A pre-referendum YouGov opinion poll tells why: “Leave” voters had no trust whatsoever in the advice-givers. They did not want their judgment to rely on politicians, academics, journalists, international organizations, or think tanks. As one of the Leave campaign’s leaders, justice secretary Michael Gove, who is now seeking to succeed David Cameron as Prime Minister, bluntly put it: “people in this country have had enough of experts.”
It is tempting to dismiss this attitude as a triumph of passion over rationality. Yet the pattern seen in the UK is oddly familiar: in the United States, Republican voters disregarded the pundits and nominated Donald Trump as their party’s presidential candidate; in France, Marine Le Pen, the leader of the far-right National Front, elicits little sympathy among experts, but has strong popular support. Everywhere, a significant number of citizens have become hostile to the cognoscenti.
Most economists, let alone specialists in other disciplines, regard such accusations as unfair, because only a few of them devoted themselves to scrutinizing financial developments; yet their credibility has been seriously dented. Because no one pled guilty for the suffering that followed the crisis, the guilt has become collective.
The second explanation has to do with the policies advocated by the cognoscenti. Experts are accused of being biased, not necessarily because they are captured by special interests, but because, as a profession, they support the mobility of labor across borders, trade openness, and globalization more generally.
This points to the third and most convincing explanation: while experts emphasize the overall benefits of openness, they tend to disregard or minimize its effects on particular professions or communities. They regard immigration – to which Cameron attributed the Leave campaign’s victory – as a net benefit for the economy; but they fail to pay attention to what it implies for workers who experience downward wage pressure or for communities struggling with a scarcity of affordable housing, crowded schools, and an overwhelmed health system. In other words, they are guilty of indifference.
In practice, it is often hard to identify the losers and to find the right instrument to support them. To argue that problems can be solved without examining how and under what conditions is sheer intellectual laziness. To tell people who have been hurt that they could have been spared the pain does not give them any less reason to complain; it just fuels resentment of technocratic experts.