20 November 2019

For liberalism to survive, we must renounce technocracy


With the support of the Atlas Network, CapX is publishing a series of essays on the theme of Illiberalism in Europe, looking at the different threats to liberal economies and societies across the continent, from populism to protectionism and corruption.

I’m old enough to remember when people who were wheeled out as experts on panel shows could make the most whackadoodle predictions and never wear any comeback for it. This happened even when their “expert forecasts” led ordinary members of the public to take the claims seriously and lose out (financially and otherwise) as a result, a phenomenon political scientist Philip Tetlock documented over a 30-year period.

Tetlock was writing in 2005, however. These days, it’s become much, much harder to be a serial “expert bullshitter”, as people from biologist Tim Flannery and political adviser Alastair Campbell to entities like the Bank of England and StrongerIn could no doubt confirm. This is one of the quiet but profound ways that the Internet generally and social media specifically has changed civil society and political debate.

In other words, Tetlock’s discovery that purveyors of dud advice weren’t held accountable because people didn’t remember what they’d predicted is no longer true for the same reason that outlets like Buzzfeed can fossick up rude tweets celebrities made when they were 16: there’s only one Internet, and we’re all trapped there for the rest of our lives.

Tim Flannery can’t open his mouth on climate change without people reeling off all his sweeping (and wrong) predictions that Sydney’s dams would run dry. Alastair Campbell has a sign reading “dodgy dossier” hanging around his neck like Coleridge’s albatross, and it will never be in his power to take it off. “Project Fear” probably undermined the standing of the economics profession and “independent, arms-length institutions” like the Bank of England as much as the Global Financial Crisis did.

Of course, people will tolerate expert rule and take expert advice as long as peace, order, and good government continues. And there has indeed been quite a lot of that in Western countries since 1989. That is why western governance elites — what Donald Trump calls “the swamp” and Michael Gove “the blob” — exist. Voters have limited tolerance for incompetence, however, particularly when it comes with the realisation that experts don’t always know what they’re doing (Iraq War, Global Financial Crisis, austerity, etc). The point of handing the levers of power to experts is that expertise is meant to lead to skilled manipulation of those levers.

But when scientific experts (in particular) are wrong repeatedly, their failures can call their successes into question. This has happened — with alarming consequences — to vaccines and GM foods, and forms the basis of pseudoscientific “anti-vaxx” and “frankenfood” claims. Non-scientists—even well-educated non-scientists — are often unaware of how the weight of evidence supporting different scientific findings varies, and struggle to draw meaningful distinctions between “science says vaccinate your children” and “science says eating red meat causes cancer”.

This is why Gove’s “people have had enough of experts” quip got so much traction, even though — if you watch the interview — it’s clear he was also making a wider point about political self-interest and rent-seeking. That said, the sort of politicised expertise that led us into Iraq or failed to see the Global Financial Crisis coming explains only part of the reason for the now-widespread dismissal of expertise.

Running in parallel to high-level, expert-led government and institutional cockups like these is an activity undertaken by a different group of experts: advising (and often telling) us how to live. As the state has retreated from policing human sexuality, the impulse to muscle in on people’s private lives and consumption habits has manifested itself elsewhere, often in strikingly invasive ways. This is commonly called nanny-statism and often decried as an infringement of civil liberties. These arguments are well-rehearsed, even dull.

My point here is a different one, and much simpler than the standard nanny-state critique. Most expert “lifestyle” advice in areas like public health is unproven. Sometimes, it’s plain wrong and simply blows up on implementation — Denmark’s fat tax or the UK’s attempts to introduce age verification for online porn come to mind. And it is bringing liberalism into disrepute because it’s the type of technocracy that hits people at home.

You don’t have to be some sort of Marxist to notice how much nanny-statism involves policing undertaken by the upper-middle-classes of activities typically engaged in by minorities, many of them poor. Think attacks on alcohol, cigarettes, and sugar (working class men); attempts to ban kosher and halal slaughter (Jews and Muslims); attacks on sex work (poor women); attacks on vaping (people who quit smoking using “non-approved” methods). In other words, the ex-commies over at Spiked have a point when they suggest a great deal of modern populism amounts to people outside the bubble telling some posh, mouthy feminist to bog off and leave their porn-watching habits alone. Remember the recent ban on gender stereotyping in adverts? The Great British Public laughed its collective arse off because this is ridiculous and ridiculous things ought to be ridiculed.

Nowhere is the hubris of our technocrats more apparent than in HMGov’s willingness to export their pettifogging coerciveness to other countries, in a woke re-run of old-time colonial policies designed to pacify conquered populations. Last week, it emerged that — sheltering under the UK’s foreign aid budget umbrella — was a “research unit” set up to reduce the amount of salt Chinese people add to their food when they’re cooking at home, a project in India using text messages to persuade people to drink less alcohol, and a program that paid Bangladeshi imams to use Friday sermons to tell their congregations to stop smoking.

Tellingly, the organisation responsible for digging up this splendid bit of dirt (the Institute of Economic Affairs) took aim at the misuse of foreign aid, dodgy science, and wastage of taxpayer money. However — because the IEA, like the rest of us, has marinated for so long in technocratic rule — it did not address the most alarming aspect. That is, HMGov facilitating the sort of population-level micromanagement that technologically developed but authoritarian states can use to grind their citizens into the dirt.

