January 22, 2017, by Harry Cocks
How America got Fed Up with Experts
During last summer’s EU referendum campaign, far-right fellow traveller and failed politician Michael Gove famously said the British public had “had enough of experts.” Although Gove meant to discredit only those “experts” who disagreed with him, the expression of similar sentiments, especially on the right of the political spectrum, is not a recent phenomenon, but, in America at least, dates back to the early 1970s. As Joe Merton shows in a new article (see link) the failure of administrative and academic expertise to solve the crime wave that accompanied the USA’s “urban crisis” of the late 60s and early 70s led to a disillusion with “expertise” and a turn to the right on crime that still affects policy.
The liberal left is often seen as being passive in the face of such increases in crime, ceding the initiative to “law and order” politicians on the right, but, as Merton shows, those in charge of America’s cities in the 1960s actively developed a series of initiatives in order to combat such urban problems. Like many policy platforms of the period, these schemes were based on an optimistic faith in seemingly non-ideological forms of rationality and expertise, and often drew on the ideas of academics, research institutes and management consultants. Like Robert McNamara’s attempts to solve the problem of the Vietnam war through more effective administration, information gathering and distribution, urban policy of the late 60s expressed an optimistic faith in the power of mangerialism to solve problems like crime.
To that end, New York City Mayor John Lindsay (pictured) aimed to solve the problem of rising crime in the city by employing a series of experts ranging from management consultants at the Rand Corporation and McKinsey, to MIT’s Urban Systems Lab and the State University of New York’s department of Urban Science. All of these aimed to provide neutral, non-ideological solutions to rising crime rates. These ranged from reforming police administration and communication, to introducing computer systems to improve police response and manpower allocations. The 911 emergency number was introduced and a new civilian police complaints procedure introduced.
However, far from being non-political administrative solutions, many of these were seen as inherently partisan. In particular, the police, which had long been seen as bastion of the Irish community, resisted Lindsay’s reforms, seeing them as an assault on the supposed “Irish mafia” that dominated law enforcement. The civilian complaints procedure was seen in the same way. All of these were complicated by communal and ethnic conflicts that these solutions had expected to resolve or transcend. Expert-led solutions also saw ballooning costs – from $8m in 1965 to $70m in 1969. Crime rates did not fall, and the failure of these strategies led rival politicians and voters to demand simpler crime strategies that delivered immediate, emotional effects rather than rationalist ones. One of those was Fred Trump, father of the current US President, who, in a TV ad promoting his own mayoral campaign, promised that black dope fiends would soon be coming to your neighbourhood if Lindsay was reelected. The 1969 mayoral election was fought on the issue of crime. Lindsay, though a Republican himself, was outflanked by law and order types in his own party. He even lost traditional liberal Republican voters. By 1977 Ed Koch, who became the long-time mayor of New York, could campaign successfully on the promise of competence, support for the death penalty, and other “tough on crime” messages.
The main problem though, was that expertise failed to deliver falling crime rates. This was largely due to a failure to recognise the political nature of the task in question and because, as in Vietnam, experts themselves were intoxicated by a rhetoric that portrayed their efforts as essentially non-political.
Joe Merton, “‘I Don’t Believe in a Fun City; I Believe in a Safe City’: Fear of Crime and the Crisis of Expertise in New York City”, Journal of Policy History 29, 1 (2017)
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