Who Needs an Expert?

duhThis week, the engine light in my car abruptly came on, accompanied by a faint smell of something burning. There was no visible smoke, and all of the gauges indicate normal operation (with the exception of the check engine light), so I couldn’t immediately guess at what the issue might be. I drive a Volkswagen, so my first inclination was to take the car to my local authorized VW service center for inspection and possible repair. But, when I thought about it, I realized that maybe that wasn’t the best idea. After all, these so-called “experts” on VW vehicle maintenance may actually know more than I do about my car, but that only gives them power over me. I can’t know when they’re leading me astray. I mean, we know from recent news about VW deliberately defeating emissions testing that VW is corrupt. Clearly the system is rigged in their favor. So I decided to look for someone else. I know a guy, a great guy, and his passion is working on cars. He doesn’t have credentials or certifications of any kind; in fact, he’s never worked on a car before. But he has driven cars, and even hired cars to take him places, so he understands cars in general. I think I’m going to let him fix my car. What have I got to lose?

By now this probably looks like an analogy about having someone with no qualifications serve as president. It probably looks like that because that’s what it is. One might think this analogy isn’t perfect. That’s because it isn’t, just as no analogy is flawless. But hopefully it relates the larger point of having someone with no knowledge of a role take on that role. Would you want someone who doesn’t know anything about engines to service your vehicle’s engine? If you needed surgery, would you go to a licensed, experienced surgeon or someone claims to have observed a surgery? When would you utilize someone with no experience or specific education whatsoever to perform a highly complex and significant task?

I imagine some folks think this isn’t applicable, based on the fact that our representative democracy (or republic) isn’t meant to have experts in politics on staff. The government should be made up “of the People,” after all, and the people aren’t all career politicians. That’s a fair point, but I argue that this is most applicable to the legislative branch. These are the people’s representatives (in the House of Representatives) and each state’s representatives (in the Senate). Each is selected based on their particular expertise and their willingness to carry forward the concerns of their constituents to Washington. Those that might be selected to their first appointment as a political representative at the national level need primarily to understand what the folks in their district or state want out of the federal government, and then work to amend existing legislation or create new legislation as warranted (within the stipulations of the constitution). One does not need to be an expert on legislation to do this job (though many representatives have legal backgrounds, and many have previous legislative experience at the state level before moving to the federal level). The disparate backgrounds of the various representatives help place them in various committees (judicial, intelligence, defense, oversight, etc), so their non-legislative experiences are actually useful. But to reiterate, the key for representatives is to understand the needs and desires of the constituents. This is not the job of the Executive Branch.

The Executive Branch is responsible for implementation of federal laws though its various agencies and departments. Its responsibilities with regard to foreign affairs is far broader in scope; the Executive serves as the face of the nation for the rest of the world. It is therefore far more important that the President have a great deal of understanding of current domestic and foreign policies. Most Presidents have previous executive experience, either as a governor or an agency chief (or a combination). Occasionally we get presidents with federal legislative experience in lieu of executive experience, so long as their legislative tenure demonstrated an articulable exposure to foreign policy. (Domestic policy is an easier sell for a legislator, for obvious reasons.) Suffice it to say, it is far more important for the chief of the Executive and the worldwide public face of the country to have some understand of what it takes to govern prior to taking office. (And, no, acquiring real estate and “running a business” isn’t the same thing.)

What about getting someone in to shake things up in Washington? Isn’t that an idea with merit? Sort of… The government is currently in a high state of dysfunction, but this is primarily a problem within the Legislative Branch. It is certainly worth close scrutiny of each individual representative to see if they are truly looking out for the interests of their constituents. Even with the high level of disapproval of the current congress, it would be highly disruptive if everyone with any knowledge of the legislative processes were simultaneously removed. Even if there is systemic corruption, it would be far better to excise the specific corrupting influences than to simply flip the table over. In the case of the Executive Branch, we shouldn’t confuse dearth of knowledge of how governance works with challenging the status quo. We have a candidate that has demonstrated a profound ignorance of current standing treaties and alliances, international law, basic civil rights, and the impact of economic theory just to name a few of the more significant issues. The separation of powers would prevent him from being able to accomplish many of his more dangerous ideas, but he would still have a destabilizing influence with our allies throughout the world. How could anyone hope to predict what he might say or do next; which despot he might praise while decrying long-time international partners? He could negatively impact defense and trade relationships around the globe with far-reaching effects. He could promote and support aggressive policies aimed at rolling back civil rights and civil liberties.

In short, don’t hire someone with no training or experience to fix your car just because you think your mechanic might be overcharging you. You are unlikely to be pleased with the result.