Opinion and Taking Issue

KENNEDY: Society's complexity requires ever more expertise

October 8, 2011

Sheila Suess KennedyIt’s election season, and as I’ve watched the ads, debates and speeches—and grown impatient with the slogans and posturing—it’s occurred to me that the complexity of our society and world may be outstripping our ability to govern ourselves.

Invoking Ronald Reagan or FDR appeals to partisans, and pledging fealty to American values or one’s belief in American Exceptionalism (rarely defined) may provide a window into the philosophical orientation of the speaker, but these invocations give us no clue to how the candidate proposes to solve the growing numbers of problems that aren’t amenable to ideological solutions.

I don’t blame the candidates for this. After all, how many of us, however well-educated, really have the background to understand the complicated issues we face?

Take economic growth and job creation, and arguments over whether the proper solution is more stimulus or more austerity. I find certain economists’ arguments more compelling, but not because I have any expertise in economics.

Like most of us, I read the competing arguments, compare the assertions to what I (think I) know, and decide which proposals seem most reasonable. Add in the European debt crisis, and I’m pretty much going with my gut.

Similarly, ongoing debates about government regulation are typically posed as “more” or “less,” when the real question is “which ones.” How many of us really know enough to opine about the safety of fracking, or the maximum amount of arsenic that’s safe in our drinking water?

The recent hysteria over health care reform was another case in point. That the American health care industry (it hasn’t been remotely coherent enough to be called a “system”) is a wasteful, costly monstrosity is admitted by virtually everyone.

The question isn’t whether to keep it or change it; failure to change it will bankrupt the country. The question is how, and I defy any of the folks who got up and screamed at town hall meetings to offer a comprehensive, workable alternative to the Affordable Care Act—or even to demonstrate a grasp of how things currently work.

This is not a defense of the act (I personally favored “Medicare for all”), because I do not know enough to attack or defend it. My point is that neither did most of the people doing the attacking and defending.

Recognizing the limits of what “we the people” understand points to an uncomfortable challenge. When should democratic processes decide policies, and when should we trust impartial technocrats?

I am generally comfortable leaving such things as the assignments of air lanes, food safety standards, the disposal of chemicals and hundreds of similar decisions in the hands of people who actually have expertise in such matters. I want real scientists deciding whether global climate change is real, not Rick Perry.

On the other hand, as we saw during the last administration, the people we elect can always appoint dubious “experts” who will favor solutions desired by their political allies.

Back before our politics became so toxic, we used to say there is no Republican or Democratic way to pick up the garbage. There’s also no Republican or Democratic way to address food safety, environmental degradation, air traffic control, stock fraud and a million other tasks government must provide.

None of this is to suggest that a candidate’s philosophy of government is irrelevant. The way in which a president or mayor approaches the job will inevitably be guided by his or her belief in the proper role of government, and that’s as it should be.

We just shouldn’t elect people who mistake slogans for solutions.•

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Kennedy is a professor of law and public policy at the School of Public and Environmental Affairs at IUPUI. She blogs at www.sheilakennedy.net. She can be reached at skennedy@ibj.com.

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