There is No Disinterested Authority

In a recent discussion, someone proposed “a political system comprised of professionals rather than career politicians.” Policy-making bodies, she suggested, might be equally divided between professionals and elected politicians.

The problem with such a proposal is that there’s no such thing as neutral or disinterested expertise. How do you prevent a professional culture from representing an institutional mindset? At any given time, a professional culture has a lot invested emotionally in defending the existing paradigm against challenges, as Thomas Kuhn noted in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.

Professionals are no more immune than anyone else to having their unconscious assumptions shaped by situational and power considerations. Anyone who’s seen academic department politics can tell you that. As a grad studient, I was in places where every single office door had the same Doonesbury cartoon mocking the irrationality of political hacks — but when it came to bureaucratic infighting, I’d put them up any day against a couple of MBAs warring for a corner office.

Early 20th century Progressivism was an ideology of engineers and professionals who saw the replacement of “politics” with disinterested expertise as the solution to everything. In the late 19th century, giant institutions like corporations, centralized government agencies, giant institutionalized universities and charitable foundations revolutionized society. And Progressivism was the ideology of the new class of white collar professionals who managed those giant institutions.

The first corporate managers came from an industrial engineering background, and saw managing large institutions as analogous to managing a production process on the shop floor: Treating the entire thing as a system to be rationalized. The logical next step was for these same professional managers to treat society itself as such a system.

The problem with this is that the professionals’ conception of “efficiency” reflects a lot of unconscious assumptions influenced by their own institutional background. The most rational and efficient solutions they choose, oddly enough, will just happen to be “reforms” that can be carried out by people like themselves acting through the same kind of institutional framework as they currently govern. One reason our society has increasingly become so complex, so centralized, so institutionalized, and so dependent on the hegemony of professionals, is that “properly qualified professionals” see increased institutionalization and hierarchy — under the supervision of professionals like themselves — as the solution to everything.

There’s a saying — attributed to Bucky Fuller, I think — that society can’t solve problems on the same level of thinking that created them. C. Wright Mills coined the term “crackpot realism” for this tendency. When a giant, centralized, hierarchical institution, governed by Weberian/Taylorist “rationality,” is the tool you’re working with, you tend to be like someone with a big hammer who sees everything as a nail.

And when policy is made by people who operate on the unquestioned assumption — unquestioned because it never occurred to them that it might be questionable — that large bureaucracies administered by professional managers and experts are the best way to organize things, it’s no surprise that society is increasingly dominated by such an institutional framework.

By the very nature of things, in any society, the range of “moderate” or “mainstream” reforms are those that can be carried out largely within the existing structure of power, with only secondary tweaking of institutions at most, by the kinds of people who are currently running things. A “radical” or “extreme” proposal is one that will require major changes to the institutional framework and can’t be carried out by people like those currently running things. That’s something that won’t change under a technocracy.

And who decides who the professionals are? Do the politicians appoint the 50% of professionals to sit on the council with them? Or do the professionals promote their own successors by cooptation, like the Soviet politburo?

For example: I’ve repeatedly seen apologists for the USDA/agribusiness complex claim Norman Borlaug saved millions from starvation, citing him as an authority on the worthlessness of organic agriculture. But I’ve also seen experts like intensive horticulturist John Jeavons demonstrate that everything Borlaug thought he knew about organic farming was wrong. So who’ll be the “professional” making agri policy?

As James Scott pointed out in “Seeing Like a State,” high-modernist ideologies like “professionalism” tend toward authoritarian hubris on the potential for social engineering.  There are ways of reasoning with a political hack, based on self-interest. But how do you deal with a “disinterested professional” who sincerely believes she knows what’s best for you?

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