Ideology and Expertise: Reflecting on Stephen F. Williams’s Maklakov

by Peter Conti-Brown — Tuesday, Nov. 28, 2017

Although our active blogging on the CFPB debacle now makes last week seem like ancient history, we had a historic occasion to host Judge Stephen F. Williams as a guest blogger. (Here is my introduction; here is Sam Halabi’s review of Judge Williams’s book; and his posts are here, here, and here.)

I hope our readers got as much out of Judge Williams’s guest stint as I did and can join me in thanking him for his time here. Judge Williams: any time you want to post your musings about any subject, you’re very welcome here.

I wanted to post, too, about some of my reactions, especially to Judge Williams’s last post about Maklakov’s relevance for the 21st century. The judge leaves Maklakov’s words on their own, without spelling out implications. And nothing I say here should be read as reflecting the judge’s views–I could rarely succeed in writing in his voice as his law clerk (he’s a very active writer and rewriter), let alone now that I’m on my own.

I was struck by Maklakov’s (failed) attempt to convince people of the value of compromise, the strategies of party-less-ness, and the limits of ideological certainty. I’ve written about the danger of the technocratic myth, the idea that experts can live in a world free of the ideological tangles that afflict the rest of us. Even a declaration of ideological independence is itself a worldview, a way of resolving uncertainties not because certainty has arisen but because resolution must precede action. All to say: I’m not deluded about the nature of ideology and how inescapable and indeed healthy recognition of its ubiquity is to the administrative state.

That said, what Maklakov (and Judge Williams) invite me to ponder is the way we talk to each other across ideologies. In the Trump Era, what constitutes expertise is under assault. Not that expertise itself is under assault only, but that what we can even recognize as qualifying as expertise is. The tax debate is an extraordinary example of this, where we don’t even pretend to quantify the claims and assumptions made about reorganizing the public fisc.

I think this impulse–to form our own opinions based on our own facts–should be repelled wherever we see it. It’s exhausting but essential work to think through, programmatically, why we believe what we believe. At some point, the facts produced by experts, consumed with some modicum of expertise, will still be insufficient to resolve major debates. But let’s get to that point. Let’s exhaust ourselves on those common factual assumptions. And then let’s let politics do its essential role of identifying whose values will fill in the gaps left behind by a lack of expert consensus.

So much of what we read in The Reformer is a story where ideology trumps all, where debate is pointless, where only power remains. We’re not there in the United States in 2017. Is that where we’re headed?

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About Peter Conti-Brown

Conti-Brown is an assistant professor at The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. A historian and a legal scholar, Conti-Brown focuses on central banking, financial regulation, and public finance.

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