Experts, Elites, and the Conservative Intellectual

My father and I are different in many ways, but one difference between us has become clearer since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic. When things look bleak, he turns for advice from professionals; I, on the other hand, turn to experts. This isn’t surprising: he’s a financial professional and I am an academic. Now that financial markets are collapsing, he relies on his own professional instincts, his fellow stock brokers, businessmen, and career investors for advice. I rely on economists and political scientists. Now that coronavirus has spread throughout the United States, he seeks out the opinions of physicians and nurses. I seek out the opinions of epidemiologists and virologists. In spiritual matters, he’d likely listen to a parish priest or minister. I would favor the words of a theologian. In the end, we wind up receiving a lot of the same information. The way that information is delivered and packaged, however, couldn’t be more different.

Expertise, and the backlash against it, has been a buzzy concept since the election of Donald Trump. The culture’s antipathy toward so-called “elites” has always included hostility toward expertise, and the voices behind this hostility has been amplified over the past four years by mainstream media and armchair sociologists, who believe that, by striking a vein of resentment in certain corners of middle America, they are striking the mother lode of the American psyche. I believe that, in reality, Americans are far less resentful of elites than the media would have us believe—in any event, political resentment does not rule the lives of those citizens who don’t consume news media twenty-four hours a day. But a degree of distrust is observable in the fact that Republicans are far less likely to take the coronavirus seriously than are Democrats. (More here.) Among Republicans, those who consume conservative media believe that the threat posed by the coronavirus has been exaggerated. Residents of rural, conservative states (such as South Dakota, where I live) seem less committed to social distancing. Overall, conservatives seem less committed to a broad, society-wide effort to curb the spread of the virus.

Once upon a time, liberals explained conservative distrust of experts with a simple narrative: conservatives are stupid. Conservatives are uneducated. Conservatives are anti-intellectual. John Stuart Mill famously labeled the Tories “the stupid party.” Richard Hofstadter’s Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (1963) and “The Paranoid Style in American Politics” (1964) took specific aim at right-wing conservatives. William F. Buckley famously said that he’d rather be governed by the first 500 names in the Boston phonebook than by the faculty of Harvard University.

But, despite his populist posturing, Buckley was very much part of what William E. Simon called the conservative “counter-intelligentsia.” This current of intellectual conservatism, which has fancied itself an underground or countercultural force since the days of Edmund Burke, lent intellectual pedigree to the presidencies of Reagan and Bush the Younger. Conservative intellectuals published in the house organs of these administrations (National Review, The Weekly Standard) and helped undergird the John M. Olin Foundation, the Heritage Foundation, and the Hoover Institution. These organizations historically provided home to conservative scholars, academics, and public intellectuals—in short, conservative experts.

If you follow these publications and organizations, you will know that they did not immediately warm to Donald Trump when he appeared in 2015. Even such Republican propaganda outlets as FoxNews and The Rush Limbaugh Show were initially tepid on Trump. But once the Overton window shifted to the right, once Breitbart went mainstream and Steve Bannon became a public intellectual and White House advisor, the counter-intelligentsia got on board with the 45th president. His disdain for experts and elites, not a new trend in conservative politics, was quickly adopted by conservative experts and elites.

The coronavirus pandemic presents a unique challenge to the alliance between conservative intellectuals and Donald Trump. Will they adhere to Republican Party talking points, which initially downplayed the threat of the virus, even as the bodies begin to pile up? Different conservative intellectuals have responded in different ways. Your typical Hoover Institution fellow has carved a narrow path between heeding the advice of experts and mocking the policies recommended by liberals in the media and the Democratic Party.

And then there is First Things.

The journal of choice among religious intellectual conservatives, First Things and its editor R.R. Reno have consistently bemoaned the Roman Catholic Church’s decision to close their doors throughout Europe and the United States. By conceding that the Church is “non-essential,” Reno argues, the bishops have admitted that they value physical health over spiritual health. That countless churches in various traditions have adjusted to the crisis and offered services and liturgies online is beside the point for Reno; the presence of the eucharist, the center of the faith, is being denied to Christians by their leaders. This is an outrage.

How do we heed the advice of medical experts without dismissing the spiritual well-being that church provides for so many? For Nathan Pinkoski, in a recent First Things article, the answer is to reevaluate our reliance on expertise. This article is a perfect distillation of the conservative intellectual stance toward expertise in the age of Trump. Pinkoski begins by citing Alasdair MacIntyre’s ethical treatise After Virtue (1981), which serves as a kind of founding text for First Things (and one of the inspirations for Rod Dreher’s influential The Benedict Option). Pinkoski writes:

MacIntyre singles out managerial, bureaucratic “expertise” as hindering human flourishing in our time. Managerial experts claim to possess technical skills that enable them to achieve (or to advise others how to achieve) whatever outcomes are worth achieving. “Expertise” is a claim to efficiency in achieving those ends. It is the basis for a manager’s authority to manipulate human beings into compliant patterns of behavior. The authority of expertise legitimates many of the institutions that dominate modern social life—government bureaucracies, psychological counseling, progressive education, and more. The claim of expertise purports to justify all kinds of social control.

