The dangerous rise of rule by experts

Politicians have abdicated all responsibility and society is paying a huge cost.

Norman Lewis

As the Covid-19 crisis has progressed, one thing stands out above all else: experts, not politicians, are leading the fightback. This is a real problem. Not because expertise is unimportant or that science is not fundamental to defeating Covid-19 – far from it. But right now, politicians are on tap, rather than on top. And this demonstrates a political dislocation of Biblical proportions. It demonstrates that political cowardice, rather than leadership and judgement, lies at the heart of the government’s battle against Covid-19. And we are going to pay a heavy price for this in the years ahead.

Expertise is critical. Political leadership is, too. But they are not equal and never can be. Political leadership and the setting of goals must come first because it is only through this that expertise can fulfil its remit. Setting an endpoint based on political judgment can then allow expertise to be brought to bear on solving the problems that lie ahead. Having a vision of the future that goes beyond the immediacy of battle also helps to determine which expertise is needed. Expertise should be a means, not an end.

The importance of this is demonstrated in the decision that led to the lockdown. ‘Flattening the curve’ became the priority in order to avoid the collapse of the health service. This has since become the incontrovertible tablet of stone brought down from the science mountain, before which we have all had to kneel and pray. Back on earth, however, there is a moral dilemma which still remains at the heart of the battle: should the demands of healthcare experts trump the demands of the economy? After all, the healthcare system is not separate from the economy. It is a crucial part of it. Yes, the healthcare system saves lives, but the economy provides the material basis of everything we need to live. The damage done to the economy could easily cost more lives worldwide than Covid-19. This dilemma is a real one. But science, especially when dealing with an unknown virus under enormous uncertainty, cannot provide the answer to this dilemma. Epidemiologists and microbiologists can offer specialised and informed insights into what it will take to beat the virus. But when it comes to resolving competing interests involving fundamental moral ambiguities – between the choices posed by a deadly pandemic and a deadly economic depression – we need political judgement.

This is where things have fallen apart. The experts have set the goal, and the politicians have cast themselves in the role of their spokespeople. Things started well in the UK, when Boris Johnson, publicly flanked by his scientific advisers, correctly argued for a more nuanced political approach, informed by what the science was able to suggest. But this approach has steadily given way to a retreat behind the experts. Expert advice has become a substitute for exercising political judgment and leadership. The scientific experts who should have been playing second fiddle to government-led judgment have become the orchestra’s conductors. The authority of the expert has expanded into the vacuum of absent political leadership.

The importance of this cannot be underestimated. This approach has mystified expertise and set it up for a huge fall. Expertise cannot provide certainty in a crisis defined by uncertainty. The politicisation of the health crisis has already fuelled an acrimonious blame game in which the experts stand to come out worst of all. Many scientists are understandably voicing their concerns publicly. The authority of expertise could take serious damage.

The absence of political leadership has also led to an acceptance that there is no alternative. The government says ‘the science’ makes its actions inevitable. This can only be true if you assume that politics does not exist, and that the critical division of labour between expertise and political judgment can be ignored. But the examples of Brazil and Sweden show that things can be done differently.

President Jair Bolsonaro has been notable not only for his single-minded focus on Brazil’s economy, but also for how he has not allowed health experts to dictate policy. He has insisted that the risk from Covid-19 is low (which, incidentally, the science now confirms) and has argued that keeping the economy open is more important than locking Brazil down. He fired his health minister, Luiz Henrique Mandetta, who insisted that Brazil follow the same lockdown strategy being pushed by experts in the US, the UK and across Europe. This challenge to his political authority could not be allowed to stand precisely because it undermines a vision of where he thinks Brazil and its economy need to be on the other side of the Covid-19 battle. Whatever you might think about Bolsonaro – who has certainly made some moronic comments about the virus – he is exercising courage and political judgment that is noticeably absent elsewhere.

In Sweden, prime minister Stefan Löfven, following the advice of Anders Tegnell, the head of Sweden’s Public Health Agency, has insisted on a more relaxed approach to social distancing in order to protect the economy while mitigating the impact of the virus. Although the pressure has mounted in the face of a rising death toll, which has seen Löfven alter his original stance, he still stands out as a politician willing to stand by his expert-informed judgment, while following his instincts and leading from the front.

