False democracy

18/09/2014 | Stumbling and Mumbling

At the gym yesterday morning, I caught sight of a TV show discussing “is fracking the energy of the future?” Who might usefully discuss this question: geologists? energy economists? Nope. There was the ubiquitous vested interest; Vivienne Westwood, a frock designer; and James Delingpole, whose field of expertise has yet to be discerned.

What´s going on here is yet another example of the Robbie Savageization of the media. What matters is not knowledge, intellect or wisdom but the narcisstic assertion of mere opinion. And “good” TV (or radio) consistents not in enlightenment but in the loud and heated exchange of that opinion. We see this in Question Time, radio phone-ins and the speak your branes sections in newspaper websites.

There´s a paradox here. This might seem a democratic development; everyone´s opinion is equal, regardless of their knowledge. And yet at the same time as the media has become more “democratized” in this sense, the power of elites has strengthened.

One reason for this, I suspect, is that the downgrading of expert opinion can serve a reactionary function. Since at least the time of Galileo, scientific knowledge has tended to undermine those in power. Historically, this has been true of economics too. David Ricardo was a radical MP; Alfred Marshall, one of the founders of neoclassical economics, had socialist sympathies; the “dismal science” got its name by opposing slavery; and the efficient market hypothesis tells us that millionaire fund managers are mostly thieves and parasites.

However, a world in which experts are ignored, because “it´s a matter of opinion, innit” is one which helps silence these challenges. The sidelining of genuine expert knowledge on fiscal policy and immigration has contributed to falling real wages and racism.

You might think this isn´t wholly unreasonable, because experts – not just in economics – are often wrong. But there might be a negative correlation between being right and having influence. As Alan Blinder famously said, “Economists have the least influence on policy where they know the most and are most agreed; they have the most influence on policy where they know the least.”

There is, though, something else going on. Giving voice to mere opinion does not mean redistributing power. Most workplaces – including in the public sector – are fiercely top-down and anti-democratic even though employees might be local experts with genuinely useful knowledge.

What have then, is not real democracy but the mere appearance of it, in which the opinion of the mob serves to disguise the fact that power is held by a small elite.

This editorial comes from Stumbling and Mumbling. Creative Commons License

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