“They Mean to Be Masters”: A Review of Trust Us
I rely on experts. Everyone should. Sick? Visit the doctor. Tooth trouble? The dentist. Car trouble? The mechanic. Climbing Mount Everest? Hire a guide. Want to come closer to God? A church near you meets at 10:30 or 11 this Sunday. Experts are indispensable aides to lives well-lived. Trust Us, a new documentary from the Pacific Legal Foundation, discusses experts in a wholly different role. These experts do not offer advice. They issue commands. The documentary considers the role experts assumed in the twentieth century: figuring out what you should do and how you should do it. You aren’t just to seek their counsel. You are to obey – or else.
Trust Us tells the story of the administrative state’s emergence and evolution through the twentieth century. A group of eminent commentators that includes Amity Shlaes (author of The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression and Great Society: A New History) and Roger Koppl (author of Expert Failure) begin by explaining Frederick Winslow Taylor’s ideas about “scientific management” — a term he used at the suggestion of Louis Brandeis – and finish by discussing expert failure during the COVID pandemic. Martin Gurri, the author of The Revolt of the Public, argued that “The Communist Party is the ultimate Taylorist organization.” Experts would give orders, the rest of us would obey, and utopia would follow. In an age of scientific management and governance, bourgeois notions of economic and political freedom could be dispensed with, lest they obstruct the experts’ plans.
Consider Taylorism and western intellectuals’ fascination with central planning. Frederick W. Taylor was obsessed with precision and ways to make industrial processes more efficient. Workers, in this view, were little better than beasts of burden to be ordered about by experts, who were granted this authority by science. But, as Roger Koppl of Syracuse University, author of Expert Failure explains, the experts could tell non-experts how to do it, whatever it is. Progressivism, the documentary explains, applied Taylorism to politics. We can dispense with markets, democracy, and various liberties and just cut to the chase because experts can figure out what to do and how. Conversation is superfluous in an administrative state that can save time and resources by relying on direction and dictation.
Western intellectuals’ enthusiasm for the Soviet Union is a case in point. Soviet flattery and intellectuals’ credulity ultimately led to apologetics for tyranny. The USSR brought American and other western intellectuals and journalists on all-expenses-paid, carefully scripted junkets “to admire the Soviet Union’s achievements” that showed them a grossly exaggerated version of Soviet efficiency and equity. They were awestruck. The journalist Lincoln Steffens would famously remark, “I have seen the future, and it works!” about his visit to the USSR. Other people on the trip included future members of Franklin Roosevelt’s Brain Trust, Rexford Tugwell (who thought agriculture under capitalism was inefficient) and Stuart Chase (who called capitalism “a relic”). Both thought intellectuals and technicians should run society. The tourists did not get to see the gulags. As Hillsdale College’s Kevin Portteus put it in the documentary, “Only educated western intellectuals could be stupid enough to believe the kind of Kabuki theater they were being presented either by Stalin’s Russia or anyone else.” Inflammatory, yes, but there’s a reason Kristian Niemietz wrote a book called Socialism: The Failed Idea that Never Dies.
As George Mason University economist Donald Boudreaux explains in the documentary, however, communism’s attractiveness sprang from a category mistake. We couldn’t run society like it’s one big factory precisely because it’s not one big factory. A country, Boudreaux explained, is not a company. It cannot collapse its goals into a single easy measure like profits, and it has no residual claimants. Without market-determined prices, there is no reliable way to identify and evaluate assets’ alternative uses. It’s political judgments all the way down.
As Peter Saunders pointed out in a discussion of F.A. Hayek, “capitalism offends intellectual pride, socialism flatters it.” Shlaes put it this way: “They all left with one big impression: ‘I can have more authority. I can have more power because the Russians do.’” Things went haywire when Soviet apologist Walter Duranty won the Pulitzer Prize for reporting later found to have been misleading. He had the ear of the people and FDR, and he (and members of the progressive Brain Trust) made the most of it. Donald Boudreaux explains that they would make it work because “they were smarter than the rest of us.”
They certainly thought so, anyway. The documentary explains the rise and fall of the National Recovery Administration (NRA) in light of the Supreme Court’s famous Schechter Poultry decision. The Court ruled unanimously in favor of the Schechters and struck down as unconstitutional the NRA and its “rational control.” The Schechters won, but the case bankrupted them. It is an interesting if depressing example of expertise run amok. The Schechters’ name comes from the Hebrew word for “slaughter.” They had a long family history in the poultry business and local knowledge of Jewish foodways. The commentators in the documentary highlight the condescension toward the Schechters. It’s doubtful experts knew much about how to butcher chickens, but that didn’t matter. They were experts, as were the experts who destroyed food while Americans starved because the Agricultural Adjustment Act was meant to stabilize prices.
