When Experts’ Bitter Medicine Is Really Snake Oil

Niall Ferguson is undoubtedly an expert. As the bio on his Newsweek column points out, he’s “a professor of history at Harvard University. He is also a senior research fellow at Jesus College, Oxford University, and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution.” His latest column (1/23/12) is about the need to sell the public on the policies recommended by experts:

To the kind of people who spend their careers inside elite institutions, the technocratic turn is welcome. Decisions about economic policy, they reason, are too difficult to be entrusted to the people’s elected representatives…. But there’s a catch. The sacrifices we need to make are bound to be painful: just look what Greece and Italy are going through now. Yet people can tolerate job losses, spending cuts and tax hikes if they believe that a payoff will come in the foreseeable future. How to persuade them of that? The only way is through political leadership.

Ferguson’s column concludes:

American voters want competent government. But they also need to be convinced to swallow the bitter medicine that competent government sometimes prescribes. In austerity-stricken Europe, too, the populists are waiting in the wings, ready to deliver rabble-rousing rants. Perhaps 2012 will turn out to be their year after all.

The problem with all this is that “painful” austerity policies are not actually “the sacrifices we need to make”; the decision to make people in Europe “swallow the bitter medicine” has actually made the situation there worse–as an IMF report acknowledged the day after Ferguson’s column appeared (Economist, 1/24/12). The “bitter medicine” prescribed by the Conservative-led government in Ferguson’s native Britain has recently succeeded in making the economic crisis there worse than the Great Depression–no small achievement.

That’s the problem with technocratic government–you have to be careful which experts you listen to.

About Jim Naureckas

Extra! Magazine Editor Since 1990, Jim Naureckas has been the editor of Extra!, FAIR's monthly journal of media criticism. He is the co-author of The Way Things Aren't: Rush Limbaugh's Reign of Error, and co-editor of The FAIR Reader: An Extra! Review of Press and Politics in the '90s. He is also the co-manager of FAIR's website. He has worked as an investigative reporter for the newspaper In These Times, where he covered the Iran-Contra scandal, and was managing editor of the Washington Report on the Hemisphere, a newsletter on Latin America. Jim was born in Libertyville, Illinois, in 1964, and graduated from Stanford University in 1985 with a bachelor's degree in political science. Since 1997 he has been married to Janine Jackson, FAIR's program director. You can follow Jim on Twitter at @JNaureckas.