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Rebuilding trust in expertise

Jan 09,2024 - Last updated at Jan 09,2024

CAMBRIDGE — The handmaiden to populism’s rise across the West has been distrust of experts, particularly those in positions of power who believe their specialised knowledge entitles them to make decisions that affect millions of people. Populist leaders routinely rebuke such experts, disparaging them as entrenched, out-of-touch political operatives inhabiting the “swamp,” the “blob”, or the “deep state”.

This sentiment stems, in part, from the economic shocks that followed the 2008 financial crisis, which culminated in today’s high inflation and stagnant productivity. As middle-class parents faced the prospect that their children might not be better off than them, they were bound to look for someone to blame. In an atmosphere of widespread public discontent, the technocratic elite emerged as a convenient scapegoat.

To be sure, independent expertise has failed to prevent crises such as the near-collapse of the global financial system or the COVID-19 pandemic. At times, experts have even made things worse. For example, central banks were far too slow to recognise the readily apparent fact that massive quantitative easing would boost asset prices, thus disproportionately benefiting those who already owned assets and contributing to rising inequality.

The concept of independent central banks setting monetary policy, insulated from the short-term pressures of electoral cycles, seemed self-evident during the stable years between the 1990s and the mid-2000s. In retrospect, however, the macroeconomic stability of the “Great Moderation” likely owed as much to factors like the integration of China into the global economy, and even sheer luck, as it did to sound policymaking.

But the growing public distrust of experts is not merely the result of widespread economic distress or the proliferation of conspiracy theories on social media. At the heart of the backlash against expertise are profound technological and economic shifts that call for more than just specialised know-how; they require value judgements.

Nowhere is the transition from a relatively stable (albeit complex) decision-making environment to one of radical uncertainty more apparent than in competition policy. Technological advances in artificial intelligence and decarbonisation, together with escalating geopolitical tensions and a worldwide revival of industrial policy, have led to a departure from the principles that have long underpinned global antitrust enforcement.

The so-called Chicago School approach, which focuses on consumer prices within specific markets and maintains a skeptical view of state intervention in markets and mergers, has dominated antitrust enforcement in the United States and elsewhere since the 1970s. This analytical framework required complex legal and economic analyses by antitrust experts and often resulted in competition authorities being granted independent decision-making powers — an arrangement that was viewed as an effective defense against industry lobbying. If there was an objectively “correct” course of action in any given merger case, the thinking went, government interference could only make things worse.

In recent years, however, the case for expert-guided decision-making has begun to unravel. US antitrust enforcers, led by Federal Trade Commission Chair Lina Khan and Jonathan Kanter, head of the Justice Department’s antitrust division, have focused their attention on reducing the structural market power of large companies, signaling a return to a traditional, “pre-expert” understanding of how markets function.

The resurgence of industrial policies, driven by geopolitical considerations and the strategic need to maintain a dominant position on the technological frontier in key areas like batteries and advanced semiconductors, has far-reaching implications for competition analysis. After all, there are no definitive analytical answers to questions such as whether the state should subsidize domestic firms in emerging high-tech sectors or level the competitive playing field for foreign suppliers. These questions require a careful evaluation of the inherent uncertainties, the political environment and the potential winners and losers. These are not issues that technocrats can resolve on their own, although their expertise remains vital to devising effective policies.

Despite the populist backlash, the world still needs technocrats. In his 1973 book “The Coming of Post-Industrial Society” the sociologist Daniel Bell anticipated the tension between the expertise necessary to run a complex modern society and the appeal of populist ideologies. To maintain the authority of scientific and technical expertise, he wrote, we must rethink how experts interact with the public.

Better communication is essential, starting with what is often called “communicating with the ears” — that is, experts genuinely listening to people instead of lecturing them. By embracing more deliberative and participatory methods, experts could facilitate a two-way flow of information and foster trust. But in the current climate of rampant misinformation and suspicion, such incremental measures may not yield dramatic results.

Restoring confidence in expertise will not be quick or easy, and it would be foolish to expect more thoughtful leadership from populist politicians. Instead of merely hoping for the best, researchers could help rebuild trust by reassessing and updating our existing institutional frameworks to keep pace with today’s fast-changing global environment. As the boundaries between value-based decisions and independent expertise become increasingly blurred, we must ensure that we do not throw the baby out with the bathwater.


Diane Coyle, professor of Public Policy at the University of Cambridge, is the author, most recently, of “Cogs and Monsters: What Economics Is”, and “What It Should Be” (Princeton University Press, 2021). Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2023.

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