The tyranny and hubris of experts

Today, another brief (in the sense of intellectual content) essay, as I’m still working on the Madrid talk, the Heartland conference is this weekend, and I have to, believe it or not, do some work my masters want.

William F. Buckley, Jr. has died, God rest his soul. He famously said, “I’d rather be governed by the first 2000 names in the Boston phone book than by the dons of Harvard.” I can’t usefully add to the praise of this great man that has begun appearing since his death two days ago, but I can say something interesting about this statement.

There are several grades of pine “2 by 4’s”, the studs that make up the walls and ceilings of your house. Superior grades are made for exterior walls, lesser grades are useful for external projects, such as temporary bracing. A carpenter would never think of using a lesser grade to build your roof’s trusses, for example. Now, if you were run into a Home Depot and grab the first pine studs you came to (along with the book How to Build a Wall), thinking you could construct a sturdy structure on your own, you might be right. But you’re more likely to be wrong. So you would not hesitate to call in an expert, like my old dad, to either advise you of the proper materials or to build the thing himself.

Building an entire house, or even just one wall, is not easy. It is a complicated task requiring familiarity with a great number of tools, knowledge of various building techniques and materials, and near memorization of the local building codes. But however intricate a carpenter’s task is, we can see that it is manageable. Taken step by step, we can predict to great accuracy exactly what will happen when we, say, cut a board a certain way and nail it to another. In this sense, carpentry is a simple system.

There is no shortage of activities like this: for example baking, auto mechanics, surgery, accounting, electronic engineering, and even statistics. Each of these diverse occupations are similar in the sense that when we are plying that trade, we can pull a lever and we usually or even certainly know which cog will engage and therefore what output to expect. That is, once one has become an expert in that field. If we are not an expert and we need the services of one of these trades, we reach for phone book and find somebody who knows what he’s doing.

But there are other areas which are not so predictable. One of these is governance, which is concerned with controlling and forecasting the activity and behavior of humans. As everybody knows, it is impossible to reliably project what even one person will do on a consistent basis, let alone say what a city or country full of people will be like in five years. Human interactions are horribly, unimaginably complex and chaotic, and impossible to consistently predict.

Of course, not everyone thinks so. There is an empirically-observed relationship that says the more institutionalized formal education a person has, the more likely it is that that person believes he can predict human behavior. We call these persons academics. These are the people who make statements (usually in peer-reviewed journals) like, “If we eliminate private property, then there will be exact income equality” and “We can’t let WalMart build a store in our town because WalMart is a corporation.” (I cleaned up the language a bit, since this is a PG-rated blog.)

It is true, and it is good, that everybody has opinions on political matters, but most people, those without the massive institutionalized formal education, are smart enough to realize the true value of their opinions. Not so the academics, who are usually in thrall to a theory whose tenets dictate that if you pull this one lever, this exact result will always obtain. Two examples, “If we impose a carbon tax, global warming will cease” and “If the U.S.A. dismantles its nuclear weapons, so too will the rest of the world, which will then be a safer place.”

Political and economic theories are strong stuff and even the worst of them is indestructible. No amount of evidence or argument can kill them because they can always find refuge among the tenured. The academics believe in these theories ardently and often argue that they should be given the chance—because they are so educated and we are not—to implement them. They think that—quite modestly of course–because they are so smart and expert, that they can decide what is best for those not as smart and expert. Their hero is Plato who desired a country run by philosophers, the best of the best thinkers. In other words, people like them.

The ordinary, uneducated man is more likely to just want to be left alone in most matters and would design his laws accordingly. He would in general opt for freedom over guardianship. He is street-smart enough to know that his decisions often have unanticipated outcomes, and is therefore less lofty in his goals. And this is why Buckley would choose people from the phone book rather the from the campus.


  1. Russell

    Since those statements appeared in peer-reviewed journals, might you be so kind as to cite the specific articles?

  2. When I was a kid, we had 3 magazines and 1 newspaper in the house: Human Events, Readers Digest, MAD Magazine, and National Review. My father hated the government’s self professing status as the experts for schooling kids and anything and everything else.

    My wife and I home schooled our kids for many years and I continued with National Review. Buckley had me pulling out my dictionary many times and my wife marveled at the words he used. And she was an English major in college.

  3. Tom Van der Veer

    Great quote from a great man. Indeed, may he rest in peace. I have been a WFB Jr. fan for many years. I was a subscriber to the National Review and enjoyed reading his editorials. Having my dictionary at hand was necessary and my vocabulary increased ten-fold. About 40 years ago, I was flying from Newark to Pittsburgh on a United Viscount and Mr. Buckley and his wife Pat were on board. He cared for her greatly and that could be why his health declined after she passed away last year.

  4. James


    I think that you will find that the word “like” after “These are the people who make statements (usually in peer-reviewed journals)” qualifies the sentence to show that Briggs is giving a gist of what they say in said journals rather than quoting directly.

    English lesson over.

  5. Briggs


    True. But Russel’s request has motivated me. When I can find the time, I will search out actual sources for quotes similar to these.

    The Marxist one is probably, or should be, obvious. Come to that, the other ones seem just as ordinary. Nevertheless, it will be a fun exercise.

    Maybe some reader can help us out?


  6. jorge c.

    “the war is a thing so important to be left in the hands of the generals” George “tiger” Clemenceau, french prime minister after Worl War I (cite no textual)

  7. Steve Hempell


    OT, and I know your busy, but you may be interested in what is going on at What’s up with That? re “Interesting plots of temperature trends: the 4 global temperature metrics according to Basil” and “A look at temperature anomalies for all 4 global metrics: Part 1”.

    Partly your fault – hee hee.

  8. TCO

    You present little data (even cases) to support this view. Also, there are plenty of cases of demogogues taking advantage of the common man.

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