Misapplied expertise

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Patrick Brehany, Contributing Writer

I have a favorite auto shop here in Irving, called Auto Tech. Through my four years at the University of Dallas, with two different older cars that I rely on for commuting, I have visited the shop many times for expensive and important repairs. Each time I am happy to turn my car over to and accept the advice of Jim, the owner, because he and his mechanics have the expertise to get me back on the road. As much as I rely on Jim, however, I am troubled by the increasing deference granted to “experts” in both the individual and political spheres.

In this age of specialization, everything in life seems to require an expert opinion. Whether it is the dietician hawking the new all-protein diet or your e-reader suggesting exactly which book you should read next, you can quickly become buried by an avalanche of opinions. In short, someone is willing to think for you in any situation. Much of this stems from a misapprehension of how and when the ostensibly objective knowledge of science can be created and applied; in a culture that doesn’t acknowledge man’s transcendental nature, individuals become just another object, subject to inquiry and general conclusions.

I want to suggest that this danger can and should be recognized in our own government. Since the mid-20th century, the role of legislators has been superseded by the “expert” regulators in government agencies. These specialized entities can often operate at cross-purposes with the good of society by pursuing limited goods in their particular area while claiming a detached and scientific perspective. One example is the recent, novel application of disparate impact analysis by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Disparate impact analysis is a method used to identify discrimination against a protected minority. It is generally invoked when someone can claim that a particular policy, for instance at work or when renting a house, adversely affects him as a minority, whether the harm was intended or not.

In February, however, HUD proposed to apply this method of analysis retroactively to legislation at the state and local levels that had an allegedly disparate effect. The threat of litigation would hang over any duly created law that HUD interpreted as having an undesirable social effect, whatever the stated purpose of the law. While discrimination against minorities is abhorrent and can certainly occur unintentionally, HUD’s proposal continues a trend in which authority rests with an unelected group of experts and not with the proper legislative body. Again, HUD would like to rely on standards and data separated from the real world and selectively interpreted and applied.

In order to correct these imbalances and regain our sovereignty both personally and in government, we must acknowledge the limits of expertise and commit ourselves to a society governed according to the principle of subsidiarity. Since science can only speak in generalities, any claim to objective knowledge about the nature of humanity should be treated with great suspicion, since it will tend to subsume the individual rather than empower him. In the same way, we cannot abdicate responsibility for government based on claims of complexity in a particular area. Any law must take into account the necessarily intricate relations that characterize human society. We should recommit ourselves to the messy business of making and reforming laws at the lowest legislative level possible.

If your car breaks down, I encourage you to visit Auto Tech for repairs. For problems with human nature, however, yours or in society, I hope you will rely on your own reason and keep moving forward.

 

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