Today we have the “rule of experts.” Monopoly experts have the power to choose for you in one field after another, including child protective services, economic policy, and pandemic response. But if you give some humans the monopoly power to choose for other humans, you have created some dangerous incentives. The rule of experts gives you the highest chance of expert failure. We should value expertise, but fear expert power. Whenever possible, then, we should do away with the rule of experts by empowering the people. Let each person choose for themself, and let the experts compete with each other to provide advice. That’s a call for ramping down the power of government bureaucrats and ramping up personal freedom. But you can push that idea only so far with pandemic policy.
Whatever the best policy might have been, at least some restrictions were clearly needed. In the moment of danger, governments cannot avoid turning to experts to help them craft policy. When confronting a pandemic, then, is there nothing a government can do but listen to the epidemiological experts and obey their wizardly words? There may be a few things governments can do to limit “expert failure” in moments of crisis.
Governments should recognise that their experts are, all of them, giving a partial perspective. Apparently, British and American policy was driven primarily by a report whose lead author was Neil Ferguson. That report seems to have considered only one danger: Covid. The one-sided analysis of that report may have left governments in the US and UK insensitive to the possibility that that lockdown itself might create its own fatalities, which might even end up larger than the number of Covid deaths. As economists never tire of reminding us, we are always facing tradeoffs and must adjust along all margins.
Governments should also be more diligent in the pursuit of competing opinions. In his essay, “What is science?” Richard Feynman remarked “Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts.” A government that respects science should be sceptical of experts and, perhaps, more diligently seek out multiple viewpoints. In other words, when governments cannot leave the matters in the hands of the people, it should do what it can to simulate a competitive market for expert advice. A simulation is not the real thing, and we may grimly expect that in future crises governments will again fall victim to expert failure. But a greater effort to engage diversity of expert opinion within and across areas of expertise and a livelier scientific scepticism toward experts and their expertise may at least make expert failure less frequent and less severe.
I would feel better if experts had more skin in the game. Neil Ferguson had a history of being spectacularly wrong in the past, but that cost him nothing.