The New Authoritarianism: Trump, Populism, and the Tyranny of Experts
Medford, Mass.: Polity Press, 2018
Savatore Babones is an America academic with an appointment in Sociology and Social Policy at the University of Sydney. Unusually for someone in such a position, he has a few good things to say about Donald Trump—or at least about the fact of his election. Trump himself he describes as crass, a boor and lacking in qualifications. But, he writes, “there are reasons to hope that we will have a better politics after the Trump Presidency than we could ever have had without it.”
In Babones’ thinking, conservatism, liberalism, and democracy are three timeless tendencies which can be found combined in various proportions in modern Western governments: all beneficial in some way, but each existing in a necessary tension with the others. In The New Authoritarianism, he has little to say about conservatism; he is primarily concerned with the tension between liberalism and democracy. As he sees it, liberalism has been getting the better of democracy for quite some time. His thesis is that even an unqualified boor like Donald Trump may be expected to have a salutary effect on American politics if he succeeds in shifting it away from a liberalism run amok and back toward the democratic principle.
At the most basic level, democracy refers to popular decision making through public discussion. But there are many matters that even the most besotted democrat would not wish to see resolved this way. If he is sick, he does not want to see his diagnosis and treatment put to a vote among his friends; he goes to a professional with expert knowledge of how to treat illness—and similarly for plenty of other matters.
So the question arises why we do not run our governments in the same way: by appointing qualified experts to make decisions for us? In fact, over the past century we have increasingly been trying to do this. But we have not given up on democracy entirely: we still hold popular elections. A picture of a society which has gone about as far as it is possible to go in the direction of expert rule is offered by Socrates in Plato’s Republic. The central idea of this utopia is rule by “philosopher kings” in possession of unsurpassable knowledge of man and all other politically relevant matters.
Plato’s Republic is, of course, a utopia, and the effects of trying to realize such a scheme in practice might well be extremely harmful. That is because in the realm of political decision making there are not necessarily any correct answers—and when there are, those answers are often unknowable. In other words, there cannot be anyone with the relevant expertise.
Although democracy need not be the only good or legitimate form of government, there are certainly plausible arguments to be made in its favor, and some of the best of these appeal precisely to the unavailability of expert knowledge in politics. The author offers the example of America’s decision to go to war in 1917:
The delay in America’s entry into World War I left time for the issue to be comprehensively discussed, for ordinary Americans to form opinions for and against getting involved, and for them to express those opinions, whatever their merits. As a result, when the United States did go to war in 1917 it was with the full support of the American people. Contrast that process with the politics behind America’s more recent wars waged in Southeast Asia and the Middle East, hatched by cabals of experts with little genuine public debate.
If America had intervened in WWI earlier, as Babones writes:
Millions of lives might have been saved, Russia might not have fallen to the Bolsheviks, and Germany might have been more comprehensively defeated, preventing the rise of Nazism and World War II.
But, of course, we cannot know this: “perhaps the twentieth century would have turned out even more horrifically than it did.” Genuine knowledge in such matters is impossible “because the relevant counterfactuals will never be known.”
So if we cannot prove that democracy will produce better decisions than autocratic rule, of what benefit might it be? Our author writes:
Independent thinkers are not necessarily better thinkers. But they take responsibility for their decisions in a way that obedient subjects do not. Independent thinking is more important for the health of democracy than is the success or failure of any particular policy decision.
The Athenian democracy made some disastrous mistakes, such as invading Sicily in 415 BC. Yet their loss of full independence to Macedon after the Battle of Chaeronea in 338 BC was still deeply felt, regardless of increased economic prosperity and security. Their historical fate was more their own under democratic sovereignty than it could ever be under Macedonian hegemony, however wisely exercised.
In other words, free self-rule through public deliberation and the moral responsibility which goes with it are usually felt as, and may actually be, intrinsic goods apart from any benefits they may bring. So runs one common argument in favor of democracy.
Babones blames liberalism for a decline in democratic participation; he asserts that it has become a “tyranny of experts” that functions as a form of authoritarianism. He seems to be groping his way toward something like the Burnham/Francis theory of managerialism, viz., that the basic evolution of twentieth century Western society has been determined by the rise of expert management necessitated by three forms of increasing complexity: unprecedented population growth, technological progress, and a more elaborate division of labor. Like Burnham and Francis, he sees modern liberalism as the ideology which serves to justify or legitimate this process.
Of course, liberalism as such is older than managerialism. But earlier liberalism was concerned with protecting certain freedoms from government interference. This can be seen clearly in the American Bill of Rights, where a number of freedoms are reserved to the people, i.e., government is forbidden to interfere with them.
