Professor Fabienne Peter from Warwick’s Department of Philosophy considers how experts have returned to favour in the UK now the world is in the midst of a crisis.
Not that long ago, it was claimed that the British public was tired of experts, reinforcing an existing global trend towards a politics unmoored from expert advice. Covid-19 has brought back the experts and that’s a good thing.
Expert advice on how to manage the Covid-19 outbreak has led governments in many countries to impose highly coercive measures. Citizens have been told not to travel, schools have been shut, and businesses such as restaurants and bars shave been ordered to suspend their operation.
Experts also scrutinise the adequacy of the Covid-19 response of different countries. The WHO, the internationally leading body of health experts and several UK-based scientists have criticised the UK government for not acting fast enough to delay the outbreak. The UK government, in turn, has introduced tougher measures and continues to be under pressure to do more.
So the experts are back. But how far can the political power of experts legitimately go? In a democratic context, we normally think that coercive government interventions derive their legitimacy from democracy, not from expert advice. What is the right relationship between democracy and experts?
In answering this question, three considerations are important.
First, while it is often said that experts can only advise, not decide, this masks the political power that experts have. Their political power derives from their superior grasp of what policy interventions a particular situation requires. The reason why Covid-19 has brought back the experts is that our knowledge of the management of a pandemic is sufficiently robust to leave very little political wriggle room. In cases like this, the experts’ advice reduces the politicians’ legitimate decision-making power to very few options.
Second, this sort of robust expertise is not normally available to politicians, and that’s why the political power of experts is usually much more limited. The normal case in politics is one where experts disagree on what response a particular situation requires. Consider another crisis that we’re currently facing, the climate crisis. We have very robust expertise on the challenges that we’re facing. But there is less robust expertise on what needs doing when, and this, for better or worse, leaves politicians with much more leeway.
Third, we shouldn’t forget the important role that democracy plays even in times like these and resist authoritarian tendencies. A country can only adequately monitor whether the expert’s advice is working if the citizens can be heard. There is always a risk that expert advice is socially blinkered and fails to respond adequately to the problems that different citizens experience. Expert-led political decision-making easily oversteps the legitimate political power that expertise enables. Democratic institutions, with their built-in accountability mechanisms, provide a necessary corrective force in this regard.
30 March 2020
Fabienne Peter is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Warwick, specializing in political philosophy, moral philosophy, and social epistemology.
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