Over-Ruled: Part II


“No lesson seems to be so deeply inculcated by the experience of life as that you should never trust experts. If you believe doctors, nothing is wholesome: if you believe the theologians, nothing is innocent: if you believe the soldiers, nothing is safe. They all require their strong wine diluted by a very large admixture of insipid common sense.”
—-Robert Arthur Talbot Gascoyne-Cecil, 3rd Marquess of Salisbury

The noble lord learned a thing or two about experts during his thirteen years of service as Prime Minister of Great Britain. Even so, he could not have foreseen how the breed multiplied in numbers and influence during the coming century. Today we have experts in every thing, from artichokes to zirconium. Do I exaggerate? Go to amazon.com and type in those two subjects on the “books” section. You will find multiple titles on each.

In Over-Ruled Part I mentioned a couple of books by Philip K. Howard. His best known work, “The Death of Common Sense: How Law is Suffocating America” supports Salisbury’s advocacy of mixing common sense into the conduct of government. His critical analyses extend beyond lawyers and legal complexities to embrace the bureaucracy and our political culture in “The Rule of Nobody: Saving America from Dead Laws and Broken Government” This volume begins with a description of the effort to make the port of Newark accessible to the enlarged ships now dominating maritime shipping. The solution required building the new Bayonne Bridge, or rather the solution required was Environmental Protection Agency approval for the new bridge.

President Obama attracted a lot of derision when his “shovel-ready projects” proved unready. This diverted attention from the larger problem of our lumbering, dysfunctional government Howard sums up: “Compared to other infrastructure, the Bayonne Bridge approval is greased lightening. The average length of environmental review for highway projects, according to a study by the Regional Plan Association is over eight years. A project to replace the Goethals Bridge on mile south has taken about ten years to approve.” Mainers should take special note. Our state has become the promised land for environmentalist organizations and they know the arts of obstruction as well as any in the land.

Mr. Howard does not take direct aim at experts. He clearly respects expertise. It could not be otherwise since he is himself an expert adviser on legal reform to both Democrats and Republicans. He knows that their narrow, specialized input is a factor in the governmental paralysis he studies. I’m hopeful that he will focus on the monstrous regiment of experts in some future book.

While awaiting his next move we can examine the influence of the experts as it appears in the State of Maine. Some years ago, Senator Walter Gooley (R-Farmington) proposed a bill to legalize fireworks in our state. He didn’t succeed, but after the 2010 election Rep. Douglas Damon (R-Bangor) took up the cause. Bill Reid from New Sharon and I went to the committee hearing to testify in support. Bill has a PhD in Philosophy so we can fairly call his remarks philosophical. I meant mine to be commonsensical. We argued that Maine should adopt the customs followed by most of the rest of the world and treat its adults as responsible citizens.

The State Fire Marshal and certain medical professionals offered no arguments or opinions assessing the responsibility and freedom of adults. They had no special expertise relevant to those subjects. Drawing from their expert knowledge, they presented data and anecdotes showing the fire works are dangerous.

There’s no sensible argument for excluding experts from the evaluation of policy. The problem, comes from allowing expertise to overwhelm common sense, and personal freedom. We know fireworks can be dangerous. We know that some adults are irresponsible and downright stupid; Bill and I could even supply a lists of names. We know that all adults are capable of irresponsibility; there are anecdotes we could tell about ourselves, but won’t. We assume that there are experts knowledgeable about every folly ever committed by inexpert laymen. Even so we must keep the experts at bay if we wish to maintain the sphere of personal responsibility that forms the foundation of liberty.

Senator Eric Brakey (R-Lewiston) recently drew a flock of certified experts by proposing LD 112, a law removing the penalties for driving without a seat belt. Two trauma surgeons, the Maine Sheriff’s Association, LifeFlight of Maine, the Maine Driver and Traffic Safety Education Association, the Maine Chiefs of Police Association, the Maine Department of Public Safety, AAA of Northern New England, and the Maine Medical Association showed up at the Transportation Committee hearing to demand the bill’s rejection. James Tanner of the Maine Bureau of Highway Safety reported that Maine had 130 “road fatalities” in 2014, of which 41 involved people who were not wearing seatbelts. In 2013 there were 56 unbelted dead out of 144, and in 2012, 63 out of 164. Even though the law commanded them to belt up, 160 people died beltless over three years

No expert showed up to resist this formidable phalanx. No one made an argument that seat belts were useless. Senator Brakey didn’t. He assures me that he buckles up regularly, as do I. Inexpert, insipid common sense poses this question: Why would we believe that drivers indifferent to death and maiming from an unbelted collision fear the threat of a relatively moderate monetary penalty? Do these scofflaws have reason to believe the odds of the police detecting their unbelted condition are greater than the odds of cracking up?

Can we conclude from Mr Tanner’s testimony that all those beltless fatalities would have survived if the seat belt penalties had intimidating enough? The existing laws didn’t make them less reckless, forgetful, or defiant. Since 278 people died with their seatbelts on we have no means of knowing how many among the unbelted dead would have survived if they had obeyed the law. Nor do we have an accurate method of determining how many accident survivors were wearing their belts because of the law and how many were wearing them because it was the sensible thing to do. Senator Brakey cites statistics from New Hampshire, where seat-belts are not compulsory for adults, to show the a lack of conclusive evidence about the usefulness of coercion

The experts appear untroubled by such questions. Senator Brakey’s argument for LD 112 rests in large part on a principled libertarian insistence that government bear a heavy burden of proof to justify the use of force and coercion. The experts did not meet that burden. They didn’t even try. Specialized knowledge is what makes them experts, not broad principles.

It’s not merely expert opinion that insures LD 112’s failure. We can assume that most of the habitual seat-belt-bucklers axiomatically agree that everyone must be compelled to comply with their rules of common sense. I understand the instinctive belief that government should pass laws to compel other people to behave as I do, but try to resist it. I’m not sure of how many other citizens make the effort.


Read Over-Ruled: Part I here.


  1. I never disagree with the Professor. He artfully makes his point, time after time, in a manner that is both entertaining and instructive. His skillful use of language is second to none!


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