50 Years Later, What JFK Can Teach Us About Expertise in Government

By Tim Price |

Kennedy Democrats put too much faith in the “liberal consensus,” but today’s policymakers place far too little in the value of experts.

This is a year of big 50th anniversaries: 1962 was a big year for jazz albums and children’s books, but also for several of the great documents of the tortured history of modern liberalism. Michael Harrington’s The Other America: Poverty in the United States was published 50 years ago, and the Port Huron Statement appeared the same year.

There’s a third document that surely won’t receive the same level of Boomer-nostalgia attention, but is far more relevant to the political history that followed. That’s John F. Kennedy’s Yale Commencement speech of June 11, 1962. In that speech, which was drafted and edited by all the famous brains of Camelot – Arthur Schlesinger Jr., McGeorge Bundy, Theodore Sorenson, John Kenneth Galbraith – Kennedy declared, “What is at stake in our economic decisions today is not some grand warfare of rival ideologies… but the practical management of a modern economy.” The economic problems of the 1960s, Kennedy said, are “subtle challenges for which technical answers, not political answers, must be provided.”

This was surely the most profound error of the era of “liberal consensus.” Kennedy and the men around him had persuaded themselves that “ideology” (by which they meant the great 20th Century clashes among fascism, Marxian socialism, democratic socialism, and democratic capitalism that had defined their own lives) was just a matter of “myths” and that all the real challenges that remained were just technical choices to be resolved by experts. Meanwhile, just beyond the shadows of the campus, an ideological showdown was building that was hardly mythical. It would pit the radically individualistic conservatism of Barry Goldwater, Ronald Reagan, and their far more radical heirs against the moderate Democratic safety net capitalism that the men of the New Frontier took so much for granted that they couldn’t even call it an ideology. Indeed, even today it’s hard to define the viewpoint that stands in opposition to the dominant ideology of the right.

Liberalism was discredited in part because of the Kennedy men’s faith in experts and their conviction that the choices were technical, not political. In the most narrow reading of the 1962 speech, JFK was embracing the view, held briefly by the American followers of John Maynard Keynes, though not Keynes himself, that “the practical management of a modern economy” involved “fine-tuning” fiscal and monetary policy, which would keep it on a steady path of growth. Keynesian fine-tuning failed dramatically, especially in the 1970s, leaving liberals essentially without economic tools and vulnerable to the alternative of supply-side economics. Excess faith in expertise is also held responsible for the Vietnam War (“The Best and the Brightest” were technocrats who could ask every question except whether the basic idea made sense) and failures of the community-based anti-poverty programs of the Johnson era. Above all, as critics of liberalism both sympathetic and hostile have argued ever since the late 1960s (most recently, Jonathan Haidt), the ideology of expertise-not-ideology put liberals far out of touch with the real stuff of life – morality, ethnicity, family, fear, tribal instincts. And to some extent it’s true – a classic example is the idea of overcoming residential segregation through more aggressive desegregation of schools, that is, busing – which surely created more conflict and racial antagonism than it resolved, and not solely because of racism.

But 50 years is a long, long time (check this video clip of Kennedy’s speech if you want a sense of how far away that era seems), and liberals have been apologizing for and backing off of their faith in dispassionate expertise for most of it while the contempt for expertise developed by the populist right has continued to build. When populist politicians like Sarah Palin denounce “elites,” we act mystified that she doesn’t seem to mean the very rich. But the idea that the real elites are technocratic experts empowered by government is now very old – so old that it’s not true. One of the first things conservatives have done consistently when they gain power is to cut the legs out from under any kind of independent source of evaluation – eliminating the Office of Technology Assessment in 1995, ending any independent analysis of the distributional effects of tax cuts in the Bush administration, challenging scientific consensus on climate change, and most recently, attempting to eliminate funding for the American Community Survey and the National Science Foundation’s social science research program.

At the same time, we’re actually a lot smarter than we were in 1962. Experts understand the limits of their own rational models (that’s part of the breakthrough of behavioral economics), and our methods for evaluating government programs have evolved more than a little bit. David Bornstein, writing on the New York Times Opinionator blog, recently called in some detail for an age of “evidence-based policy making,” hailing, for example, an experiment that showed that simply making the standard application for student financial aid easier could increase the likelihood that a student would attend college for two or more years by 29 percent. As Bornstein notes, the Obama administration is attempting to quietly restore a role for evidence and evaluation, but it’s hardly the stuff of presidential speeches.

That we don’t base policy on such evidence isn’t just because government is lazy or ignorant – although sometimes neither the believers in a policy nor its opponents really want to know whether it works. It’s about politics and power, and it has been for 50 years. When everything, from climate change to whether economic austerity might lead to economic growth, is treated as an ideological question rather than a matter of evidence, then it’s a battle of power, and the side with more power is likely to prevail. Restoring a place for dispassionate expertise, evaluation, and evidence is central to the promise of a just society – but we have to do it without the Kennedy men’s clumsy blindness to how radical that idea is, how much it threatens powerful interests, and the fact that there is much of life where expertise is of no value.

Mark Schmitt is a Senior Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute.

Tim Price is the Roosevelt Institute's Editorial Director.