Government & Politics

Why the Experts Should Answer to the Amateurs

We need specialists to solve hard problems. But they need to be accountable to non-experts, says Jonathan Bendor.

July 09, 2024

| by Sara Harrison

In a meritocratic democracy, everyday Joes oversee highly trained pros. | iStock/ McKinney

Jonathan Bendor doesn’t kowtow to experts. He respects their specialized knowledge but doesn’t forget that they’re amateurs at most things — just like most people. He hopes citizens and policymakers keep that in mind, particularly as democracies turn to experts to manage complex technologies and solve problems like climate change. “We must hold everyone accountable,” he says.

In a recent paper published in the American Political Science Review, Bendor, a professor of political economy at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, argues that to maintain democracy in a modern society, we must reckon with a deep tension at its core: expertise, hierarchy, and meritocracy are critical, but they cannot operate without appropriate oversight by people who are not experts — who are, in fact, amateurs. Along with his coauthor, Piotr Swistak of the University of Maryland at College Park, Bendor details the dangers of blindly deferring to experts. “Some people mistakenly think that what is most consistent with meritocracy is to have a hierarchy, and the person at the top isn’t accountable to anybody,” he says. “We think this is a huge error.”

However, tension between experts and non-experts is an inevitable part of modern organizations and societies, Bendor says. Highly trained experts are necessary to keep things functioning smoothly. On the other hand, accountability matters. “The combination of these two processes — knowledge-intensive [decision-making] and everyone being accountable to somebody — creates an important tension or problem of its own: nonspecialists need to hold people accountable,” Bendor says. “Otherwise, you get little groups that aren’t accountable to anybody.”

Some people mistakenly think that what is most consistent with meritocracy is to have a hierarchy and the person at the top isn’t accountable to anybody. We think this is a huge error.
Jonathan Bendor

This tension is seen in the everyday workings of many nations, including in infrastructure, economics, and foreign policy, where officials and citizens with no technical expertise oversee the professionals behind the scenes. Accepting this tension, Bendor argues, is particularly important as we engage with complicated issues like climate change, whose solution will require huge amounts of expertise.

This dynamic isn’t unique to democracies. Take, for example, Imperial Germany under Kaiser Wilhelm II. The empire was a bureaucratic meritocracy with many levels of accountability built in. But authority ultimately rested with the Kaiser, who wasn’t answerable to elected officials or the public. He was woefully unprepared to lead his military through World War I and was, ultimately, forced to relinquish the throne. In another example, Bendor and Swistak cite the ancient Roman triumvirate, where Julius Caesar, Pompey, and Crassus, all seasoned statesmen, led the empire while theoretically keeping each other in check. Such a system falls prey to collusion. “Leaders could become oligarchs whose bad performance is reviewed only by each other,” Bendor and Swistak write.

Democracy, they argue, is the best solution to this tension. Societies must hold everyone accountable, yet they cannot build infinite layers of experts or partial experts to review the experts. The solution is to allow non-experts like voters to review and pass judgment on the experts.

Let the Non-Experts Rule

Bendor and Swistak note that they do not share the skepticism of hierarchy and bureaucracy that’s been a periodic feature of U.S. politics. In fact, they argue, democratic elections and meritocratic hierarchies create a workable system with effectiveness and accountability. “Democracies need bureaucracies to get things done, and they are done better if agencies are meritocratic,” they write.

Bendor sees this as an answer to the long-studied problem of the “uninformed voter.” Political scientists worry how people who don’t understand the intricacies of international trade, social policy, or economics can hold elected officials accountable. Bendor points out that everyone, even experts, has large gaps in their knowledge. Rather than seeing that as a problem, he thinks we should accept it as a pervasive feature of modern systems, including democracies. “What we’re telling our colleagues is, actually, ill-informed voters are just the tip of the iceberg,” Bendor says. “Even presidents themselves are ill-informed about the policies they’re asked to think about.”

Bendor brings all these ideas together in his discussion of climate change. Lawmakers and individuals who are not climate scientists have to figure out what to do and whom to listen to. That’s where meritocratic hierarchy comes in. Bendor acknowledges that some organizations are not based primarily on merit. But in fields with lots of accurate, relevant data — think baseball, drug development, or tech — there is a clear track record of judging successes and failures. That’s true of climate science, he says. If climate models are consistently wrong, people should stop listening to the scientists who built them. This dynamic is already built into traditional markets: If people don’t like a product, they’ll stop buying it.

There’s no easy or ideal solution to climate change, so we have to start looking for the best possible answer. Rather than bemoaning the fact that amateurs will make that decision, Bendor argues, we should acknowledge this is an inherent feature of democracy — one that includes uninformed leaders, policymakers, and voters.

And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. In elevating oversight over specialized knowledge, Bendor believes we’re more likely to end up with an optimal (though not ideal) answer. We do not have to sacrifice crucial expertise. But he doesn’t put experts on a pedestal or think we should give them carte blanche to evaluate themselves without external checks. In the balance of expertise and accountability, he’d usually push the needle toward accountability.

“I believe that the best solution is a system that works hard to be as meritocratic as possible,” he says. The hope is that in striving to be accountable to each other, we bring out the best in ourselves.

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