We can’t all be experts


I have strong opinions, but not about how to perform brain surgery, write an app, design a golf course, or produce a hip-hop album. Maybe you have a strong opinion on one of them, but certainly not on all four.

Why? Because none of us can be a surgeon, software engineer, golf expert and music producer all at the same time. In terms of our work, we specialize in a few areas and then trade what we produce for the goods and services produced by other specialists. The exchange makes us all better.

We live most of our lives engaged in such exchanges. There is a lot of specialized knowledge, and more being produced every day. But individually, we only possess or are even aware of a tiny part of this knowledge. It would be too difficult or expensive to acquire. We don’t need it. We just need to trade for its fruits.

Among specialists or other discrete communities of interest, however, there is often vigorous debate. Surgeons learn, practice, and disagree on the merits of new ways to attack brain cancers. The rest of us usually don’t know which side to root for in these contests. We simply encourage that they continue, so that we as potential cancer patients can benefit from them, and otherwise leave them alone while we go about our business.

Now consider what happens when goods and services are provided by government agencies and public employees rather than private companies and independent professionals. Suddenly we all feel the need to voice our expert opinions on the best ways to rehabilitate a prisoner, treat mental illness, or teach a child to read – even though we may not have expertise in so many different and difficult areas, and even those with such expertise may lack consensus.

The problem is, unlike previous cases, we can’t just sit back and let the pros fight. If we don’t like a new smartphone app or a new hip-hop album, we don’t have to buy it. If a particular brain surgeon or hospital seems to be having poor results, we can go elsewhere.

But what if we don’t like the results produced by our prisons, our public health agencies, or our public schools? It is either impossible or very costly to “take our business elsewhere,” so to speak, by moving ourselves and our taxes to another state. Instead, we seek to change the composition of professionals providing these services by voting in the next election.

It’s not as effective an accountability mechanism. On the one hand, we could be outvoted. Even if our favorite candidates win, they may not be able to trade the personnel in question or reverse their professional judgments. And through it all, we end up doing the very thing that I suggest we don’t have the ability to do well – engaging in debate on issues that we don’t and can’t fully understand.

There is no magic wand that can be waved here. Ensuring more competitive elections? Great. Collect more data and encourage more experimentation and research? Sure. But the problem will remain in some form. It’s endemic.

I argue that the best answer is to minimize the extent to which people are compelled to receive services from professionals they do not choose. This calls for more choice and competition in education, Health careand transportation, even when these services are largely funded by governments. The best thing is for governments to pay for measurable performance, by public or private providers, rather than focusing on inputs or dictating procedures.

More fundamentally, this pleads in favor of limiting the scope of action of the public sector. In fact, I think that’s one of the best arguments for limited government. While you may care about me and worry about me as a person, it doesn’t hurt you if I have the wrong idea, do something stupid, or hire an incompetent doctor. You can even learn from my mistakes.

John HWell is a board member of the John Locke Foundation. His latest books Mountain folklore and forest people, combine epic fantasy and ancient American history.


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