Harold Laski on Experts and Expertise

Paul Daly January 6, 2017

When I was a doctoral student, I spent months trying to track down an essay by Harold Laski: ‘The Limitations of the Expert’ (1931) 162 Harper’s Monthly Magazine 101 (Fabian Tract No. 235). I eventually found it in a rare books collection at Harvard University while I was there as a visiting researcher. Finally finding the essay — a delight to read — was one of the high points of my doctoral studies.

Happily the essay is much easier to track down these days: courtesy of the LSE, a copy can be accessed here. I discussed Laski’s essay briefly in my book on deference and I reproduce the passage below, because the role of experts and expertise in public and political debate has prompted so much discussion in recent times. But you really should read the whole thing.

…..

In a colourful essay, Laski suggested that the expert: ‘sacrifices the insight of common sense to intensity of experience’;[1] ‘dislikes the appearance of novel views’;[2] ‘too often…fails to see his results in their proper perspective’;[3] has a ‘caste-spirit’[4]; and ‘simply by reason of his immersion in a routine tends to lack flexibility of mind once he approaches the margins of his special theme’.[5] As a result,

…[h]e is incapable of rapid adaptation to novel situations. He unduly discounts experience which does not tally with his own. He is hostile to views which are not set out in terms he has been accustomed to handle…Specialism seems to breed a horror of unwonted experiment, a weakness in achieving adaptability, both of which make the expert of dubious value when he is in supreme command of a situation.[6]

More damagingly, the expert ‘rarely understands the plain man’[7] and only ‘remains expert upon the condition that he does not seek to coordinate his specialism with the total sum of human knowledge’.[8] Some of Laski’s criticisms are hyperbolic, and he should not be taken as disparaging the importance of expertise rather than the veneration of experts.[9] Traces of hyperbole should not be allowed to obscure his key point, which is that experts should be ‘on tap, not on top’.[10]

[1] ‘The Limitations of the Expert’ (1931) 162 Harper’s Monthly Magazine 101 (Fabian Tract No. 235), 4. See also Martin Shapiro, ‘Administrative Law Unbounded: Reflections on Government and Governance’ (2001) 8 Indiana Journal of Global Legal Studies 369, 373-374.

[2] Laski, ‘Limitations’, above n.64, 5.

[3] Ibid., 6.

[4] Ibid., 6. That is, ‘[t]here is…no expert group which does not tend to deny that truth may possibly be found outside the boundary of its private Pyrenees’. Id.

[5] Ibid., 6.

[6] Ibid., 6-7.

[7] Ibid., 7.

[8] Ibid. at 8.

[9] He argues that his advice may not be heeded because the expert ‘is accustomed to a veneration not very different from that of the priest in primitive societies…’ Ibid., 14.

[10] Bernstein, Regulating Business, above n.58, p. 120. See similarly Henry Richardson, Democratic Autonomy: Public Reasoning about the Ends of Policy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), p. 225.

Updated January 6, 2017 at 09:56.