The Limitations of Democracy and Expertise


So-called “experts” have led us into modern era minefields. If experts are ruining the world, to whom do we turn? Plutocrats? Special interests and their politicians? The uneducated masses? Organized religion run amuck? Ancient philosophers? Or something else? It’s time for America and the world to get serious about the foundations of good governance. Change is coming like a locomotive. We need to understand good governance before the momentum of confusion railroads us to disaster.

America’s Constitutional Convention of 1787 served up republicanism as a revolutionary replacement of oligarchy, hereditary monarchy and the divine right of kings. Thereafter, progressive politics, abolitionist endeavors and women’s rights combined to broaden republican suffrage. The result was an evolutionary ascension of pluralism in which voting participation was expanded by distributive government programs and entitlements.

Government grew rapidly during the World War II era and thereafter. The Civil Rights movement of the 1960s combined with LBJ’s Great Society initiatives created many federal and state distributive programs, some generating extensive largesse. By the time the 1990s arrived the unchecked expansion of government programs and the dangers their growth revealed voting masses as not reliably prudent. Thus, calls to limit burgeoning government gained credibility. Nevertheless, when new checks on institutional power came, they did not prudently constrain the power of bankers and financiers, largely due to the asymmetry of political influence and the public’s lack of financial sophistication.

In retrospect it was premature for democratic finance capitalism to be declared as history’s winner when the Iron Curtain came down and the Soviet Union broke up. Political hubris led the West to turn a blind eye to the pillaging of ‘public domain wealth’ by Russian party elites. Multi-nationalist businesses in the West also ignored the exploitation of private labor in communist China by pseudo-capitalist leaders. Also, commitments to oil and the supremacy of Wall Street style finance capitalism led the U.S. to venture into the quagmires of Iraq and Afghanistan.

Why Democracies Fail

We are beginning to understand that participatory democracy is not a governing solution, per se. It’s just a framework, knotholes and all. Our constitution’s authors understood this point. But insights often fade as people become wise in their own conceits. Thus, we must again inquire as to the contexts in which representative democracy flounders. If we don’t understand what causes ships of state to sink, we will not sail safely when the tide turns.

Democratic governments get into trouble where the laws allow special interest lobbies to move legislation that concentrates programmatic benefits to the few while spreading the costs to the many; where the distractions and pleasures of life overwhelm the senses while the work of government is specialized, tedious and complex; where individual scruples against wanton self-indulgence become corroded by financial rewards that flow to those who prey upon public morality; and where there is no national ethos sufficient to maintain the public interest against tragedies of the common. In the last instance, tragedies of the sustainable national public interest are likely where there are no limitations upon public debt as well as little to check the demands of geographical parochialism and party politics.

Western democracy’s theoreticians have a love/hate response to democracy nowadays. Supposedly, democracy is the best of all systems because it advances an “all are created equal” claim that in turn fosters pluralism, participation and egalitarianism. However, it is also the worst of all systems because it puts the mediocrity of the aggregate public mind in charge, elevates the hazards of entitlement politics, demeans political discourse with contemptible electoral campaigns, and undervalues scientific thinking. The contradictions leave many scholars with little vision beyond the work of showing their ‘equality’ to be uniquely superior. Such work demonstrates that experts overwhelmed with self-interest and pride often contribute little to the public good.

Unbiased ‘Experts’?

Nevertheless, academics tend to believe in the attractions of expert-driven decision making — as good of a half-truth as can be found. The problem for academics (and for legislators) is that financial elites want to rule the policy space. The competition for power between specialized experts, legislators and financial elites tends to be resolved in compromises where power is shared behind the veil of democracy. Monied elites want to guide legislators’ governing decisions without being saddled with the mundane cares of governance. Subject matter experts want to inform and direct governing decisions more extensively than possible on the basis of the resources they control. Consequently, experts and financial elites cooperate and join forces; they also employ each others members. Educated experts undergird elites by rationalizing and tailoring their judgments to the benefit of the kingpins they serve. This faulty leadership environment produces the errors of expertise that Rex Nutting perceptively describes.

In matters where the laws of physics set the parameters of practice, the application of academic learning to global endeavors is highly satisfactory. Although we have our occasional commercial airplane crash, undersea oil well blow-out, or automobile design that malfunctions, the marriage of capital and expertise is quite beneficial in the main. When there are troubles the problems are often traceable, as Mr. Nutting observes, to the creation of unmanageably complex systems — the complexity sometimes reflecting overreaching greed in an age of corporate growth. While greed cannot be eliminated, its collateral damages can be mitigated by developing an ethos-driven capital market architecture that consistently rewards society’s truly meritorious members. Financial markets that serve exploiters are obsolete, even if they still grind on.

Deceptions are somewhat self-limited in the hard sciences. Not so in the social sciences where everything from performance to reality can be difficult to define and measure. Indeed, corporations often seek out experts to advance half-truths that offer business or investment advantages. Nowhere is this problem more extensive than in politics, for government investment or subsidy may act as leverage in helping groups with vested interests extend their profits and powers.

It is providential that heightened visibility of the inadequacies of establishment experts is arriving simultaneously with the public’s exposure to the malfeasance of financial elites, the shortcomings of participatory democracy, and the hazards of corporate complexity. World elites advocating trickle down style ‘tikkun olam’ (world repair) are increasingly looking like a convention of ‘emperors without clothes.’ Wall Street’s post-debacle triumph now faces public scrutiny on every side. A governance model that relies upon plutocratic instrumentation and contrived expertise is vulnerable to governance catastrophes, especially in the context of soaring government debt and fiat currencies.

The Foundations Of Good Government

Try staying fit without exercise, decent rest and nutrition. Its hardly more plausible to develop complex political systems without principled ethics, scruples and wisdom. Some things cannot be done successfully and reliably without certain components. Lacking moral vitality we can no more regulate our way to governmental success than we can “free market” ourselves to a better future. Efficient regulation requires an underlying societal fidelity to civic and business virtues. Free market capitalism will not produce optimal societal benefits unless market participants are morally sound, thoroughly informed and far-sighted. Expertise by itself cannot produce society’s greatest good. Expertise is a one-legged man without widespread civic competence and admirable character qualities. Even the guardrails of constitutional checks and balances are insufficient without an ethos of justice and truth seeking.

Were it not for Providence we could be verging into a global national sovereignty crisis without public awareness of the stunning inadequacies of world fiduciaries who brought us here. Happily, a multitude of events in the last few years have stripped away elitist camouflage, thus revealing the leadership faults of the world’s financial and political celebrities. The pride of establishment elites and their agent experts has received a grand comeuppance. The question is this: What will the world do with the revelations received? At what common fount will we drink while finding a mutual ethos? We’ve tried the worship of money, pleasures and celebrities — and we’ve come up short. Maybe we need “a capstone apocalyptic experience” to catapult us from intellectual gridlock and help us catalyze the valuable learning that historical studies, empirical research, documentary film and technology have provided.

Build The Foundation!

Our brighter future will appear as honorable thinking people refuse to endorse endeavors that empower dissemblers, flatterers, manipulators and predators. Organized religion must recover quality. Education must be re-envisioned and made cost-effective. Fraternities must learn to cultivate responsibility rather than its anthesis. Social organizations must prove the goodness of their core principles. Blind toleration must be replaced with a color-neutral cultivation of merit. Stewardship must be prioritized above pleasure. Personal honor must be elevated above financial success. Nothing short of a new ethos of excellence will produce the better world we seek.