Day By Day

Saturday, February 06, 2010

The Loss of Liberty

John Judis, a true believer in the cult of expertise, explains the truly revolutionary nature of the Obama administration. Forget all the surface frustrations, he argues, and look at what is going on behind the scenes. He writes:

[T]here is one extremely consequential area where Obama has done just about everything a liberal could ask for--but done it so quietly that almost no one, including most liberals, has noticed. Obama’s three Republican predecessors were all committed to weakening or even destroying the country’s regulatory apparatus: the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), and the other agencies that are supposed to protect workers and consumers by regulating business practices. Now Obama is seeking to rebuild these battered institutions. In doing so, he isn’t simply improving the effectiveness of various government offices or making scattered progress on a few issues; he is resuscitating an entire philosophy of government with roots in the Progressive era of the early twentieth century. Taken as a whole, Obama’s revival of these agencies is arguably the most significant accomplishment of his first year in office.

The regulatory agencies, most of which date from one of the three great reform periods (1901–1914, 1932–1938, and 1961–1972) of the last century, were intended to smooth out the rough edges (the “externalities,” in economic jargon) of modern capitalism--from dirty air to dangerous workplaces to defective merchandise to financial corruption. With wide latitude in writing and enforcing regulations, they have been described as a “fourth branch of government.”

That wide latitude could invite abuses of power, but the old-time progressives who fashioned the regulatory state rested their hopes on what could be called “scientific administration.” Louis Brandeis and Herbert Croly--to name two of the foremost turn-of-the-century progressives--believed that the agencies, staffed by experts schooled in social and natural science and employing the scientific method in their decision-making, could rise above partisanship and interest-group pressure. Brandeis’s famous concept of states as “laboratories of democracy” comes out of his defense of state regulation of industry and was meant to conjure an image of states basing their regulatory activities on the scientific method. For his part, Croly often made the progressive case for disinterested expertise. The success of the regulatory agencies, he wrote, depended upon “a sufficient popular confidence in the ability of enlightened and trained individuals … and the actual existence for their use of a body of sufficiently authentic social knowledge.”

Read the whole thing here.

What Judis has sketched out is a technocratic state in which the power of government is concentrated in executive agencies staffed by credentialed "experts", insulated from democratic processes, and responsive, not to the will of the people, but to abstract "scientific" principles objectively arrived at and impartially applied. This was the dream of the original "progressives" and it animates the true believers of the Obama administration. To many, however, it is a nightmare.

As David Hume taught us long ago there is no such thing as a disinterested authority. Science, no less than any other human enterprise, is subject to all the foibles, weaknesses and perversions to which humanity is subject. One need only look at the recent history of the environmentalist movement and the IPCC to see this truth played out on a global stage. If I were a fan of irony I would note that it is precisely at this time in which credentialed authority has been displayed in the worst possible light that our political system is avidly embracing the once discredited cult of expertise, but I am not, so I will content myself with the observation that what excites and enthralls people like Mr. Judis should frighten or dismay anyone who appreciates the benefits of personal freedom and individual competence.

The interest of experts, even when aroused by sincere compassion, has a tendency to turn into concern and ultimately into contempt for the individuals that they would claim to benefit. The process is well known and has played out time and again over the course of the past century. Once subject to scientific interest people become objects, little more than data points; individuals become representatives of sociologically defined groups; and regulation more and more circumscribes the freedom of individuals.

Chait wrote his piece to praise Obama. As far as I can see he has merely illustrated why Americans everywhere have to come together to make sure that Obama's progressive agenda must be defeated. Our freedom is at stake.