How The Cult Of The Expert Weakens Democracy

Written by:
26 October 2017
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A new survey from Pew Research Center, which asked 42,000 people in 38 nations about their attitudes towards democracy, has found support for representative democracy is shallow.

The survey, which included a cross-section of countries from Europe, Africa, the Americas, and the Asia-Pacific, found 78 per cent of people believe that representative democracy is a good way to govern their country. Just 17 per cent see it as a bad way to govern. In Australia the result was even more emphatic: 88 per cent of Australians believe representative democracy is good.

Nevertheless, this headline figure masks robust support for non-democratic alternatives. Pew developed an index to assess the extent to which people are attracted to representative democracy over potential alternatives – rule by experts, a strong unaccountable leader, or military rule.

Pew assesses just 23 per cent are committed to representative democracy, 47 per cent less committed, and 13 per cent are nondemocratic. Australia ranks relatively strongly, with 40 per cent committed, 48 per cent not fully committed, and seven per cent undemocratic.

Australians are opposed to some nondemocratic alternatives. Seventy-nine per cent think that a strong, unaccountable leader would be a bad way to govern, and 86 per cent would not support a military junta.

Australia’s biggest weakness, however, is a fondness for rule by experts. Forty-one per cent of Australians think that rule by unelected experts would be acceptable.

There is particularly strong support for technocracy among young Australians. Pew finds young Australians, aged 18 to 29, are 19 per cent more likely to support rule by experts than older Australians. Australia’s young-old differential is more than other advanced economies, including the United States (10 points), Canada (14 points), and the United Kingdom (14 points). This finding matches the IPA’s Growing Freedom survey, which found just 31 per cent of young Australians rated the importance of living in a democracy as completely important.

A technocracy is a seriously flawed form of government – it empowers some citizens over others based upon arbitrary and subjective measures of intelligence or education; it falsely assumes that all is required in policy making is expertise, ignoring morality, values and trade-offs; and, ultimately, limits our capacity to impact the decisions that affect our lives.

As Thomas Sowell discusses in Intellectuals and Society, throughout the twentieth century supposed experts, people with a high IQ, made terrible decisions and were often apologists for mass-murdering tyrants. Sowell argues that experts do not, and cannot, know everything necessary to make the right decisions, however, are made overconfident by their intelligence.

Nevertheless, Australia has already adopted widespread rule by experts. ‘Experts, and the politicians who follow the diktats of experts, have removed decision-making from the people,’ the IPA’s John Roskam wrote about the fetishising of experts. Roskam quotes Cambridge classics professor Paul Cartledge on the appropriate role of experts. ‘When I charter a vessel or buy a passage on one, I leave it to the captain, the expert, to navigate it – but I decide where I want to go, not the captain.’

Nondemocratic attitudes are likely fuelled by concern about current political leadership. Pew found 41 per cent are not satisfied with the way democracy is working in Australia. Meanwhile, 21 per cent of Australians believe the government never does what is right, and 29 per cent think government rarely does what is right.

The picture is, as usual, complex. There is strong support for representative democracy both globally and in Australia – however authoritarian attitudes are present, and, particularly strong amongst young Australians fuelled by a high level of faith in rule by experts.

(Image: The Spectator Australia 2017)

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