A Hatred of Expertise and Professionalism

I started writing this blog post three months ago, and re-discovered it in my Downloads folder recently. I’m posting it here, now, while Erin and I work on getting ready for our trip to Iowa and Nebraska this holiday. It’s a little sad how current the topic remains.

Back in September, Chet Scoville of the Vanity Press reported on a report by Michael Jackson, a law professor at the University of British Columbia. The report criticized the Conservative government’s proposal for revamping Canada’s prison policy. Basicallly, the massive prisons that the Conservatives hope to build are a waste of money, don’t solve the problem of crime, and possibly thwart our ability to rehabilitate these people, and the Conservatives appear to be ploughing ahead with this policy on ideological rather than rational grounds.

Their scathing analysis contends that the government road map starts with what they call an ideological “myth” — that prisoners’ human rights are at odds with public safety.

“What that’s doing is polarizing a discussion about corrections in a really unfortunate way,” Mr. Stewart said.

“It creates the notion that the decent treatment of prisoners is somehow putting the public at risk, when in fact it’s the complete reverse. …

“We don’t believe that abuse improves people.”


For the Conservatives’ part, they don’t outright deny Mr. Jackson’s criticisms. Indeed, they revel in them:

Ian Brodie, Harper’s former chief of staff, told a McGill University symposium last March that criticism of the tough-on-crime policy by sociologists, lawyers and criminologists actually bolsters the Conservative case — because they are held in lower regard than politicians.

“Politically it helped us tremendously to be attacked by this coalition,” Mr. Brodie said. “So we never really had to engage in the question of what the evidence actually shows about various approaches to crime.”

For anybody who believes that politics should be an honest debate; for anybody who holds that democracy is a marketplace of ideas where policies rise and fall on their merits, this attitude should ring alarm bells. Here you have individuals who have worked hard, for years, in their chosen field of study, who have carefully gathered the facts, and have crafted credible arguments based on them, being dismissed because they have done just that. These individuals are arguably closer to the truth than most people — particularly these Conservative politicians — would care to admit, but rather than debate with them, or even agree to disagree, the experts are dismissed because their arguments do not feel right.

This sort of anti-intellectualism is easy to find in the United States. Remember this little gem about how non-thinking people are asked to deliberately avoid talking to thinking people, lest their inaccurate assumptions of the world are challenged?

Today, no self-respecting conservative wants to be thought stupid, not even by the lunatics on the far left. Yet there are far worse things than looking stupid to others—and one of them is being conned by those who are far cleverer than we are….

It is not easy to outfox the fox, and those who try often end up on the unpleasant end of the food chain. Thus, it is safer simply never to begin listening to them….

If traditional marriage needs to be defended by good arguments, then it stands or falls on the validity of these arguments, and where good arguments can be put forward to justify alternative “experiments in living,” then the authority of tradition as tradition is overthrown, and whoever comes up with the best argument carries the day. The end result of this process is that intellectuals, trained to be good at arguing, inevitably gain an undue influence in the shaping of public opinion, while those who adhere to traditions simply because they are their tradition are left vulnerable to attack and ridicule because they have difficulty defending positions they have never found cause to question.


This isn’t to say that you should ignore the will of the people and govern just at the whim of the experts. At the end of the day, the people are in charge (or, at least, they should be), and a world run by strict rational thought would have little room for artists. But it’s one thing to bow to popular opinion and beef up police budgets in the face of a dropping crime rate. It’s quite another to have politicians advance their political agendas by attacking those in the know for being in the know.

By disparaging the work of experts to the extent where some people believe that we should do the opposite of what the experts say, you do severe damage to the very people you’re supposed to serve. If you deliberately turn aside good advice, you allow yourself to govern with bad advice, and you govern to the detriment of the country. You create massive deficits that threaten economic stability and put a burden on our children. You fail to respond adequately to disasters and epidemics. You waste hundreds of millions of dollars on superprisons that make it look like you’re doing something to combat crime, while failing to actually combat crime. You allow citizens abroad to be tied up in bureaucratic nightmares due to lost passports, faulty intelligence and just plain incompetence.