The twentieth-century record of planning and failing continued even after the Roosevelt administration, through the “Fair Deal” under Harry Truman and the massive slum clearance projects that warehoused the poor in high rises that became veritable war zones. Shlaes referred to them as “prisons.” The story of the Pruitt-Igoe housing project in St. Louis is especially tragic. Minoru Yamasaki, the architect who had designed the project, would later say, “Social ills can’t be cured by nice buildings.” The buildings are gone, but the hubris that inspired them remains intact.
The Great Society expanded the administrative state further. In the late twentieth century and now into the twenty-first, we have found more and more of our lives touched – actually very firmly handled – by experts who know how to protect our health, our finances, our homes, our families…everything, if we would just shut up and let them have their way. As Pacific Legal Foundation lawyer Steve Simpson explained, this new “fourth branch” of government had the power of the other three. It could issue guidelines, directives, rules, and regulations and serve as judge, jury, and executioner in its own cases.
The planners’ presumption was on full display during the COVID pandemic. During the pandemic, we heard repeated invocations of The Science and The Scientists who could predict “what would happen if you just followed their orders.” They were based on The Science, after all.
Overlooked in current debates about the COVID pandemic response is the fact that the people in charge were a big part of the problem, interfering with people’s decisions to purchase masks, interfering with prices, and ultimately interfering with the production and distribution of the vaccine. Late 2020 and early 2021 bore witness to the macabre spectacle of people searching high and low for vaccine doses while doses expired and were discarded out of fear that they would go into the wrong people’s arms in the wrong order. It was an exercise in insanity.
Shouldn’t we embrace expertise and experts? Koppl says, “yes.” But he also cautions us to fear expert power, not because experts are bad people, but because so many of their pronouncements don’t follow from their expert conclusions unless we slip in the auxiliary assumption that they’re fit to run others lives – to tell them how to employ their capitals, to borrow a phrase from Adam Smith. This expertise runs into another kind of expertise that doesn’t get as much attention or respect but should ultimately be decisive. As Boudreaux puts it toward the documentary’s end, “No one is more expert in what is good for me than me, and I have an incentive to get it right. Don Boudreaux is the world’s leading expert on Don Boudreaux.” Experts can tell Don Boudreaux what the trade-offs are. They lack, however, what Hayek called “the knowledge of the particular circumstances of time and place.” Hayek puts it this way in a famous passage in his classic article “The Use of Knowledge in Society”:
Today is it almost heresy to suggest that scientific knowledge is not the sum of all knowledge. But a little reflection will show that there is beyond question a body of very important but unorganized knowledge which cannot possibly be called scientific in the sense of knowledge of general rules: the knowledge of the particular circumstances of time and place. It is with respect to this that practically every individual has some advantage over all others because he possesses unique information of which beneficial use might be made, but of which use can be made only if the decisions depending on it are left to him or are made with his active cooperation.
Imagine, for example, that Don Boudreaux was considering buying a gas stove. He might consult the latest scientific findings about the differences between gas stoves and electric stoves and discover that gas stoves explain approximately 13 percent of asthma cases in the United States. Even if that number is precise and accurate, the experts who measured it cannot decide what Don Boudreaux should do, nor can they tell the government that gas stoves should be banned, regulated, or otherwise restricted. The political conclusions do not follow from the scientific finding, and not just because you can’t derive an “ought” from an “is.” Why not?
Consider Boudreaux specifically. First, there might be culinary advantages to cooking with gas rather than electricity. We can say we think Boudreaux should make a different choice if he is willing to accept a slightly higher risk of asthma for tastier food, but that is a matter of preference rather than science. Second, he might take a higher asthma risk because he thinks gas is more reliable. My own family was able to enjoy a candlelit hot meal during a power outage recently because we could cook it on our gas stove. Third, there might be other, cheaper ways to mitigate the additional asthma risk, like spending more time outdoors or opening windows. Fourth, there are inevitable unintended consequences. Suppose Boudreaux thinks it’s just not as fun to cook on an electric stove, and maybe (again) the food isn’t as tasty. So he cooks less and eats more delicious but notoriously unhealthy takeout. After a few months, we’re looking for experts to advise us on how to deal with his expanding waistline and rising blood pressure.
Experts can know a lot. They can help us identify likely tradeoffs. They cannot tell us which trade-offs to make, and someone presuming to do so is an aspiring tyrant. I’m reminded of a quote by Daniel Webster: “There are men in all ages who mean to govern well, but they mean to govern. They promise to be good masters, but they mean to be masters.” Trust Us? Perhaps we’d be wiser to be wary.