We live in the Age of the Expert.
There are reasons for that. We mostly work for big organizations now, and all aspects of our lives depend on them. Big organizations have their own way of doing things: explicit rules, formalized procedures, extreme division of labor, and so on.
That means an emphasis on specialized formal qualifications. The organization is a big machine, and we are its components. From pre-K through postgrad that’s how we are trained.
The training sinks in, and eventually defines how we see the world. It results in a general sense that everything requires special qualifications. Older people today say younger people lack everyday skills, but the problem is far deeper. The most basic human activities are now thought beyond the capacity of ordinary people.
A small church near me wanted to get someone to look after young children during the service. Instead of asking for volunteers with everyday childcare experience, mothers or older sisters, they thought they needed to hire someone with a master’s degree in early childhood education.
These were people in an educated, prosperous, and largely professional community, and that was their idea of “best practices.” The alternative was to get someone who officially didn’t know anything, and that didn’t seem right to them.
The church committee had some legitimate concerns regarding insurance and liability. People today are afraid, and want all risks taken care of. If something does happen they want to be able to say they followed all the protocols. So they look up the official recommendations and follow them.
And official views can matter a great deal. One case among many illustrates the problem: a divorced mother in Georgia was recently handcuffed and arrested in front of her children, thrown into jail, and charged with criminally reckless conduct. Proceedings are still continuing two years later.
Apparently, she left her children under the care of her eldest child, a 14-year-old girl. One of the younger children saw a friend outside while his sister was distracted and went over to his house, and it took the girl 10 or 15 minutes to notice her brother was missing and go out and get him. That was enough to make mom a criminal.
A similar attitude toward the competence of ordinary people to deal with everyday family matters led Terry McAuliffe, an experienced Virginia politician, to tell voters—in the midst of an election campaign—that parents should have no say in the education of their children. As he said, “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.” How, he must have thought, could anyone disagree? Parents don’t have special training, so what could they know about education?
It’s not just parents who must be put in their place. The COVID-19 epidemic took rule by experts to a new level. The experts disagreed among themselves, had no way of knowing what would work, and devoted very little thought to the ultimate consequences of radical interventions adopted on the spur of the moment. Even so, we were all expected to “follow the science” by doing whatever they said.
As it happened, their response to a novel and poorly-understood danger was to shut down social and economic life and try to separate people from each other almost completely. Whatever the conscious intention, the effect was to push us toward a regime of total control in which expert decisions could be put into effect immediately because people have no connections to each other that might cause problems. That was evidently just fine with the experts.
Claims of expert authority would be more impressive if education were getting better, or if official projections of the course of the pandemic and the effect of various interventions had panned out. But it isn’t, and they didn’t.
It would also help if the responses of responsible and highly-placed people to opposition weren’t so bizarre—for example, calling people “fascists” who object to intrusive anti-COVID measures, or say that parents who complain about “woke” instruction are potential terrorists. The fevered reactions seem to be based on the idea that people with doubts about a story put out by official experts are a danger to society because they reject the orderly application of reason, and must therefore favor blind impulse, ignorant prejudice, and violence.
All of which is crazy. Modern scientific expertise is often very useful, but it has limits. It has increased wealth, extended life, and taken us to the moon. But it’s much more effective studying things that can be explained mechanically, like galaxies and atomic particles, than things that can’t—like human beings.
Modern expertise cannot, for example, tell us much about the good life. It’s deeply specialized, so it can only tell us about subordinate matters. And it’s powerful because it relies on neutral numerical data. But that means it can’t say much about love, friendship, family life, or ideals such as truth, beauty, and goodness.
That can become a serious problem. Experts don’t gain influence by talking about their limits, and can’t even know what their limits are without a broader perspective than their education as experts gives them. All too often the result is a narrow and dogmatic way of thinking.
We see the consequences everywhere. One is the changing understanding of “social justice” and its rise as the chief concern of professional moralists. As now understood, social justice means that the details of social life must be determined by abstractions like freedom and equality rather than the effects of how people carry on their lives. It’s based on a view of society as a big machine that dispenses benefits in accordance with a schema, rather than a network of individuals, families, and communities actively pursuing various goals and making arrangements among themselves.
One result is that social justice advocates have come to reject traditional sex roles and morality. These have to do with promoting enduring and functional families, the support of which is part of the traditional vision of social justice found, for example, in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Instead, they insist on abolishing distinctions relating to sex, which have no evident function in what appears to them a big social machine. The inevitable result is radical weakening of the family and transfer of its functions to commercial and bureaucratic arrangements experts can supervise more easily. They don’t have a problem with that.
Such ways of thinking have even entered the Church, which as the custodian of ultimate goods and realities, including the truth about man, ought to be immune to them. Some of the consequences can be seen in recent votes of the German Synodal Assembly regarding sex and the sexes. A more general consequence is that those who lead the Church have tried to do with documents and official processes what can only be done through sanctity.
When Christ called Saint Francis to rebuild his Church, Francis didn’t start by taking a survey, going for a degree, studying official Church documents, or training as a facilitator for a global listening process. Instead, he went and acted on his vision of following Christ. Innocent III approved his efforts, but he didn’t put out a motu proprio making Franciscan principles authoritative for the whole Church. Nor did he appoint an expert committee with multi-faith consultants to redo the liturgy with those principles in mind.
Would it have helped the Franciscan movement if he had?
Pascal notes that tyranny is the wish to have in one way what can only be had in another. If you try to promote spiritual things through experts, documents, and bureaucratic processes not much will happen. You’ll end up with higher-ups denouncing the faithful as rigid Pharisees for ignoring official initiatives in favor of the way things were done when the Church was more functional.
When that happens, have the faithful failed their leaders, or have their leaders lost track of how best to lead the Church?
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