The extent to which Parliament, the upper echelons of commerce, and the civil service are deeply unrepresentative of the wider electorate is often shunted aside simply because the claim can seem strange. Most people (legitimately) point out how similar bodies across Europe now include many women and members of ethnic minorities.

However, sexual and racial diversity among elites can be both misleading and superficial. Half of Clement Attlee’s Cabinet in 1945 had previously held blue-collar jobs, for example, while by 2017, the percentage of MPs who had held blue-collar jobs had fallen to just three per cent — half the number of those who’d once been lawyers — and none were in Cabinet. And before you say, “but we have a Tory government,” it’s wise to remember only a single Blair Cabinet minister in the late 1990s had ever worked in a factory. This means rule by highly educated and liberal people whose backgrounds and outlook differ fundamentally from those of the average citizen.

It’s comforting to believe that while the political preferences of others may be driven primarily by prejudices, emotions, superstition, and ignorance, the positions of well-educated or highly intelligent voters are shaped by “the facts.” His thought is redneck, the logic goes, while yours is doctrinal, and mine is deliciously supple.

Yet the cognitive science literature suggests that the highly educatedintelligent and rhetorically skilled tend to be significantly less likely than most to revise their beliefs or adjust their positions when confronted with evidence or arguments that contradict their priors. This is because they are typically better equipped to poke holes in data or arguments that contradict their views. When I made a spectacularly wrong 2017 general election prediction (in the pages of a national newspaper, no less), my notes and drafts (I still have them) disclosed my ability to take other people’s polling analyses to bits and a complete inability to apply the same scepticism to my own efforts.

It was this experience of utter wrongness in 2017 — after I’d picked both Leave and the election of Donald Trump in 2016 — that forced me to (a) pay attention to what I’d done when I’d been right and (b) pay even more attention to how I behaved when I was way off the mark.

I learnt that those with higher education levels and academic aptitude tend to be less attuned than most to ambiguity, complexity, and limitations in their own knowledge — and less likely to innovative or creative thinking. Even worse, people tend to grow more politically doctrinaire as their scientific literacy and numeracy increases, while deploying scientific studies or statistics in the context of political arguments seems to polarise debate even further.

Tellingly, many highly educated people tend to be only a little more informed than most with regards to substantive facts, and more worryingly often lack even rudimentary knowledge about civic institutions and processes. Lawyers may be an exception to the latter because our work is intensely procedural, but that doesn’t mean we escape the other cognitive disadvantages that appear to come via university education. In fact, research suggests that highly educated people are less self-aware of their own political preferences than most people — typically describing themselves as more left-wing than they are in reality. Educated women seem especially prone to this; men and those with higher-incomes are more likely to think that they are right-wing and to be measured as such.

It’s been an accepted truism of political science since classical antiquity that an educated population makes for greater civic literacy and (in democracies and constitutional republics) better governance. Evaluating evidence is indispensable for effective policymaking if our societies are to reap the benefits of policy-relevant science. However, without the parallel trait of “science curiosity,” the intellectual advantages associated with science literacy can actually impede public recognition of the best available evidence and deepen cultural polarisation.

What’s needed are intellectually curious people, expert or otherwise. Consuming a varied media diet seems to be crucial here: afforded a choice, low-curiosity individuals read material consistent with what they already believe; high-curiosity folk, by contrast, prefer to explore novel findings, even when the information contradicts their group’s political or policy position. Dining on a richer diet of information, high-curiosity people form less one-sided and hence less polarised views.

No-one really knows how to use science curiosity to overcome political polarisation, although in his more recent work (2015’s Superforecasting), Tetlock improved accuracy in the narrow fields of political and economic forecasting by training people — whether highly educated or not — to gather evidence from a variety of sources, think probabilistically, work in teams, keep score, and be willing to admit error and change course.

Relatedly, there’s little evidence that adding women or ethnic minorities to governance elites changes decision-making processes or outcomes much: classic “pissing in a wetsuit policy,” as my father used to say. “It feels good but doesn’t show”. However, I’m willing to hypothesise that including those who haven’t attended university may improve the quality of decision-making among governance elites precisely because these are people who are statistically less prone to political polarisation.

In any case, technocracy is incompatible with liberalism simply because “liberty” is at the core of liberalism. Giving China’s authoritarian capitalist state yet another thing to use as part of its terrifying “social credit” system represents — or ought to represent — a terminus ad quem for a set of policies and practices that should never have been entertained by any liberal democracy.

If you’re in the business of helping China breathe down Mrs Wong of Beijing’s neck when she uses too much MSG in her chow mein then you need to step away pronto, followed by spending a month watching every single news story coming out of Hong Kong and Xinjiang. And, frankly, if liberals continue not only to engage in this behaviour but provide intellectual cover for it both here and overseas, they should think about changing their name.

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Helen Dale read Law at Oxford and won the Miles Franklin Award for her first novel, The Hand that Signed the Paper. Her latest novel is Kingdom of the Wicked; it was shortlisted for the Prometheus Prize for science fiction.