
And here is the topper. F>H> Buckley, are you listening? The Washington State Supreme Court defeated the motion by the ACLU by a FIVE - TO - FOUR vote. Yep, my Canadian friend, these jurists must look beyond such mere trifles as statutes, mandatory sentencing guidelines and JURY verdicts.
Now, that Herr Buckley is what I call "REVERSABILITY."

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on April 27, 2020 at 13:02:40 pm

This is a fine discussion of prudence, but I do not understand the gratuitous swipe at Biden's comment. The word "heed" means to pay careful attention to, not to follow blindly. Isn't that what the piece is advocating? Pay careful attention to all of the experts -- epidemiologists and economists alike -- and make a prudent decision thereafter.

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Michael R.
on May 13, 2020 at 23:53:00 pm

[…] all matters of national importance has been part of the progressive faith since the New Deal. FDR exulted that “The day of enlightened administration has come,” meaning that technicians could determine […]

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