The People and the Experts: What Each Knows and What it Means for Politics

The Relationship of the Private Individual to the Expert

Consider the following situation: A private individual complains to a doctor of a headache and other symptoms. The doctor diagnoses her with a health issue she had never even heard of and prescribes a drug not covered by public insurance to be taken twice a day.

We can immediately note a few things:

  • Being an expert or a layman is not a class but a role: The private individual is a layman in this situation and the doctor an expert. If this were a different scenario, say, for example, the doctor is looking to invest money, the private individual might be the expert and the doctor the layman.
  • The layman is seeking something from the expert: The private individual initiates the process by complaining to the doctor, she is seeking advice, instruction, support, or something else. She need not engage the doctor but obviously thinks it best or at least worthwhile.
  • They collaborate to come to the ultimate result: The private individual explains her symptoms, something the doctor would not otherwise know about, and the doctor explains what they mean in medical terms. The doctor prescribes a course of action and it is ultimately up to the layman to carry it out.

It is clear that the ideal collaboration between the two occurs when each expresses what only they can know and each understands what the other is expressing. We must therefore ask: What is it that only the layman or the expert knows?

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By what right does each participate in the decision-making process? The layman participates because it is her life on the line, or, to put it less dramatically, she is a stakeholder. The expert is there because there is a possibility they can help. This distinction is important because it means the layman’s involvement is necessary whereas the expert’s involvement is optional.

The Relationship of the Politician to the Civil Servant

Consider the following situation: Seeing that people are concerned, a politician seeks advice from civil servants about the treatment of a health condition. The civil servants present different options for public pharmaceutical schemes and delivery.

The politician and the civil servant imitate but do not mirror the relationship of the private individual and the expert, but they too are layman and expert.

What is the difference? In a democracy, the politician is meant to represent the people, but that does not make the politician one of them. Unlike the people, they do not necessarily experience the illnesses treated by the health policy they pass nor drive on those roads built by the infrastructure funding they approve. The civil servant, by the same token, despite being there because of their knowledge and merit, often lacks any deep knowledge of the subject matter they are working on. Despite these differences, the politician and civil servant do have a special kind of layman-expert relationship.

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The similarities and differences between the politician and the private individual can be explained in terms of the political dimension of problems. For the layman, all kinds of a problems may be tangled up in a single event. The woman’s illness clearly has a health dimension, but it may also have an economic, legal, ecological, and psychological dimension. If we define politics broadly as how we choose to live together, and layers of politics on the group with whom we are trying to live, many (if not most) private issues have at least a small “p” political dimension. This is what is meant when people talk about family or church politics.

Given this definition, all politics is not local. A personal issue we are having may be shaped by how we “live together” with people we have never met and will never meet half way across the world. Because of the experiential character of the layman’s knowledge, therefore, this dimension of politics necessarily stays latent for the private individual.

The purpose of having politicians is to charge them with precisely the political dimension of problems that necessarily escape private individuals. The genius of having politicians is that their responsibility to decide gives them the vantage point to experience those political dimensions of the problem directly. That is, because they are the one who has to make the decision, a more or less wide variety of stakeholders comes to them with their perspective.

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A brief aside: This gives us a much better understanding of representation than what we typically think. The conventional understanding of representation is that the politician expresses the majority’s views at the legislature. This understanding produces a contradiction with the politician’s role as a representative of all constituents. Indeed, the very diversity and conflict of views that necessitates politics prevents such an understanding of representation from ever working. However, if we understand representation as a better or worse stand in for the diversity and conflicting pressures that make up the latent political dimension of all constituents shared reality, then the tensions and contradictions of the politicians role, however disappointing are much more understandable. 

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Properly speaking, therefore, whether it is a matter of health policy, foreign trade, infrastructure, or employment standards, the problem that the politician faces is always a political one. This explains how the civil servant occupies the position of expert even when they have no expertise in the subject matter they are dealing with.

Just as the private individual went to the doctor to help with the medical dimension of her problem, but not necessarily the others, so too the politician goes to the civil servant for the policy dimension of their problem and not the others (e.g. electoral). It is in this dimension that the civil servant has specialized knowledge, and it is to this that their methods apply.

Poets and the Legislators of the World

“Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.”

-Percy Shelley

To make their recommendations, policy makers sift through many different types of information. They look at data, reports, news article, industry submissions, academic articles, blogs, infographics, letters from ordinary submissions to name, and much more. What role should art play in all this? How should a policy maker’s analysis of an issue be affected by songs, films, television, paintings or poetry?

It seems to me ridiculous to ask Bob Dylan his opinion on any given policy issue, but it would have been equally foolish once upon a time not to listen to his songs. I think this is because a good song tells us at least as much about an issue as a good opinion editorial, it just doesn’t tell us the same kind of thing. Perhaps a more modest title for poets would be the “feel-tanks” of the world.

Like think-tanks, their appeal is their “independence” (and like think-tanks this is always worth questioning), and freedom to imagine things anew. Their methods ought to be just as rigorous in capturing the kind of feeling, both popular and concealed, of society. In releasing their “report” to the community, every artist poses the kind of question that could never fit in a scientifically valid survey. Policy makers would do well to understand both those questions and their answers.