TCS Daily

Holding Experts to Account

By Alan Anderson - May 18, 2005 12:00 AM

Though it is the resentment of the frustrated specialist which gives the demand for planning its strongest impetus, there could hardly be a more unbearable and more irrational world than one in which the most eminent specialists in each field were allowed to proceed unchecked with the realisation of their ideals.

-- The Road to Serfdom, F.A. Hayek


Over the past several decades, governments in the developed world have delegated power to administrative and expert bodies to an unprecedented extent. In many more cases, credulous acceptance of "expert" advice in lieu of debate constitutes effective delegation. This trend, whilst inevitable, has accelerated to the point where it is undermining both democracy and freedom.


There are three underlying causes of delegation. I will illustrate them with examples from my home jurisdiction of Australia, but my conclusions apply equally elsewhere.


The first cause is the explosion of technology and innovation in almost all fields of human endeavour. To keep pace with the growing complexity of the world, governments have, of necessity, delegated authority in specific areas to expert bodies. For example, the Civil Aviation Safety Authority promulgates rules on aircraft safety.


The second cause is the desire to keep certain objective decisions free of the polluting influence of politics. For instance, most developed nations have given their central banks independence in setting monetary policy, to ensure that irresponsible politicians cannot plunge us back into the inflationary spirals of the seventies.


The third cause is shirking of governmental responsibility. Rather than making and defending controversial decisions, politicians resort to "expert" bodies to provide political cover for their non-decisions. Naturally, delegation arising from the third cause is passed off as arising from the first and second causes.


There is a difference between, on the one hand, politicians setting out broad policies and leaving it to a delegatee to sort out the details and, on the other, politicians delegating to avoid the necessity of formulating a policy. The latter class of delegations frequently conceals unjustifiable government intervention in markets behind a faade of independent expertise.


Experts are not objective. Expert regulators are subject to capture by established interests. They are prone to empire-building, which encourages them to support additional regulation and the consequential increases of their resources. And individual experts frequently have barrows to push in their fields of interest.


A good example is broadcasting law. Australia allocates some radio and television spectrum, free of commercial licence fees, to community broadcasters, who often represent potent ethnic lobby groups. As demand for spectrum outstrips supply, allocation by the Australian Broadcasting Authority is based upon "the existing and perceived future needs of the community" and "the nature and diversity of the interests of that community".


The idea that a regulator can better assess the radio and television interests of the community than a simple auction of spectrum is both laughable and, to anyone who has suffered through an hour of community television, demonstrably wrong.


Another example is the Industrial Relations Commission. The government has outsourced the politically sensitive setting of the minimum wage under Australia's awards system to a quasi-judicial body. The proposition that any authority could make a depoliticised decision over wage levels is nave, as blatant political stacking of the Commission has shown. Reconciling competing interests in this area is clearly a political function. Yet the system lends a fig leaf of credibility to what would otherwise be a naked example of rent-seeking by organised labour.


Expert bodies can also be used as cover for unjustifiable government subsidy. Grants to the Arts administered by the Australia Council, a body populated by Arts "experts". Imagine the Arts Minister, deprived of this political cover, explaining to taxpayers why he thought it worth allocating thousands of their hard-earned dollars to pay someone to prance around a stage naked and smeared in paint.


This approach to government also has implications for technological progress. For instance, the Office of the Gene Technology Regulator controls all dealings in genetically modified organisms in Australia. Without a doubt, GM technology raises complex scientific questions. But the underlying debate over the "precautionary principle" requires no qualifications to understand. By abdicating responsibility to a regulator, government avoids the necessary task of confronting the neo-Luddite movement.


The regulator was established by a GM-friendly government and is relatively sympathetic to industry. But even where short-term tactical victories emerge (eg the approval of commercial GM canola crops), the strategic battle is being lost: the "need" for GM regulation is conceded by the mere existence of such a regulator, which will hardly question its own raison d'tre. When political winds change, the regulator will become an agent of GM opponents, invested with the authority of expertise which GM proponents have conferred upon it.


In short, the use of delegation to abdicate responsibility in controversial areas invites unnecessary regulation, not to mention capture of the delegatee by established interests. To be sure, these problems can affect elected legislatures also. But the democratic process, combined with the public's healthy scepticism towards politicians, provides a check in that context. This check is wholly absent when dealing with "expert" bodies that, like the medieval Church, shroud themselves in the mysticism of their arcane knowledge.


The trend towards delegation is irreversible, as much of it is the necessary consequence of society's increasing complexity. Cognisant of the growing power of expert bodies, we must therefore develop more effective mechanisms to hold them to democratic account.


The author is a lawyer living in Australia.


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