Australian Values Save The Day – IPA Keeping In Touch – 6 May 2020

Australian Values Save The Day – IPA Keeping In Touch – 6 May 2020

Dear IPA Members

Since I joined the IPA in 2016, my main responsibility has been leading our criminal justice research. Our project takes its inspiration from the successful, conservative-led movement in the United States to improve community safety with common sense reforms that increase the effectiveness and efficiency of our society’s punishment and prevention of crime.

In that capacity, I have met with MPs across the country and I am in regular contact with other researchers in the field. When I have these meetings, I am always struck by two things: First, that if it were not for the IPA a conservative perspective on criminal justice reform simply would not be heard by those in power or by the public; and secondly, that no matter which parties or ministers were in government, the voices they would listen to on this issue would be the same, and so in effect would be their options.

Simply put, you can vote to change governments, but you do not get to vote on who advises governments. So some ideas never seem to die, while others never seem to get a look in, no matter what the public might support at elections or in polling. This is what I would like to talk to you about today.

It is not too much of a stretch to say that the impotence of elections in the face of the bureaucracy and its supposed expertise is the force that has, more than any other single factor, driven the realignment of politics here and in the rest of the western world. Politics is increasingly a dispute between those who always get a seat at the table and those whose views are excluded from consideration.

To be fair, governments have limited time, so it makes sense that they would seek to filter the information that they hear. But this does not mean that we should be blasé about the role that experts play in government decision-making. We are still entitled to ask by which criteria are experts recognised, and, even more importantly, by which values do governments act when accepting or rejecting, implementing or ignoring, expert advice.

During the present crisis, we have learned a lot about the class of experts who purport to rule over us. We have learned, for example, that the definitions of expertise and competence seem to have come apart.

Consider the failures of the World Health Organisation. These experts, in short order, managed to ignore Taiwanese advice about human-to-human transmission, insist that banning travel from China was unnecessary, misrepresent the efficacy of wearing masks, and repeatedly tout infection figures from China that are almost certainly made up.

Whatever authority that body may have commanded in the past (though its record on previous pandemics is not especially salubrious either), it is surely now compromised. For this reason, I was recently quoted in The Daily Telegraph recommending that Australia cease voluntary contributions to the WHO (which have totalled more than $100m since 2016) and reconsider membership if the organisation does not reform.

Even allowing that the experts are competent in their chosen fields, we should recognise the narrowness of that expertise. No-one disputes the key role that epidemiologists and public health professionals must play in defeating the virus. But the crisis has created a wider range of complex trade-offs which warrant consideration and require different kinds of expertise.

The economic effects of our chosen policies (which are themselves reducible to a concern for people’s health) and their unintended consequences, like changes in people’s behaviour that will have unknowable downstream effects on society, are not narrow public health questions. As such, it should be obvious that no one set of experts could ever have a justifiable monopoly on the provision of advice to government.

The broader question, however, is what role this kind of technical expertise should play in a democracy. The pandemic has hit at a time when the tendency to defer to experts has never been stronger – but is this really to the greater good, as claimed?

When we reduce government to merely a technical matter, we necessarily increase the expected level of deference to government. We are obliged to substitute technical understandings for traditional ones and obliged to see dissent from official positions as unreasonable.

A powerful group think must take hold. Expertise is proven by having run the gauntlet of educational institutions that government itself controls, so by the time information is presented to government it has been filtered in many ways, and so too have been the people who study and present that information. They have been selected for deference – formal education being designed to impart not only the most up-to-date empirical information, but also the attitude that all matters can be resolved by reference to it.

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