Consider that Linda Keen and her colleagues on the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission believed that it was important that the nuclear facility at Chalk River be shut down so that necessary safety improvements could be made, and they were attacked as “Liberal appointees” by Stephen Harper and Gary Lunn. Now Chalk River has been shut down in a rather more unplanned way, and the shortage of medical isotopes is getting worse. The director of FEMA during the Clinton years had actual disaster management experience and reasonably coped with hurricane strikes, tornadic destruction, et cetera. George W. Bush’s appointee, Michael Brown, had previously managed the International Arabian Horse Association (and had departed under a cloud), and you can see how well the federal government in the U.S. managed the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

The single greatest thing I credit Mike Harris for is admitting his mistake and turning back on his decision to pull the Ontario government out of the business of funding municipal public transit, but too many in his cabinet governed as though they thought that government was easy — that any idiot can do it — and the result of their mismanagement included e-coli deaths at Walkerton, a dysfunctional Toronto city council, and an education minister who joked that he had to “create a crisis” in public education in order to enact his changes.

This is why conservatives like Jay Currie, Andrew Coyne, Mike Brock and Kate Youngsam have departed the Conservative Party and why I respect them for their brand of conservatism. While they believe that the best government is the government that governs the least, they still believe that the remainder of said government should be governed well, and for the benefit of all the people. The problem is, in the United States under George W. Bush, especially with the rump Republican Party and, increasingly, in Canada under the Conservative Party, the conservative movement is dominated by those who not only want to reduce the size of government, but hold all aspects of it in utter contempt.

Among the progressive side of the political blogosphere, while there is strong criticism of the actions of the Harper government, there is also considerable disappointment in the cynical political moves taken by Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff. The Liberals’ partisan attacks on the NDP, and their unwillingness to go to bat for progressive issues like opposition to the Canada-Columbia Free Trade Act, not to mention Ignatieff’s ability to hold two contradictory opinions on one issue at the same time, have many advocates dispirited and contemplating sitting out the next election, despite the risk that Stephen Harper might finally be handed the opportunity to govern unfettered that he’s been salivating for. But like Jay Currie and Kate Youngsam, I am willing to swallow my pride and vote Liberal.

Jay and Kate have decided that it would be better to have a dithering Liberal prime minister for two to four years while the Conservatives rebuild and come up with a real leader. I’m not opposed to that line of thinking, especially if a conservative like Kate takes the role, but my own motives are slightly different. As uninspiring as the prospect of prime minister Michael Ignatieff is to me, there is one aspect where the Liberals are significantly better than the current crop of Conservatives, and that is in the treatment of and respect for expertise.

Consider the qualifications of Linda Keen’s colleagues on the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission. Consider the senior government managers from the Mulroney era that the Chretien Liberals kept on, such as the head of Elections Canada Marc Mayrand. Consider the work they have done to try and serve Canadians as opposed to just the governing party. And these guys are dismissed by the Harper government as Liberal lapdogs because they dare to speak out of turn? To my recollection, this did not happen when Martin, Chretien or Mulroney were in power. That Harper and his supporters have brought this to the table speaks to a particularly dangerous kind of arrogance, and it is reason enough to send these guys packing.

The race to the bottom of Canadian politics, where professionalism and expertise is not just disregarded but disparaged by our leading political party, must be avoided at all costs. I hope that Canadians stand up for respecting professionalism, so that we don’t fall into the trap that currently ensnares the United States.

(Update: 11:59 p.m.): After I posted on this blog, I remembered there were a number of incidences where people with Liberal connections got jobs in government during a time when the Liberal Party was in power. I realize I’m about to get flooded with examples, such as Jean Chretien’s nephew Raymond, who was our ambassador to Washington. However, in many cases that I remember, these obvious connections were for jobs that were more political in nature. Your expertise in being an ambassador to the United States has to be in dialogue and diplomacy rather than some of the hard sciences, and there is ample evidence that Raymond Chretien had the credentials to be a diplomat (he had previously worked thirty years in the Foreign Affairs Department, after all). Further, as has been pointed out, for a government to operate politically, there has to be some political direction taken within the public service, and this is going to mean some people with connections will get appointed to certain jobs when certain parties are in power. Hopefully their jobs will be political in nature, setting policy, rather than managing things they don’t wholly understand — accepting expert advice, and not disparaging it because it’s inconvenient.

However, I still don’t recall many cases where the qualifications of a candidate were so out of whack of the job skills required — as seen with Michael Brown acting as the head of FEMA — and nor can I recall such a willingness to ignore such qualifications and to impugn the integrity of critics based on which party appointed them. Even Conservative supporters agree that this is a bad idea.

The solution, of course, is to set up a non-partisan Public Appointments Commission, where members of all parties can consider and question all government appointments to ensure that a person’s qualifications better match the skills required — just the sort of thing Stephen Harper promised to set up when he was campaigning for the 2006 election, only to ditch his promise in a fit of pique when his preferred choice for chair was voted down. Harper has never revisited this issue and has conducted himself in precisely the fashion he so criticized in Paul Martin. It’s time more Canadians called him on this.

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