I observed that many voters in the UK and elsewhere are angry at economic experts, whom they accuse of having failed to foresee the financial crisis of 2008, of putting efficiency first in their policy advice, and of blindly assuming that the losers from their policy prescriptions can somehow be compensated, without saying how. I argued that experts should be humbler and more attentive to distributional issues.
The piece elicited far more comments from readers than any of my others. Their reactions mostly confirm the anger I had noted. They regard economists and other experts as isolated from and indifferent to the concerns of ordinary people; driven by an agenda that does not coincide with that of citizens; often blatantly wrong, and therefore incompetent; biased in favor of, or simply captured by, big business and the financial industry; and naive – failing to see that politicians select analyses that suit their ends and disregard the rest. Experts, said some, are also guilty of fracturing society by segmenting the debate into a myriad of narrow, specialized discussions.
Remarkably, I also received comments from professionals in the natural sciences who said that the citizens’ growing distrust of experts was pervasive in their disciplines, too. Scientific views in fields like energy, climate, genetics, and medicine face widespread popular rejection. In the United States, for example, a Pew Research survey found that 67% of adults think that scientists lack a clear understanding about the health effects of genetically modified organisms. Mistrust of GMOs is even higher in Europe. Whereas overall support for science remains strong, many citizens believe it is manipulated by special interests, and on a series of issues the common view departs from what scientists regard as the established evidence.
The divide between experts and citizens is a serious cause for concern. Representative democracy is based not only on universal suffrage, but also on reason. Ideally, deliberations and votes result in rational decisions that use the current state of knowledge to deliver policies that advance citizens’ wellbeing. This requires a process in which experts inform decision-makers of the available options for meeting voters’ stated preferences. And this requires trust in their competence and honesty. Citizens are unlikely to be satisfied if they believe that experts are imposing their own agenda, or are captured by special interests. Distrust of experts fuels distrust of democratically elected governments, if not of democracy itself.