The Expert/Boss Fallacy

I argued that since political decisions are usually also moral, it’s not clear that the better educated (or the economically educated) will, as a group, be especially qualified. The reason is that it’s far from clear that the class of the (economically) educated won’t also have other traits that might narrow and damage their moral vision. I gave the examples of race, class, gender, and religion, knowing full well that Caplan, as he points out in his reply, wisely controlled for those in his research. The point I made was that we now know to control for those particular factors, but it’s often hasty to suppose that history is over. It would not be unreasonable to worry that there might well yet be other factors that travel with higher education that skew the sample enough to outweigh the beneficial effects of the extra education.

I don’t say whether or not there is strong reason to have those doubts, but only that it would not be unreasonable to have them given the history of these matters. So whether or not I have the doubts, some reasonable citizens could. That alone is enough to make it unjustified to expect all citizens to see the fact that decisions were made by college graduates or economists as a justification for the authority or legitimate enforcement of the decisions.

Caplan might think: “look, whatever other reasonable people might think, you and I know the economists know best. So they should get more votes.” But I believe this is a fallacy—the expert/boss fallacy, as I call it. It’s the same kind of reasoning as the patent non sequitur: “I’m right about what the law should be. Therefore I should rule.” You might be correct, but what makes you boss?

What’s missing is some premise or principle that ties expertise to authority in that way. How about this: whoever actually knows best what should be done is permitted to make and coercively enforce laws accordingly? That isn’t very plausible. In order to know whether the Catholics had a right to rule, we’d just need to decide whether they were correct. Or, if they were powerful enough, only they would have to decide, and we would be spared the trouble. This doesn’t seem to come out right. But substitute “economists” for “Catholics” and the form of the argument doesn’t change, and doesn’t improve.

I think that your moral/political expertise is only a justification for your political authority if your claim of expertise is generally acceptable. Not to everyone, however crazy or vicious, but to some wide range of divergent views that are neither crazy nor vicious even though many will be incorrect (call these the “reasonable” views or something, and work would need to go into defining its boundaries, of course). This would explain why even if Catholics are right about what the laws should be, that doesn’t make them legitimate bosses over the rest of us. Same for economists. I conjecture that no invidious comparisons between the supposed political knowers and the non-knowers would pass the test of general acceptability. And yet, I don’t think this ruins the whole concern with making substantively good political decisions, a concern I share with Caplan. But I’ll keep this post short(-ish), and come back to that.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • In this month’s lead essay, George Mason University economist Bryan Caplan argues that voters are not just ignorant, they’re irrational. According to Caplan, when the cost of holding irrational beliefs is low–as it is in religion and politics–we should expect a lot of irrational belief. “Even when his views are completely wrong,” Caplan writes, “[the voter] gets the psychological benefit of emotionally appealing political beliefs at a bargain price.” But the low personal cost of irrationality has a high social cost. Caplan provides statistical evidence of voters’ “systematically biased beliefs” in economics, and argues this undermines the electorate’s ability to implement good policy. Caplan suggests we should rely “less on democracy and more on private choice and free markets,” in addition to several other provocative reforms sure to make civics teachers blanch.

Response Essays

  • In his reply to Bryan Caplan’s lead essay, Brown University political philosopher David Estlund argues that neither of Caplan’s proposed alternatives to democracy, markets and experts, satisfactorily correct for the problem of voter irrationality. With respect to experts, Estlund observes that political questions are moral as well as empirical: “[M]aybe … my morally wise mother would perform better overall than the economists. That settles nothing, since there is no entitlement to rule others based simply on the fact that you know what is best.” As far as markets go, Estlund says “Voters and market actors are the same people, so we should expect the charges of ignorance and irrationality to be leveled against people in both guises… In the aggregate many market mistakes, like voting mistakes, affect everyone.”

  • University of Virginia political philosopher Loren Lomasky compares Caplan’s criticism of democracy and defense of expertise with Plato’s argument in The Republic, while noting that in a modern system of representative democracy, voters choose among candidates, not policies. “If voters are as intellectually maladroit as Caplan suggests,” Lomasky writes, “then they are incapable of mastery of their elected representatives,” who are thus left with a fairly free hand to set policy. “What [voters] can do, though, is ‘throw the rascals out,’” and that, Lomasky argues, is good enough.

  • Jeffrey Friedman argues that Caplan’s charge of voter irrationality relies on the unrealistic idealizations of economic theory and that “[v]oters who don’t understand economics because they haven’t been exposed to it, or because they’ve been exposed to it but have found it tough going, aren’t irrational; they’re just ignorant.”