Democracy and experts

Over on the excellent Project Syndicate, Jean Pisani-Ferry outlines a reason not to simply dismiss the rejection of experts by populist movements. He is spot on when he points out that policy experts tend not to pay sufficient attention to the effects of change on individuals or groups within society, as long as benefits accrue in aggregate:

As Ravi Kanbur of Cornell University pointed out long ago, economists (and policymakers) tend to look at issues in the aggregate, to take a medium-term perspective, and to assume that markets work well enough to absorb a large part of adverse shocks. Their perspective clashes with that of people who care more about distributional issues, have different (often shorter) time horizons, and are wary of monopolistic behavior.

Of course, the (perceived) needs of the few versus the benefits accruing to the many is a moral question, not simply an quantitative one.

From a Christian ethical viewpoint, negative effects on the few matter a great deal, if those few are poor or powerless. Think, for example, of the socially progressive concerns reflected in Deuteronomy or the Old Testament prophets.

But even if we can agree on this, who gets to speak for the poor?

At the moment, the progressive elite and economic experts are united in their focus on aggregate effects. One suspects that this is partly because those aggregate effects also provide personal benefits to both groups—because both groups are generally well-educated, and as a result often well-off.

But these aggregate effects often fail to reflect the real negatives faced by many individuals, and indeed many groups within British society. This is especially true of many communities in the North of England and on the fringes of major cities, for people who are not recent immigrants, or for skilled workers.

I have been frustrated to see well-off, well-educated EU supporters projecting their legitimate distress over EU exit onto those poorer people who voted to leave. These comments have often been extraordinarily patronising.

But to me, the vote to leave had at least one real positive. It showed a great benefit of democracy: when an elite (and the Bremainers are part of the elite) can no longer hear and understand the concerns of the very people they devoutly want to speak for and protect, the elite are compelled to listen through the exercise of universal franchise. Many left-wingers have suggested that Parliament could overrule the decision, which is technically true, but betrays a deep-seated inability to hear from others.

Thankfully, democracy can give voice to the voiceless, no matter how unpalatable the message is. And in terms of Christian ethics, that is a valuable part of our society’s structure.