Experts vs Elites

Robin Hanson

Consider a typical firm or other small organization, run via a typical management hierarchy. At the bottom are specialists, who do very particular tasks. At the top are generalists, who supposedly consider it all in the context of a bigger picture. In the middle are people who specialize to some degree, but who also are supposed to consider somewhat bigger pictures.

On any particular issue, people at the bottom can usually claim the most expertise; they know their job best. And when someone at the top has to make a difficult decision, they usually prefer to justify it via reference to recommendations from below. They are just following the advice of their experts, they say. But of course they lie; people at the top often overrule subordinates. And while leaders often like to pretend that they select people for promotion on the basis of doing lower jobs well, that is also often a lie.

Our larger society has a similar structure. We have elites who are far more influential than most of us about what happens in our society. As we saw early in the pandemic, the elites are always visibly chattering among themselves about the topics of the day, and when they form a new opinion, the experts usually quickly cave to agree with them, and try to pretend they agreed all along.

As a book I recently reviewed explains in great detail, elites are selected primarily for their prestige and status, which has many contributions, including money, looks, fame, charm, wit, positions of power, etc. Elites like to pretend they were selected for being experts at something, and they like to pretend their opinions are just reflecting what experts have said (“we believe the science!”). But they often lie; elite opinion often overrules expert opinion, especially on topics with strong moral colors. And elites are selected far more for prestige than expertise.