Mises Wire

The Tyranny of the “Enlightened” Experts

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If you were to stroll through any typical upper-middle-income American neighborhood in 2021, the odds are very high that you’d observe at least one yard sign exuberantly proclaiming something like this: “In this house, we believe that science is real, love is love, no human is illegal … ” and other banal tautologies. There are usually six or seven examples in this litany, but really, one of the main goals of the yard sign—aside from signaling virtue—can be accomplished with just this: the curtsy to Science.

In a country where the traditional definition of virtue has “evolved” and the search for metaphysical truth has largely been sidelined, millions of Americans seem to believe that there is no higher truth than the Science and that there are no more virtuous citizens than those who deferentially submit to the experts, the societal planners, and the proclaimers of the Science. We can thank the Enlightenment for this spirit of scientism, as Science has now been fully separated from teleology (i.e., “goal directedness”) and final causality, which many elites consider to be backward Medieval thinking.

This separation—and the general idea that human beings and their interactions can be boiled down to and predicted by physical phenomena and scientific methods—has led to numerous destructive movements such as scientific socialism, historical materialism, and even progressive racialism. While Science has indeed provided wonderful breakthroughs that enhanced human flourishing, it does not engender all knowledge that is necessary for human societies.

As John Gray has documented in Seven Types of Atheism, several of the leading Enlightenment figures—including David Hume, Immanuel Kant, and Voltaire—infused some of their writings with a pseudoanthropological racism. This is particularly evident in Kant’s Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime and Hume’s notes accompanying his “National Characters” essay. Gray states that: “Though twenty-first century missionaries for ‘Enlightenment values’ resist the fact, modern racism emerged from the work of Enlightenment philosophes.”

Out of the Enlightenment’s penumbra of positivism, proponents of eugenics and scientific racism achieved some prominence in the late 1800’s and the Progressive Era of the early 1900’s. Eugenics notoriously sought to use Science to “purify” the human race through selective breeding practices and even forced sterilization. Francis Galton, a cousin of Charles Darwin, coined the term “eugenics” and began to apply Darwin’s work in evolution to human societies. Margaret Sanger, the well-known founder of the American Birth Control League and the first president of the International Planned Parenthood Federation, infamously—and with a disturbing enthusiasm—worked to reduce the birth rate in African American communities as part of the “Negro Project.” Sanger also advocated for the sterilization of disabled people.

None of this is meant to imply that all Enlightenment thinkers were racists (they weren’t), or that all progressives support eugenics (they don’t). Going beyond merely calling attention to the dark underbelly of one of the West’s sacred cows, though, it’s a relatively safe assertion that the Enlightenment’s intellectual offspring—including technocrats, government science advisors, and the elite expert class of academics and commentators—have been responsible for disastrous public policy measures over the past several decades.

Thankfully, not all of their recommendations and prognostications have come to fruition. Paul Ehrlich (a professor of biology at Stanford, fellow at the National Academy of Sciences, and evangelist for population control measures) outlandishly predicted a number of neo-Malthusian horrors, including the mass starvation of hundreds of millions of humans, increases in global poverty, and an exploding world population in the 1970s and 1980s. The spread of free market ideas, advances in medicine, and other latent factors have ensured that his “Population Bomb” never went off, but impacts of his work still haunt us, in the modern Green and Build Back Better movements.

Harmful, impractical, and costly ideas of the expert class, as well as the experts themselves, often infiltrate the government’s regulatory machine, at which time they are inflicted upon the general populace. Murray Rothbard discussed this in Power and Market:

Furthermore, the government itself contains mechanisms that lead to poor choices of experts and officials. For one thing, the politician and the government expert receive their revenues, not from service voluntarily purchased on the market, but from a compulsory levy on the populace. These officials, therefore, wholly lack the pecuniary incentive to care about serving the public properly and competently. And, what is more, the vital criterion of “fitness” is very different in the government and on the market. In the market, the fittest are those most able to serve the consumers; in government, the fittest are those most adept at wielding coercion and/or those most adroit at making demagogic appeals to the voting public.

Despite all of their misaligned incentives, which often lead to detrimental outcomes for individuals and small communities, the technocratic expert class is still intimately involved in practically every aspect of our lives. Nothing in recent times illustrates this more poignantly than the arrival of SARS-CoV-2.

In early 2020, Americans were besieged by a tidal wave of sloppy, reckless, and malevolently pessimistic news stories and information about the burgeoning coronavirus pandemic. Medical scientists and bureaucrats at the World Health Organization overestimated covid’s mortality rate at an alarming 3–4 percent. (The infection fatality rate is now estimated at ~0.15 percent.) Public health officials took the worst-case-scenario fatality estimates of epidemiological modelers such as the now disgraced Neil Ferguson at Imperial College London, promulgated them throughout the corporate media, and began implementing draconian measures that would radically alter civil society.

In the first months of the pandemic, the government monopolized and bungled the distribution of covid tests and the Food and Drug Administration delayed approvals for new test alternatives. Then US surgeon general Jerome Adams and Dr. Anthony Fauci admonished the public that they should not be wearing masks in public, before completely reversing themselves months later. Fauci would go on to mislead Americans about threshold numbers for herd immunity, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention would end up changing the scientifically conjured social distance spacing from precisely six feet to precisely three feet, coinciding with growing political pressure to reopen schools. In March of 2020, the federal government and most states coordinated a de facto national lockdown of the economy.

Millions of people were ordered to “stay home, stay safe” for the disastrous two-week “flatten the curve” crusade that would last for more than a year in some states. Government scientists and public health experts decided that the livelihoods of tens of millions were expendable, and the educational and social needs of a generation of young Americans could be sacrificed for the common good. Thousands of cancer screenings and other medical tests were postponed for several months, under the Lockdown regime. Many small businesses and restaurants will never open again. The pain caused by government experts will be felt for many years.

Of course, scientists qua scientists were never supposed to run our society. Scientific technocrats and the expert class cannot possibly possess all of the knowledge that they would need to effectively run the lives of 330 million Americans, but that will not stop them from trying. They might be Enlightened, but perhaps there is still an incorrigible, ornery remnant in the United States who will resist efforts to be managed, regulated, and perfected by the experts.

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