Mimsy Were the Borogoves

Editorials: Where I rant to the wall about politics. And sometimes the wall rants back.

Two weeks, and the madness of experts

Jerry Stratton, May 5, 2021

Altar of Feynman

There’s an old saying about people who say one thing, and act like they believe the opposite. They obviously don’t believe their own words. They might be lying, but they might also merely believe that only other people ought to follow the rules they make.

They might even believe that everyone, including themselves, should follow the rules—but only in the abstract. Everyone else is always abstract, but they easily come up with specific reasons why they, themselves, should be exempt in this particular case. They have Reasons for not following their own rules, while not recognizing that everyone else will also have Reasons.

This blindness is not uncommon among people in general; the problem with government administrators and government experts is that they actually get to make rules that only other people have to follow. Government “experts” are still trying to bring back the 55 mph speed limit, and repeal the 85th percentile rule1, despite all of the hard evidence about how many lives were lost the last time we tried that. Of course, when they’re on the road, they’ll have good Reasons for exceeding those limits, just like they did the last time around.

All of the media talking heads and politicians who say that masks help, act like they believe the opposite. If they took masks seriously, they wouldn’t take their masks off as soon as they thought the camera was off. They wouldn’t require people to wear the same old contaminated mask they’ve been wearing all day—or all week or all month. They’d require a new mask for every establishment and every event, and require new masks at regular intervals during each event.

They’d also require new masks whenever someone touches their mask.

That’s what people who take masks seriously do. If you know any surgeons, ask them how often they use the mask from one surgery during a different surgery. Ask them how they dispose of their masks. They never re-use them. Disposal is a serious business. Ideally, they’re changing masks every two hours or less. And they don’t take the mask out to their car, take it off with their bare hands, and lay it aside on the seat next to the groceries until their next surgery.

Last month we passed one year since the beginning of “two weeks to flatten the curve”. The curve was flattened. Hospitals were readied. Yet the two weeks never ended—in some cases, those ready hospitals had to shut down or fire employees while people outside were dying from lack of care. The experts decided that the process was the goal, and that our health—COVID-related and not—was secondary to the shutdowns and new regulatory powers.

At its heart, conservatism, like science, is a belief in the fallibility of experts. That the wisdom of millions of individuals acting in their own self-interest exceeds the wisdom and probity of experts trying to discern someone else’s best interests.

The left requires Jefferson’s magical angels of genius2, who both know the best interests of others and who will not pretend that their own desires are the best interests of others.

Sometimes it is said that man cannot be trusted with the government of himself. Can he, then, be trusted with the government of others? Or have we found angels in the forms of kings to govern him? Let history answer this question. — Thomas Jefferson (1st Inaugural, 1801)

Conservatives require merely that people know what they want, and be willing to pay for it with their own time and effort.

Relying on genius gave us the unending two weeks, and all the deaths resulting from it. All the suicides and the canceled cancer tests and the forcibly abandoned elderly. All the deaths from forcibly housing the sick with the vulnerable.

We overturned the constitution to improve our health care, and then discovered that overturning the constitution became more important than health. There’s nothing new about this. Benjamin Franklin warned about it over two hundred years ago. Today, he might say that those who would give up their essential liberties to purchase a little health care, both lose their liberty and will inevitably die anyway.

No worse tyranny

Overthrowing the Constitution for a little health care because we can’t see what use its restrictions are is a lot like tearing down Chesterton’s fence.

There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, “I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.” To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: “If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.” — G.K. Chesterton (The Thing)

That fence is there for a reason.3

The trick is discerning which past decisions were made in a conservative way—by the people themselves—and which were thrust upon them by experts who were neither geniuses nor angels. It may be that the fence is purely utilitarian, to bar certain traffic dangerous to the community. It may provide a less obvious but still laudable purpose, such as providing a place for neighbors to congregate.

Or it may have been that the fence was put there to keep government geniuses from deadly overreach. Our Constitution is very much that kind of fence.

People’s self-interest is most wise when government is involved as little as possible. It turns out that it is not just reasonable, but wise, to want an occasional drink. But under prohibition, the wisdom of crowds becomes Al Capone and Chicago violence, and bathtub gin.

Scientific-technological elite

It’s when we ignore the constitution and conservative philosophy in favor of experts that we get our worst excesses. It was progressive government under Woodrow Wilson that segregated the federal government. It was progressive experts who used the power of government to force businesses to fire less skilled workers, who the experts ironically called “unemployable”. They weren’t unemployable. They had jobs, and the progressives wanted to weed them out of the workforce.

Much of our evil past that the left accuses conservatives of wanting to return to was the result of small groups of experts using government to enforce their will upon everyone else. Absent Jim Crow laws, there would have been no Jim Crow, wiped out by individual merchants and service providers perfectly willing to satisfy their own selfish self-interest by accepting money from blacks just as from whites. The experts required Jim Crow laws because money has no color but green. Like employers hiring people the experts designated unemployable, businesses were providing services to people the experts thought should be excluded.

The fallibility of experts is the same as the fallibility of everyone else: a tendency to believe that what they want is what everyone else should want. But the fallibility of expert administrators goes further; a tendency to elevate the process over the goal. Slow the spread quickly disappeared as the goal, to be replaced by anything that would keep the process—the shutdown—alive and keep the masks on regardless of whether they provided any functional purpose.

The scientific method is designed to overcome the fallibility of people.4 The Constitution, and conservative philosophy, is designed to overcome the fallibility of politicians and bureaucrats.

In response to The Bureaucracy Event Horizon: Government bureaucracy is the ultimate broken window.

  1. The 85th percentile rule is that speed limits should be set no lower than the speed at which at least 85% of the traffic naturally drives. Lower speed limits than the 85th percentile mean more accidents.

  2. Literally, the origin of “genius” is that of a guardian spirit that watches over us from birth to death.

  3. “There are reformers who get over this difficulty by assuming that all their fathers were fools; but if that be so, we can only say that folly appears to be a hereditary disease.”

  4. To paraphrase Steve Gerber, believe it or not, scientists are people.

  1. <- Growth pays