Of course, we will see if either of these approaches results in better or worse outcomes. No one knows. As the health crisis has become politicised, vital insights are in danger of being lost. Criticising these leaders for daring to be different might satisfy the needs of each side of the culture war. But it prevents us from learning anything from this experience. The Swedish example might show us a way out of dealing with a virus which cannot be permanently suppressed before we have vaccines. It might also stave off subsequent disasters by moderating future peaks, with fewer of the human costs associated with a lockdown. In locked-down countries, the threat remains that we have merely delayed the inevitable spread and that sheltering populations rather than slowly cultivating herd immunity will lead to rapidly rising infection rates once these countries reopen. And then we will be back to square one, but severely weakened by economic collapse this time.

The costs of the absence of political courage and leadership are therefore immense. The responsibility for this rests with the political class. When faced with world war, political leaders like Churchill and Roosevelt were quick to mobilise their societies around the goal of a military victory based upon moral and political values that would inform the postwar world. Uncertainty and the prospect of defeat, especially in the early years of the war, was a daily reality. But through a belief in the rightness of the battle for freedom and democracy – values that would be instilled in the postwar order – societies were rallied to pull in the same direction. The endpoint included planning for life beyond military victory. It was not about mere survival. This was especially the case in the US, which eyed a new world order in which it would reign supreme. Whatever we might think about that politically, the point it demonstrates was that experts and resources were all mobilised as part of an objective – they did not set the objective. Political judgment was the catalyst, not the outcome, of expertise.

For example, by 1941, the US State Department had been reorganised and centralised around researching and planning how America could stabilise the world economy and reorder international relations after the war. The Manhattan Project highlights the differences between now and then. Experts like Albert Einstein and Hungarian-born physicists Leo Szilard and Eugene Wigner may have brought uranium and its potential to produce an ‘extremely powerful bomb of a new type’ to the attention of Roosevelt’s government. But the Manhattan Project this gave rise to was not an expert-led initiative. It formed a key plank in the political war effort set by the government.

When President Roosevelt approved the atomic programme on 9 October 1941, he created the Top Policy Group to control it. He put himself in charge along with other senior politicians, science experts and the chief of staff of the army. Interestingly, he never attended a meeting – something that today’s Sunday Times would have no doubt written a damning scoop on. The point is, Roosevelt did not have to. His authority was clear, as was the political remit of the project. Yes, experts drawn from many fields realised the project, but this was in their capacity as collaborators engaged in a common struggle to achieve a political goal. The experts were marshalled and mobilised by political authority, not their claim to special status. There was no expert spread beyond the confines of specialised knowledge, either. It was a division of labour determined by political objectives. What is more, the second-guessing of every strategic decision, political point-scoring and ‘gotcha’ journalism of today would have been frowned upon as a threat to a common purpose.

One only has to recall one of Churchill’s famous sayings to highlight the difference between then and now. When criticised for taking decisions that failed, he quipped: ‘Perhaps it is better to be irresponsible and right, than to be responsible and wrong.’ We need politicians who have the courage to be irresponsible in order to be right – to insist that political judgment trumps expert opinion. Playing it safe and hiding behind experts, which the media might regard as responsible, could well be the most irresponsible approach of all. And we will all pay a heavy price for it.

Dr Norman Lewis is a writer and managing director of Futures Diagnosis.

Picture by: Getty.

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2nd May 2020 at 2:52 am

It all depends WHICH experts you mean. Experts in Asia outside China, but nearer to it and affected/infected longer than the West, have helped keep their Coronavirus death rate down to about 1 death per 300,000 population. Meanwhile, our Western experts are presiding over a death rate about ONE HUNDRED times higher!

