The rise of experts as soothsayers
During recent years, there has been a rising tide of antipathy toward insiders and politicians in general. One of the biggest hidden drivers of it is the rise of expert opinions that masquerade and are treated as universal truths, when in fact they are merely a set of assumptions. When these ‘truths’ unravel, it damages not just the particular theory but indeed the whole structure.
This tendency to promote particular worldviews as empirical truths is most true in economics. The biggest and most dangerous delusion of economists is that they are scientists. This is especially true at the level of macroeconomics, which concerns itself with aggregates. And this is most dangerous when it comes to predicting the future or advising on a general course of action.
At this level, most of what comes out of economic models relates to the beliefs of those programming them. So, for example, in the European debate, Patrick Minford, Margaret Thatcher’s favourite economist, argues that UK GDP would rise by four per cent, given his preferred assumptions about what would happen following Brexit. Meanwhile, official multilateral bodies and the mainstream London economic bodies argue that a change of similar proportions would happen the GDP – but it would instead be a negative one,
The overwhelming view of people who think like technocrats is that we should stay in this ultimate technocratic body – the EU. Don’t get me wrong: there are good reasons to be in favour of remain (or leave) but don’t get too wrapped up in this economic expertise (given how wrong it was around the Euro and the ERM).
The corrosive effect of experts’ misplaced certainty
There are serious negative effects caused by this misplaced certainty and deference. In the first place, there is a narrowing of political discourse. Because expert opinion has largely decided, for example, work incentives do not matter, it has created an institutional scepticism around the creation of universal credit, or tax cuts fuelling economic growth. If the Chancellor decided to cut taxes and increase the generosity of the universal credit, and said he expected these measures to largely or entirely pay for themselves, then he would probably be called out by the OBR, which would argue he was going against expert advise.
But the tax cuts of Margaret Thatcher went against expert advise, as did the most famous budget of her premiership – that of 1981, which embarked on further cuts rather than Keynesian expansion and which marked – rather than the collapse of the UK economy – the turning point of that recession. The tax cuts that she pushed largely did largely pay for themselves. Measures which were difficult at the time might be impossible now given the framework we have created.
This all strengthens the hand of a certain technocratic viewpoint. It makes it harder to push for measures that are outside the comfort zone of the expert crowd. This in turn weakens democracy and, over time, the intellectual rigour on which debate feeds. Since 2010, sometimes, in return for a short-term gimmick to taunt Labour (since the expert views tend to cluster around domestic policy views often described as Blairite), we have ceded part of our political discourse.
Functioning democracy requires competing belief systems not crude relativism
This is not to argue that politicians should not bother to construct sound arguments. Simply saying whatever you want is even worse than pretending to have access to the experts’ unvarnished truth. But there are a limited number of facts in any debate – we spend X on Y for example. Even these are sometimes contestable in how you view them – i.e: are EU contributions net or gross?
But on forecasts and models, where the use of experts is most egregious, the experts are so often wrong. Take for example the biggest and most powerful nexus of experts, central bankers. You won’t find a smarter or more dedicated public servant than Mervyn King. But do you remember when they warned us in the mid-2000s about the coming financial crash? Or that really interesting set of debates about why, in 2009, he set out why it would be necessary to keep interest rates low for probably a decade? No? Me neither. Experts who have been palpably wrong on big issues in the recent past still issue, decree like, pronouncements correct to tqo decimal places. In part, they do this because we ask them to.
It is almost forgotten sometimes that the point of a democracy – indeed, some might argue the point of nation states – is to act on theories and, in doing so, test them. There is a real world. If a wholesale switch from one policy to another is too much, pilots and test cases can be used. Pragmatism in implementation is not to be underestimated. But you don’t need to hide behind experts. If you are right or wrong it will become clear. If a view says A will cause B and you actually do A, does B happen or not? That is fundamentally what politics is about – the clash of different belief systems that claim different ways of understanding the world are true. The politicians who seek most of all to hide behind experts are those who see Westminster as a game all about tricking your opponents and petty point scoring rather than engaging in this fundamental debate.
In the short term, as the Conservative Party debates Europe, it should avoid using expert opinion in this way and smearing those who step outside a false consensus. Remain has genuine arguments about instability, potentially losing existing economics benefits and potential EU reform we approve of later down the line. Leave has genuine arguments around sovereignty, potential policy change in areas from economic free trade and immigration, and potential EU reform we dislike later down the line.
In the longer term, we need to have the courage and creativity to start unpicking and denying expert opinion where it ignores our fundamental beliefs, or using think tanks and others as a counterweight to ensure we are not boxed in by ‘truths’ that are neither true nor helpful. This will not just benefit us as a Party, but the UK and democratic politics as a whole.