But liberalism is not what it once was. The modern version of the ideology focuses on “rights,” as listed, e.g., in the UN charter: to food, clothing, housing, medical care, social services, unemployment insurance, etc. Such so-called human rights—more properly entitlements—are not protected from government interference but guaranteed by governments. So far from forbidding, they may require government to act: e.g., to compel doctors to provide medical care to all, or to seize wealth and property for redistribution.
And the author really believes there are experts who can speak authoritatively about such entitlements. He writes:
Experts in human rights are by definition educated professionals like academics, lawyers, judges, journalists, civil servants, social workers, medical doctors and lobbyists. By dint of dedicated study and professional practice they have made themselves the legitimate authorities on the subject. And they truly are legitimate authorities on the subject. When you want an authority on chemistry, you consult a chemist. When you want an authority on human rights, you consult a human rights lawyer.
He is unnecessarily weakening his own case here. One of the most prominent aspects of managerial rule is the proliferation of what might be called “pseudo-expertise”—claims to authoritative expertise in domains which simply do not admit of such a thing. Much psychotherapy comes under this heading, being a secular substitute for pastoral care masquerading as a science. I would also view human rights lawyers as pseudo-experts.
There is no definitive list of human rights that could command the assent of all rational beings; there might not even be any that two philosophers would both agree on. If a bunch of human rights lawyers got together today to codify “human rights,” they might very likely focus on various exotic forms of sexuality. This would not be a requirement of reason or justice, but a natural result of current concerns in the sorts of intellectual echo chambers where human rights lawyers are hatched. To the men who drew up the UN Charter in the 1940s, such a preoccupation would have seemed bizarre. A hundred years hence, there is no telling what sorts of “human rights” may be in fashion.
In a world, human rights talk is ideological, not scientific, and no one can genuinely be an expert on the subject in the way that a chemist is an expert on chemistry.
But Babones is correct that modern liberalism requires deference to expert (or pseudo-expert) authority.
The people are the passive recipients of those rights the experts deem them to possess. As the domain of rights expands, experts end up making more and more of the decisions in an ever-increasing number of the most important aspects of public life: economic policy, criminal justice, what’s taught in schools, who’s allowed to enter the country, what diseases will be cured, even who will have the opportunity to run for elective office. The areas reserved to expert adjudication seem only to expand. Previously depoliticized domains rarely return to the realm of democratic determination.
University instruction, medical research councils, disaster relief agencies, courts of law and (in America) the Federal Reserve Bank are just some institutions financed by government (i.e., taxpayers) but protected from democratic political oversight. In every case, the rationale is that only those with the relevant professional expertise should be permitted to make decisions effecting such institutions.
The desirability of an independent judiciary in particular has now become so widely accepted that the European Union has recently declared Polish political interference with its own court system a violation of the rule of law. As the author pertinently remarks, EU authorities may be unaware that US states still elect their own supreme court justices.
Recent liberal demands upon political parties to nominate a minimum number of female candidates or members of underrepresented groups also seek to set bounds to popular decision making, which amounts to restricting politics itself.
There has been in the West a slow but comprehensive historical evolution from the broad consensus that governments derive their legitimacy from the people via democratic mandates to an emerging view that governments derive their legitimacy by governing in ways endorsed by expert authority.
What is commonly called the new populism or new nationalism is essentially a revolt against liberal authoritarianism. Consider the issue of so-called free trade. The late Trans-Pacific Partnership embodied much current liberal thinking on free trade, and it went “far beyond the simple elimination of tariffs” (which was the universally understood meaning of “free trade” in the 19th century). The TPP
would have governed the right to invest in companies and operate businesses in foreign jurisdictions, and the right to trial by international expert panel rather than in each country’s court system. The TPP would have replaced the direct democratic accountability of national governments with the unaccountable transnational sovereignty of experts.
The freedom to purchase wares from the cheapest seller without government penalty (tariffs) if the seller is a foreigner is one thing; the right guaranteed by treaty to open businesses in foreign countries while remaining free from the legal jurisdiction thereof is another. The populist objection to this new form of “free trade” was not so much any negative economic consequences it may have involved as its authoritarianism.
The election of Donald Trump on a platform which included scrapping the TPP was a victory for democratic political oversight and a defeat for liberal authoritarianism. So was the election of the Law and Justice Party in Poland with its determination to subject the country’s courts to greater political control; so is the rising nationalist determination to reassert control over migration and borders; so is the decision of British voters to take their country out of the EU, and much else besides.
Our current elites want us to believe that this movement represents a “threat to democracy.” Babones reveals this rhetoric for what it is: the self-interested special pleading of liberal authoritarians increasingly threatened by a resurgent democracy. European man may be in the process of reclaiming his own destiny from a tyrannical clique of “experts.” If, as this reviewer believes, many of these are only pseudo-experts, that is all the more reason to cheer on this process.