Jolly Roger

28th April 2020 at 10:45 pm

It;s hilarious – commeth the hour commeth Boris the Bottler. he gave in to the Media and twitter mob – both dominated by people who wish him and his government harm. These so called scientific experts are products of an overwhelmingly left wing/liberal educational system – again they wish no good on Boris and his gang – so why did Boris the oaf listen to them?
Sweden is stubornly refusing to go belly up despite the worst wishes of our media – they are doing well by any standard you wish to apply – especially when viewed through the prism of ‘no lockdown. They have not destroyed their economy.
I am wating to see what the big indiustires do when this starts to unravel properly for our mainstrweam media and our coardly government. Class actions is my bet. Big ones.

James Knight

28th April 2020 at 7:08 pm

Here’s the thing: if experts were as smart as implied, they would have found a way to contain the virus without trashing the global economy. They have had plenty of time to plan for it, the official risk assessments rated pandemic as the highest risk.

Bella Donna

28th April 2020 at 3:47 pm

The people thought they had elected the best person for the job then he handed major government decisions to the unelected. If this is the best money can buy than we’ve been robbed blind!

Ellen Whitaker

28th April 2020 at 3:34 pm

The arrogance of some of these experts would not be so exasperating if they actually knew anything actionable about this virus. First they sneered at people who wore masks, now they are (grudgingly) admitting that maybe masks work. Now they’re sneering at herd immunity, which may be our only way out. Not one of them questions that we will have a vaccine for this virus within 2 years, although effective viral vaccines are difficult to make. And they seem to feel so virtuous in condemning anyone who worries about the economy, as if a global recession would not cause widespread suffering, and deaths. I don’t believe anything I read about this virus anymore, no matter who says it. I feel sure that I will hear it contradicted in the next few days.

Marvin Jones

28th April 2020 at 12:12 pm

Are these so called experts and scientists judged and considered to be just that because of the size of the salaries they are paid?

Christopher Tyson

28th April 2020 at 10:07 am

When I was at school, I remember a teacher leaving to become a speech writer for the Conservative Party. That was an eye opener, I didn’t realize that there was such a job. Today we have a professionalized politics, and a division of labour; advisors, speech writers, PR, not to mention the whips and party machine which have always been there. The politician becomes a frontman, or presenter, like a TV presenter or today’s pop stars styled, and packaged, I’m not going to make cheap shots here, ‘presenter’ is a skill in its own right.
For a generation or two, we have had our share of crises, but none to match a world war, and Coronavirus is the biggest crises most of us will know, it is a political crisis some might even say ‘a crisis of modernity’, I wouldn’t, but in the sense that this is not a biblical plague, and recovery rates are high, there is something very contemporary about it. Having lived in relative peace and security we are caught unaware, and things loom large for us that in the context of world history, would not seem so traumatic.
We can look back to the likes of Benn and Powell, and maybe we can distort things, they were not typical even of their day. But we can usually find politicians who have a worldview, and whose words sound like their own, Tony Blair, what ever you may think of him, is impassioned offers leadership (albeit unsolicited) and sounds like himself, and I would say we need a bit more of that.
Our relatively secure lives, have meant that a generation of politicians have not been tested, and talented and capable people may be more tempted to go and make money. Public service has been very much a poor relation. Also for all the talk of ‘social mobility’
I don’t believe that society is making the most of the talent pool that it has. I will be accused of special pleading, being opinionated and having self-belief does not make you talented, and we may not fully understand a problem until we are confronted with it, having said that, yes I do believe that I am talented, I make no apology for that. I heard an American soul singer, I can’t remember who, who said that you have to believe in yourself, and find someone else, other than you mother who believes in you too. I agree up to a point, self-belief alone may be delusion, ability needs to be recognised, and it will be recognised (not necessarily by people who will give you money or a job), and how can I put this? Mothers aren’t always the most supportive of your talents.

