A plague of know-it-alls

Jon Margolis

June 03, 1993|By Jon Margolis

AS LIFE becomes more complex, it would behoove people to become more humble.

Alas, people act unbehooveably. Disdaining humility, they react to increasing complexity with increasing arrogance. We are in the age of the all-purpose, super-confident know-it-all.

In this context, "people" does not mean everyone. It means public people, some of those who get elected and many who try to, the usual suspect pontificators and the televised talking heads, few of them attached to a thinking mind but each one fully equipped with raging ego and flapping mouth.

They are all experts on everything. Just ask them. They know exactly what to do about Bosnia and the budget deficit, the Middle East and the money supply, crime and Cambodia.

Along with this arrogance is an extraordinary lack of confidence. He who knows everything doubts that anything will work, at least not unless it is done according to his own precise specifications. And no wonder. Whoever thinks so highly of himself can have little respect for others. Hence the assumption that collective action, which by definition requires cooperation and compromise, is certain to fail.

All these traits will become increasingly evident as the debate over health care moves into its late stages. Here is an extraordinarily complex problem. In order to understand it fully, one first of all needs to know a bit about both medicine and economics, and then one needs to have seen (not just have read about, seen) how health care actually gets to folks.

A few people have these credentials. But the typical columnist, talk-show host, ideologue or back-bench congressman does not know a femur from a fasciculus. Few of them have been inside a psychiatric hospital or seen an inner-city clinic. Will this deter them from proclaiming with great certainty just what is wrong with the plan the president will propose? Don't be ridiculous.

No, we do not have government-by-expert, and the people should not cede power to the fancy-shmancy folks who know all the big words. But neither need we have government-by-loudmouth. Those who don't know much should keep quiet, and if they don't they should be ignored, even if they run a radio call-in show or persuade some producer to put them on a TV panel.

Theoretically, we have government by the elected representatives of the people. But thanks to the blather of the talking heads, this ideal (and reality) has become almost unfashionable, so much so that the following proposal is going to sound bizarre.

How about letting the process take its course? Bill Clinton was elected president, in part because he said he'd change the health-care system. He gathered a bunch of experts -- real ones -- to advise him on a program, and he's about to present it.

He presents it to the Congress, also elected by the people. An irascible bunch, Congress, with its own priorities and with access to its own scholars. Its members will examine the president's proposals with care, even with hostility, in public hearings and in private wranglings.

If all goes well, this will be followed by bargaining among the various interests, the two houses of Congress and the president. Such bargaining is often not pretty to watch. But it usually produces something, and no matter what the strident true believers on "MacNeil-Lehrer" may say, that something is quite likely to benefit the country.

Who says? History says. Despite the moaning and groaning of the chattering classes, the fact is that almost every major initiative of the United States government has worked. None of them worked perfectly, most have been abused by speculators, sharpies and outright crooks and all of them cost too much.

But from the Northwest Ordinance through the Homestead and Land Grant Acts, the subsidization of railroads and farmers, the national parks and forests, Social Security, unemployment compensation and the GI Bill, to the Civil Rights, Clean Air and Clean Water acts, the Wilderness System, the Interstate Highway System, Medicare and much (though not all) of the War on Poverty, the big, sweeping federal programs made this country a better place. There is every reason to suppose that a national health-care system will join that list.

All these programs were enacted because the process took its course, because elected officials, knowledgeable experts and (why not?) the people with a vested interest thrashed it out. Sure, public pressure was always part of the process. But that was because the public either did or did not want something done. The public at large was not that interested in precisely how it was done.

The public at large still isn't, perhaps because it knows better than the loud-mouths that everyone can't be an expert on everything and that in our system the people rule, but they do not govern. As life gets more complex, a little humility, a little confidence and a little democracy would be in order.

Jon Margolis is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune.

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