Experts have been getting a hard time recently, disparaged by a number of politicians. Their credibility diminished in the mind of the common man. Their pronouncements not believed by many. And yet given the complexity of the modern world we need experts to advise on issues, so how have we got here and why does the ordinary voter often distrust experts?
In parallel with this there is a rise in the disparagement of populism by experts cajoling those who seek “simplistic” answers to difficult questions. There is the whiff of patrician insouciance for the views of the plebs.
I attended a meeting on 7 December on Planning organised by my local council with presentations by Tony Travers of the LSE and Trudi Elliott who is CEO of the Royal Town Planning Institute and a lot of residents. The question posed was “Was planning a good thing”. The discussion ranged around where would we be without planning regulation to how does the process work. Over the course of the debate it became clear that the planning professionals do not think the process works well, that politicians find arbitrating difficult and that residents feel the system is set up to the benefit of developers and is complex and difficult to understand. Wading through 600 page local plan documents is likely to be a minority sport that most people don’t have the time for, but the outcome affects their lives, sometimes dramatically. One resident proposed that large planning proposals should be determined by referenda – populism again!
In microcosm, this sums up where we are in many areas, a distrust of experts, of the power of vested interests who have the time and resources to lobby decision makers (both the experts and politicians) and of politicians who have to arbitrate between these groups and the citizen. No wonder many of these citizens feel disenfranchised, that they are often presented with fait accompli, their views ignored.
Many feel that experts talk in a language they don’t understand, that they engage in an exclusive form of group think and that frankly they patronise. They also feel that the self- interest of experts is paramount.
These feelings of distrust are amplified when multilateral institution experts comment on issues.
There is an excellent letter in the FT on 8 December “Experts failed to address the externalities” by Rod Price. He writes “personal experience is not a lie”. I will write shortly on globalisation and what needs to happen to make it more attractive for Western populations. The perceptions of Globalisation are based on personal experience. The perception of Tax Policy is based on personal experience and the disconnect between that personal experience and what is believed about the tax policy for the rich and business.
Simon Jenkins has argued that populism isn’t a useful term with its disparaging overtones and that what we are witnessing is a politics where the existing political alliances are crumbling and need to be refashioned. The Labour Party in the UK (in common with the left in many countries) is a good example. That party was built upon an implicit alliance of traditional working class provincial workers and a metropolitan liberal constituency. The issue of identity and the fall-out from globalisation have pulled that alliance apart with the two constituencies largely on opposing sides of the Brexit debate. That traditional working class group will find a new political home if parties off the left do not address its concerns – that is not populism it is politics. The roots of the disenchantment with social democratic politics lie in a technocratic approach to globalisation that has not addressed the adverse effects on a significant proportion of the party’s own supporters.
That points to the need for a socio economic analysis of the costs and benefits of both globalisation and free trade to address these concerns. The current technocratic approach will not work.
To return to experts, if the affluent of Kensington and Chelsea distrust experts then they will suffer the risk of being distrusted until they can communicate in a way which is understandable and believable for citizens and accords with their personal experience. If even the patricians feel they are being ignored by experts, how angry will the plebians be?
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