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Helen Dale on liberalism and technocracy

Summary:
CapX is running a series of pieces on “Illiberalism in Europe”, with the support of the Atlas Network. The first one is by writer Helen Dale and makes a number of interesting points. Dale is clearly more sympathetic to the populist upsurge than others. Yet she identifies persuasively one of its characters: that is, antipathy for experts. This has been accounted as a most dangerous factor by many, beginning with Tom Nichols’s book The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why it Matters. Dale takes a very different route, and sympathizes with the enemies of expertise. The gist of her piece is embodied in the title: (classical) liberalism should be no friend to technocrats. This is because government by experts is an old rhetorical tool

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CapX is running a series of pieces on “Illiberalism in Europe”, with the support of the Atlas Network. The first one is by writer Helen Dale and makes a number of interesting points.

Dale is clearly more sympathetic to the populist upsurge than others. Yet she identifies persuasively one of its characters: that is, antipathy for experts. This has been accounted as a most dangerous factor by many, beginning with Tom Nichols’s book The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why it Matters. Dale takes a very different route, and sympathizes with the enemies of expertise.

The gist of her piece is embodied in the title: (classical) liberalism should be no friend to technocrats. This is because government by experts is an old rhetorical tool deployed to justify manifold interventions into people’s lives. Most of this expertise, according to Dale, is quite unfounded and in actual fact is only a cover for special interests. In particular, concerning lifestyle regulation she argues that:

You don’t have to be some sort of Marxist to notice how much nanny-statism involves policing undertaken by the upper-middle-classes of activities typically engaged in by minorities, many of them poor. Think attacks on alcohol, cigarettes, and sugar (working class men); attempts to ban kosher and halal slaughter (Jews and Muslims); attacks on sex work (poor women); attacks on vaping (people who quit smoking using “non-approved” methods). In other words, the ex-commies over at Spiked have a point when they suggest a great deal of modern populism amounts to people outside the bubble telling some posh, mouthy feminist to bog off and leave their porn-watching habits alone. Remember the recent ban on gender stereotyping in adverts? The Great British Public laughed its collective arse off because this is ridiculous and ridiculous things ought to be ridiculed.

Yet Dale is not calling for incompetence in government. The most subtle of her points is that one of the risks of relying too much on experts is the kind of group think that dominates experts’ groups – like many others. She would like to see “intellectually curious people, expert or otherwise” in positions of responsibility.

While I find that abstractly admirable, I am a bit puzzled by how difficult sometimes the terms of the debate are. Who is an expert, by the way? Does a Master’s degree making you one? A PhD? Certainly government has, and always has had, a limited number of experts in an academic sense. Lots of pundits claimed to be experts, but they really were not. Intellectual curiosity is a great virtue, but how can you spot it in people? And how could voters do that, in particular, on Election Day?

Dale’s piece is interesting and a good counter to many, equally interesting, pieces on the “epistocratic side”.

It seems obvious to me that classical liberals had better go back to basics: what matters is the size and the extent of government, not who governs. Yet how can you have governments that consume roughly 50% of GDP in a country, and rely on any other than allegedly competent people to manage it, I can’t see. Big government calls for arrogant government, so to say.


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Alberto Mingardi
Mingardi, one of the rising stars of European libertarianism, is the founder and Director General of the Italian free-market think tank, Instituto Bruno Leoni. His areas of interest include the history of economic thought and antitrust and healthcare systems. He is particularly well known for popularizing the work of past scholars under-appreciated by today’s libertarians. Currently an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute, Mingardi has also worked with the Heritage Foundation, the Atlas Economic Research Foundation, the Acton Institute, and the Centre for a New Europe.

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