This paranoid vision of expertise, that it “purports to justify all kinds of social control,” is a token of faith among religious intellectual conservatives. “Over the last few weeks,” writes Pinkoski, “we’ve been regularly treated to the spectacle of a media class scolding everyone, including politicians, into silence. They must obey the ‘experts.’ Those who don’t are guilty of instigating a ‘war on experts’ or a ‘war on science.'” He admits that expertise is real, but that experts have only a “modest” role to play in public discourse, and that any apparent consensus among experts is an illusion because experts disagree with each other all the time. (One finds this fact—that experts often disagree about details, models, and outcomes—used to discredit broad scientific consensus about everything from the theory of evolution to climate change.) Pinkoski continues:

MacIntyre does not think social science can remain scientific in a proper sense, because the institutional pressures to distort it are too great. “Expertise” and its exaggerated claims are too politically valuable. The managerial actor in a great drama of our time covets the legitimating pronouncements of experts. For expertise—all the more so in moments of crisis—legitimates widespread uses of power and delegitimates those who question it. This is a very handy tool for those who wield power. It has the added advantage of protecting the manager from recrimination if things go wrong: “I was following the advice of the best experts.” This protection from recrimination is the most valuable service management consultants provide managers.

In one fell swoop, Pinkoski discredits the claims of “the social sciences” because such claims can never remain politically neutral or undistorted by “institutional pressures.” You can’t trust what sociologists, psychologists, economists, historians, linguists, political scientists, or legal scholars tell you (apparently you can still trust theologians and humanists, at least the conservative ones) because their conclusions will always drive massive, totalizing policies. This is not the typical critique of the social sciences’ methodology, that their pretense to objectivity and their appropriation of the scientific method from the hard sciences are fraudulent. This is a different critique altogether, one that discredits knowledge not based on the method of its extraction or based on its veracity but based on its effects.

So we can’t trust social scientists. But can we trust epidemiologists? Pinkoski writes:

In reflecting on the COVID-19 crisis, we need not agree with MacIntyre’s wholesale pessimism about our political and social institutions. We need not question shutdown measures in place, nor even subscribe to their “biopolitical” critique. But if we care about the future of our societies, we raise a simple question: Do the managerial experts performing within the drama of this crisis have an adequate understanding of the hierarchy of human goods? 

Experts, including public health experts, often assume that the focus of their work constitutes the highest good in the hierarchy of human goods. Thus, economists assume utility-maximization, psychologists identify mental or emotion well-being, and public health experts focus on alleviating suffering and preventing death. These are all good, true, but expert advice on how to attain them functions best within a more integrated account of the good, one that is based on wisdom, not expertise. 

We can see this need for an authority greater than expertise in the conduct of war, which is presently being widely used as a metaphor for our present struggle against disease. It is precisely in wartime situations that we look to those who hold political office—non-managerial, non-expert leaders—to understand, assess, and hold in balance the hierarchy of human goods. As Georges Clemenceau said, exasperated by the political, indeed human ignorance of the military experts, “La guerre! C’est une chose trop grave pour la confier à des militaires.”

(The untranslated final sentence is the old dictum, made famous in Dr. Strangelove, that “war is too serious to be left to the generals”: untranslated because, if you’re reading First Things, of course you speak French!)

I am a humanist (a scholar in the humanities, not necessarily an Enlightenment-style humanist who believes “man is the measure of all things”—I don’t). As such, I am actually quite sympathetic to Pinkoski’s complaints about the social sciences. This sympathy is partly rooted in my legitimate suspicion of the reliability of social scientific methodology and partly in my professional resentment over just how good social scientists are at explaining the world (unlike, say, English professors). But I cannot endorse Pinkoski’s wholesale rejection of the role of social scientific expertise in policy-making, and I certainly cannot conflate social scientific expertise with the expertise of epidemiologists and virologists.

We would all prefer wisdom over knowledge, information, and expertise, of course. And wisdom does not always rely on great knowledge, vast troves of information, or narrow expertise. Wisdom has many founts. But policy wisdom must be informed by knowledge, information, and expertise. (Unsurprisingly, religious intellectual conservatives are very happy to support the social sciences when they produce a study about, say, the superiority of two-parent households or the quantifiable advantages of sexual chastity.)

The key paragraph of Pinkoski’s essay comes in the middle:

The ascendancy of expertise has done great harm, MacIntyre argues. It gets in the way of practical judgment based on the hierarchy of goods that establish for us the ends of action. Overstating the capacities of experts promotes the performative sensationalism that characterizes so much of modern political and social life. The critique of managerial expertise is, then, no mere parenthesis in After Virtue. It is a key feature of modernity that hinders human flourishing, keeping the virtues marginal and keeping us waiting for a new St. Benedict.

One again, as a humanist, I find much in here to admire. I would love to see an expanded role for philosophers, ethicists, and theologians in conversations about public policy. I would love to discuss “the hierarchy of goods” with the president’s advisors. But Pinkoski overstates the case against social scientific experts and misapplies MacIntyre’s argument by using it against the acquired knowledge and (yes) wisdom of epidemiologists during a time of plague. This is not the appropriate time or situation in which to dress up Trump’s anti-elitism with intellectual flourishes. Do we need St. Benedict in our lives? Absolutely. But when confronting a virus, I’ll listen to Dr. Fauci.

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