Sunday, February 18th, 2007

Here’s a story to remember the next time lawmakers cite the expert opinions of the Very Smart People as justification for restricting your freedom:

A mile offshore from this city’s high-rise condos and spring-break bars lie as many as 2 million old tires, strewn across the ocean floor — a white-walled, steel-belted monument to good intentions gone awry.

The tires were unloaded there in 1972 to create an artificial reef that could attract a rich variety of marine life, and to free up space in clogged landfills. But decades later, the idea has proved a huge ecological blunder.

Little sea life has formed on the tires. Some of the tires that were bundled together with nylon and steel have broken loose and are scouring the ocean floor across a swath the size of 31 football fields. Tires are washing up on beaches. Thousands have wedged up against a nearby natural reef, blocking coral growth and devastating marine life.

“The really good idea was to provide habitat for marine critters so we could double or triple marine life in the area. It just didn’t work that way,” said Ray McAllister, a professor of ocean engineering at Florida Atlantic University who was instrumental in organizing the project. “I look back now and see it was a bad idea.”

The amusing part is that there were clear signs that tire reefs weren’t going to work as early as the 1980s. But as the article notes, state and national governments kept trying them, anyway. Now taxpayers get to foot the bill for the cleanup.

The libertarian lesson: Experts can be and frequently are wrong. An expert working for the government is no less susceptible to bias or ill motivation as one working for a corporation. Which is why it’s foolhardy to rely on their expertise when making top-down policies that affect everyone. In fact, the main difference between the two is that when a private corporation’s experts are wrong, the consequences are generally limited to the corporation, its employees, and its investors (there are hard cases, of course. Pollution comes to mind. But hard cases make for bad policy.). When the government’s experts are wrong, we all get to suffer the consequences. Which is a good reason to have government making as few one-size-fits-all policies as possible.

There was a time when government experts told us to eat lots of pasta. Not so much anymore. The “experts” at CSPI (who aren’t the government, but are far too influential on it) once told us trans-fats were hunky-dory, and encourage restaurants to use them instead of butter and other animal fats. Now they say trans-fats are gelatinous death, and they’re urging governments to ban them. Right now, government experts are generally lying to us about secondhand smoke, and using that “expertise” to call for public smoking bans. Same for medical marijuana. Government experts now tell us we’re going to die if we don’t lose a few pounds. But there’s some evidence that dieting may be worse for you than carrying extra weight. There’s now overwhelming scientific evidence that daily, moderate consumption of alcohol could add years to your life. Yet government experts continue to advocate top-down policies aimed at reducing alcohol consumption, because for whatever reason, they’re more worried about the small percentage of people who abuse alcohol than the exponentially hire number of people who could benefit from it.

(It’s also interesting how the government’s preferred experts so often come to carefully-researched conclusions that call for giving more power to the government.)

I’m not arguing that on those issues where I disagree with a government policy, my preferred experts are always better than the government’s (though I obviously think they are, or they wouldn’t be my preferred experts). I’m arguing that all experts — both the ones I agree with and the ones I don’t — can be wrong. Therefore, policymakers should err on the side of letting people make up their own minds, and deciding which experts to trust. Just because Philip Morris commissions a study doesn’t mean it’s wrong (though it often is). And just because the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation commissions a study doesn’t mean it’s free of bias (it often isn’t).

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One Response to “Experts”

  1. #1 |  Quotulatiousness | 

    QotD: Experts

    Experts can be and frequently are wrong. An expert working for the government is no less susceptible to bias or ill motivation as one working for a corporation. Which is why it’s foolhardy to rely on their expertise when…