Saturday, 23 June 2012

Let the experts decide

Watching the latest episode of 'Peter Hitchens versus The Idiocracy', the subject of state education came up, and Greg Dyke brought out and dusted off the one about 'taking it out of the hands of the politicians' and 'letting the experts decide'. This argument has a superficial attraction, based mostly on the people's disdain for their politicians, but if you scrape off this thin veneer, the argument loses its appeal.

Under democracy, individual power is collectivised. No longer does each person decide for himself, everyone must pool their decision-making resources. When this leads to undesired consequences, the correct response is to hand that power back to the individual, not to keep it all gathered up together and pass it over to a group of so-called experts.

Who, does anyone think, are these experts? They are in fact cut from the same cloth as the politicians, but without the need to appeal to the people. In the back of the politician's mind, he knows he can be kicked out if the people don't like him. The expert is not plagued by any such worry, and lacking this accountability, he also lacks the restraint which comes from it.

Democracy is flawed, as was always accepted. When the franchise was being extended in the 19th century, the process was driven by people who believed it to be the right thing to do, but who also recognised the necessity of educating the people of their responsibilities under democracy, similar to their responsibilities as members of a jury, so that they would know what it could do and what it should not attempt to do. The risk of the masses being swayed by demagogues and jacobins was clearly seen.

What has happened is that democracy has overflown its limits, and inundated places which it never should have reached. Prior to the coming of democracy, the struggle for liberty was always aimed at curtailing and limiting the power of the state. Once democracy arrived, too many people thought that there was no longer a need to limit the state 'now that it is our hands'. To the contrary, government must be limited whether it is under a monarchy, oligarchy or especially a democracy.

Around about now, someone will pipe up something about brain surgery, as a defence of expertise. Certainly there is such a thing, and it is most welcome in a host of areas, such as, indeed, brain surgery and civil engineering. Expertise is the product of the division of labour, which encourages us to focus on that which we are best at. If we want something done well, then naturally we should seek out the most talented - the experts. However, once we move away from the realm of the natural sciences, the experts are apt to disagree, and in any case, as free individuals we retain sovereignty over ourselves, no matter what the experts say.

The central issue is not that education is in the hands of politicians, but rather that it is under the control of the state. If this must be the case, then it is far better that it remains a political football, because at least we can observe the game, as it is wrestled from one end of the pitch to the other. The real answer to the problems of state education, as I have said before, is the state. Take away that bureaucracy and let a thousand flowers bloom.

Update: here's Hitchens' take-down of Emily Thornberry, following her outburst in the show.

No comments: