Australian values save the day – IPA Keeping in Touch – 6 May 2020

This is the full text of an email I sent the IPA’s members early on in the COVID lockdown.

Dear IPA Members

Since I joined the IPA in 2016, my main responsibility has been leading our criminal justice research. Our project takes its inspiration from the successful, conservative-led movement in the United States to improve community safety with common sense reforms that increase the effectiveness and efficiency of our society’s punishment and prevention of crime. 

In that capacity, I have met with MPs across the country and I am in regular contact with other researchers in the field. When I have these meetings, I am always struck by two things: First, that if it were not for the IPA a conservative perspective on criminal justice reform simply would not be heard by those in power or by the public; and secondly, that no matter which parties or ministers were in government, the voices they would listen to on this issue would be the same, and so in effect would be their options. 

Simply put, you can vote to change governments, but you do not get to vote on who advises governments. So some ideas never seem to die, while others never seem to get a look in, no matter what the public might support at elections or in polling. This is what I would like to talk to you about today.

It is not too much of a stretch to say that the impotence of elections in the face of the bureaucracy and its supposed expertise is the force that has, more than any other single factor, driven the realignment of politics here and in the rest of the western world. Politics is increasingly a dispute between those who always get a seat at the table and those whose views are excluded from consideration. 

To be fair, governments have limited time, so it makes sense that they would seek to filter the information that they hear. But this does not mean that we should be blasé about the role that experts play in government decision-making. We are still entitled to ask by which criteria are experts recognised, and, even more importantly, by which values do governments act when accepting or rejecting, implementing or ignoring, expert advice.  

During the present crisis, we have learned a lot about the class of experts who purport to rule over us. We have learned, for example, that the definitions of expertise and competence seem to have come apart. 

Consider the failures of the World Health Organisation. These experts, in short order, managed to ignore Taiwanese advice about human-to-human transmission, insist that banning travel from China was unnecessary, misrepresent the efficacy of wearing masks, and repeatedly tout infection figures from China that are almost certainly made up. 

Whatever authority that body may have commanded in the past (though its record on previous pandemics is not especially salubrious either), it is surely now compromised. For this reason, I was recently quoted in The Daily Telegraph recommending that Australia cease voluntary contributions to the WHO (which have totalled more than $100m since 2016) and reconsider membership if the organisation does not reform. 

Even allowing that the experts are competent in their chosen fields, we should recognise the narrowness of that expertise. No-one disputes the key role that epidemiologists and public health professionals must play in defeating the virus. But the crisis has created a wider range of complex trade-offs which warrant consideration and require different kinds of expertise. 

The economic effects of our chosen policies (which are themselves reducible to a concern for people’s health) and their unintended consequences, like changes in people’s behaviour that will have unknowable downstream effects on society, are not narrow public health questions. As such, it should be obvious that no one set of experts could ever have a justifiable monopoly on the provision of advice to government. 

The broader question, however, is what role this kind of technical expertise should play in a democracy. The pandemic has hit at a time when the tendency to defer to experts has never been stronger – but is this really to the greater good, as claimed? 

When we reduce government to merely a technical matter, we necessarily increase the expected level of deference to government. We are obliged to substitute technical understandings for traditional ones and obliged to see dissent from official positions as unreasonable.

A powerful group think must take hold. Expertise is proven by having run the gauntlet of educational institutions that government itself controls, so by the time information is presented to government it has been filtered in many ways, and so too have been the people who study and present that information. They have been selected for deference – formal education being designed to impart not only the most up-to-date empirical information, but also the attitude that all matters can be resolved by reference to it.

What they may not have is a wider body of knowledge, including lived experience and moral instruction, by which they might contemplate the full range of effects of their proposed rules. Think of it this way: the experts might have a hammer and they might know how to swing it, but this does not mean that they get to hit whatever they like. The decision about where to aim the hammer remains with voters and their representatives.

A properly functioning government always retains – and is seen to retain – final decision-making authority. As the very fine essay Experts, Politicians, and the Public: The Science and Art of Collective Decision-Making in a Free Society recently put it, governments need to overcome the limitations of the experts – the narrow range of their expertise and the uncertainty that attaches to all empirical information. The author notes that “The question is not whether the analysis of the experts, the prudence of the politicians, or the commonsense wisdom of the public should have the most sway. In a free society, each of us must discharge the functions of our orders and offices well”.

What is needed, then, is a moral framework which guides the use of expert knowledge, and which the experts share with everyone else. Our shared understandings enable everyone, from the experts and politicians to our neighbours and colleagues, to coordinate their actions and to trust one another to act appropriately. This framework is not itself a product of technical expertise. It is a related but separate line of inquiry. Not “what might we do?”, but “what should we do?”. 

It has been galling that in the current debate about how to respond to the pandemic one side of that debate (with nearly exclusive access to government and media) has decided to pretend as though the answer to the second question is easily derived from the (many) possible answers to the first – as though what we know (or don’t know) about COVID-19 easily translates into rules, and as though debating those rules was somehow a mark of insanity, dishonesty, or even murderous intent. 

This moral posturing has been decidedly unhelpful, but it follows naturally from how we have been trained to think of governments and their rules as the embodiment of reason itself.

As I wrote in The Spectator Australia, this absurd claim to unique possession of both truth and moral character is, at least for some people, a deliberate obfuscation of an argument that when presented in plain English is as unpopular as ever: That if the pandemic destroys the social and economic institutions of our society, this is a good thing because those institutions are unjust. 

This is why the experts, despite the narrowness of their knowledge, do not as a rule confine themselves to their fields of specialisation. For example, during the pandemic we have been treated to the political musings of previously well-regarded epidemiologist Peter Doherty and, as you would have seen in John Roskam’s email last Friday, the culture war mindset of the Deputy Chief Health Officer of Victoria. 

All of this speaks to a kind of class arrogance. Expertise is neither narrowly defined nor confined; the authority of one office, and one set of qualifications, is imprimatur to lecture everyone on everything.

More than this, though, it reveals the way that technical expertise has become commingled with moral virtue, and of the way that those who wield the one seek to define the other. That virtue is but one more institution to be constructed by the experts is why the expert class, despite all their education and despite their supposed intelligence, never disagree with one another about anything. The entrance exam is designed with one goal in mind: to weed out anyone who sees the technocratic project for the radical presumption that it is. 

The lesson we should take from this is that it is not enough for our side of politics to hope for a government that is somehow neutral in values. We cannot win by playing the game on the terms set by our opponents. Rather, we must fight for a government that reflects our values – mainstream values, of the kind that are winning the battle against the virus. 

Among the disingenuous claims made about the pandemic, a popular inanity has been that “socialism saves the day again”. But you and I, and everyone at the IPA, know that in reality Australia’s wealth and triple-A credit rating have saved the day – and they did not magically appear as creations of government but are products of the hard work and sense of responsibility of the Australian people. 

Put another way, we have money and we are trusted because we have sound values, and this has fortified us through the pandemic. We can see this in the sensible way that Australians have adapted to the strictures imposed upon them, but always with a tacit – and now, increasingly, express – understanding that government will return our lives to normal, as much as is feasible and as soon as is possible. 

What is at stake now is not only lives, but our way of life. In overcoming the pandemic, we must act with a view to saving our country and its institutions for our children. 

If we want a society that protects our traditional liberties, that values hard work and enterprise, that reproduces its shared understandings over generations, and so on, then we have to make a positive case for it in and to government. With your continued support, that is just what we will do.

Thank you