Linda Payne

28th April 2020 at 10:21 am

So what if no one else believes in you despite your own self belief and talent, your fucked

Christopher Tyson

28th April 2020 at 1:02 pm

Great question Linda. I remember reading something by the philosopher Bertrand Russell wrote about this. He said, in my words, that it is conceivable or even likely that highly talented people will go undiscovered and unrecognised, this is true, possibly a painful truth, certainly if you are one of those people. If you live long enough you can become an advocate for your younger self, as you get older, as I say, you are battling against death and dementia. Kafka had a good friend who was able to care of his legacy after he died, not burn it, as Kafka instructed him. Russell opened the door for Wittgenstein, I think it’s a nice idea that this could happen, Russell acted on his own judgement. Today we would probably see this as nepotism, was the position advertised? Were recruitment procedures followed? Was there fair and open competition? There are arguments on both side, whether those with the power to give jobs, university places, publishing deals, record contracts and the like are free to act on the basis of their own instincts, or even experience and wisdom, or whether this invariably leads to corruption and unfairness.
Marx famously said that individuals make history, but not on circumstances of their own choosing, you might start out wanting to be a pop start or a novelist and accidently end up as an internet sensation. You might post comments BTL here, and there may be a few people who like what you write, but as I said that won’t pay your bills.
You’re here, you’re writing, you’re doing your best, and then there’s a loads of things outside of your control, if you have a fixed view of ‘success’ and you don’t meet it, I don’t know, but if you really do have self-belief, you can just keep on doing what you do, and see where it leads.

Vivian Darkbloom

28th April 2020 at 11:58 pm

@ Linda. Then you carry on, you follow your dream and make it reality.You write, you create, you paint, you compose, you join a band and play your heart out, whatever. If only one person loves what you’ve done, then that’s enough. As Christopher points out in his comment, Franz Kafka never received the acclamation he deserved during his lifetime. Max Brod saved Kafka’s manuscripts and the world is a better place because of his actions; we have Kafka to read and digest. Imagine how much more poor we would be without his genius. Of course, few of us are geniuses, but imagine how many of the greats have been ignored and derided, their work thrown away like Kafka’s so nearly was.

You make a good point about belief though. Our so-called leaders do not believe in us anymore; in our human ability to transcend our circumstances, our agency, our autonomy, our need for art, philosophy, music to make sense of our situation, all the things that make us human. But what if we stop believing in them? What do we do, after decades of lies and political mismanagement? What happens when we stop believing in our political masters?

Mark Houghton

28th April 2020 at 9:04 am

We already know that most people who get this virus don’t die and don’t need the NHS so why are we locking down everyone and totalling the economy? Yes, protect the most vulnerable and let everyone else get back to work.

James Conner

28th April 2020 at 10:00 am

The reason is because Boris thinks it’s a vote winner to be seen to be stopping people from dying. What he hasn’t figured out is that by the time the next election rolls around this country’s economy is going to be so much down the shitter that the Tories will be lucky to come third after Labour and the Lib Dems.

Vivian Darkbloom

29th April 2020 at 12:08 am

I’m sorry James, but Labour do not deserve to pick up the pieces from what will be, as you say, an economy which has gone down the shitter. They are as useless as all the others. I wish it were different, but Labour should not expect to win by default; they have to set out a vision which is a clear alternative – not just more of the same – and persuade the voters that they are honest and will run the country for the benefit of us all.

Highland Fleet Lute

28th April 2020 at 4:45 am

The game of pass-the-parcel-with-the-buck has to stop with BoJo.

If he doesn’t lift the lockdown 100% within the next fortnight, you won’t need a team of experts to work out he’s liable to be strung up by the balls on a Westminster lamp post by the very folk who were clapping for the NHS like drunken monkeys not a week ago.

K Tojo

28th April 2020 at 2:03 am

There is also a danger in the power of popular MSM journalists brimming over with righteous indignation. As an example, check out Good Morning Britain between 6am and 9am almost any day of the week. It’s Lockdown Central (“We have not been locked down as tightly as we ought to be. Panic now while there is still time!”).

Mark Houghton

28th April 2020 at 9:05 am

Those journalists think their jobs are safe – that means they are biased. If they had a small business going down the tubes they’d be singing a different tune.

david rawson

28th April 2020 at 9:30 am

Mark, I agree, all the sanctimonious screeching of “stay home!” are from people who are getting full pay.

Why are no public sector people losing their jobs nor furloughs ? Why are coppers driving around with their mates doing prescription & food drops, or calling to check on vulnerable people ?

The country is going to the dogs based on advice & threats from people who are not threatens, but merely invonienced by the lockdown

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