Expertise

When I was a teenager, I worked summers and Saturdays for my father in his sheet metal shop. This is where I get my enduring respect and, indeed, love for craftsmanship. My dad may have been a bear of a boss, but put an arc welder or a blow torch in his hands, and he was an artist.

Once I helped him cut some steel plate in an elaborate curved shape. He took a few seconds and adjusted the mix of gasses and flame until it was just right in a way he understood and I didn’t. As he cut, there was very little spatter and very little heat passed to the material. It may seem weird, but if you do it right, the piece you’re cutting hardly gets more than ‘very warm’. This is important, since excess heat will cause the material to expand and warp, ruining the work.

In only took him a minute or two to cut the piece. When he was finished cutting, he took a grinder to the edge and smoothed it out in a couple minutes more. Done.  Now, I had seen other people cut with a torch, and so knew how good Dad was in comparison. Not only is it hard to cut a clean line, you have to do it quickly or you heat the work. If your hand isn’t perfectly steady, you create ridges or waves on the edge which then have to be ground out. All this while handling equipment, avoiding an extremely hot flame and working around the material. What Dad did in under 5 minutes might take another guy half an hour – if he could do it at all.

I once saw a guy on a construction site cut off a piece of heavy rebar that had been cemented into place incorrectly. He simply set the flame on the torch super high, and, over the course of a minute or two, basically melted the bar off, leaving a glowing puddle of steel. I had to restrain myself – Dad would have cut that off in under 10 seconds – heck, *I* would have – leaving hardly any trace. Not to mention conforming to a Depression Era man’s interest in not wasting stuff you have to pay for. The whole scene affronted my sense of expertise, the belief that a working man ought to know how to do his job.

Not sure I can tell from one still picture, but I suspect his technique could use some work. Lot of sparks and spatter.

It has been said that a journeyman knows enough to imagine his craft is difficult compared to other crafts, but that a master knows that mastery of any craft is difficult and requires dedication. The journeyman dismisses the mastery of others as somehow trivial compared to his own, while the master acknowledges true mastery whenever he sees it.

One great divide in politics involves whether one acknowledges or even can see the mastery of business people, that there is a type of person whose creative genius and mastery centers around making businesses and, yes, money. Socrates was always going at it with the Sophists, whose premise was that their training was the highest, after they had trained you, you could persuade and command all other craftsmen to do your bidding without having to know anything about their crafts. Socrates wondered, among other things, if it were a good thing for sophists to be able to make a doctor do their bidding, rather than being subject to the doctor in matters of health. The Sophists were sure Socrates was missing the point – I can *command* the doctor, or have him put to death! I am his master! Socrates was pretty sure none of that would matter if the sophist were to get sick.

Our betters are convinced that if they held power over all the lesser craftsmen, if they could command and control their actions,(1) all would be well. Like the Sophists, they never wonder about what it is that the business people know that they don’t know – they just want to be able to command them (and, if necessary – and Marx says it is – to put them to death!). In fact, it is worse: they don’t even recognize that business people are masters of a craft. They, like the journeymen, imagine their craft – statecraft, I suppose – to be much more difficult,  and like the Sophists, imagine their craft to be all-encompassing. They will simply command the businessmen to make jobs and money, or, if they refuse or fail, install bureaucrats to make it happen, as any bureaucrat can do the job when properly guided by statecraft as imagined by our betters. How hard can it be, after all, when these crass money-grubbers can pull it off?

There’s that story about George McGovern trying to run a hotel (behind a paywall, sorry! This kind of recaps it.) that is both beautiful and horrifying. What is beautiful is that McGovern was able to learn a couple things: that regulations written by people with no understanding of how what they are regulating works cause more harm than good, and that, even with the best of intentions, providing everything a good businessman would like to provide to his workers is rarely possible, that tradeoffs must be made. One must always respect a man who, when faced with contrary evidence, is willing to change his thinking. Would that such willingness becomes more common!

What is horrifying is that a man who did not understand these basic givens of running a business was for years the leading Liberal voice in America, and, as a Senator, a major source of precisely the kind of ignorant, harmful legislation he later learned was causing so much damage. Imagine that some rube totally ignorant of your expertise, whatever that expertise, were to be given a bully pulpit from which to criticize you, and was allowed to look over your shoulder and direct your work. It would be bad, and no fun.(2)

One of the undercurrents in American political discussions is the feeling of being held in contempt. Everybody, it seems, feels belittled by somebody else. This works even for those who are not officially counted among the downtrodden. Even though I am hardly a business genius,(3) and in no sense downtrodden, I know I feel the contempt, sometimes passing into out and out hatred, dripping from the tongues of our political leaders.

Contempt is rarely a constructive way toward cooperation; it is a start on the road to destruction. We start by imagining that some group of people is much more evil than we are, that if we were in charge of whatever it is they do, we could drive out the evil and achieve much good. It is never hard to find people doing evil in a group of any size, so we will have our evil poster boys and girls ready to hand. Then, it is a simple step to conclude that the evils we have found are ubiquitous and inevitable, and that we must put a stop to them by any means necessary.

This is not a way to make friends.

One final thought: I’ve never heard of anyone who would not like to be respected and even admired for their expertise. The cost of being admired and respected for our expertise is that we recognize, admire and respect other’s expertise. It’s hard to win an election. It’s hard to run a business. Both take talent, perseverance – and more than a bit of luck.

 

  1. And condemn them, if necessary. Funny how this line of thought inevitably leads there. At least the old Sophists understood and acknowledged it.
  2. It would be like putting a community organizer in charge of foreign policy. OK, maybe not that bad, but pretty bad.
  3. Although I can safely claim that about a dozen people owe their livelihoods to my business efforts over the years – not too shabby.
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Author: Joseph Moore

Enough with the smarty-pants Dante quote. Just some opinionated blogger dude.

2 thoughts on “Expertise”

  1. I agree with everything you said. But at the same time there is a conflicting thought in my mind. I have the idea that Chesterton said it, but I haven’t been able to find a quote. It’s something to the effect that we should not let experts shut us out of discussions, or discourage us from voicing our opinions, on the ground that they are experts and we’re not. This certainly rings true to me, for example, in the area of theology. Plenty of modern theologians are espousing claptrap, and seem to think that theological treatises hold more weight than magisterial documents.

    I’m sure these things can be reconciled: Respect for expertise, but not a blind obeisance to expertise. Maybe it depends on what field you’re talking about? Obviously a non-expert pilot doesn’t have as much right to fly a plane, or decide what to do in an aerial emergency, as a trained pilot. Probably it has to do with experts staying within their field and not claiming expertise outside of it, like a theologian claiming magisterial authority for what is ultimately just a personal speculation.

    1. Good and important point. There are more succinct GKC quotations on the subject, but here goes:

      “Now, it is a terrible business to mark a man out for the vengeance of men. But it is a thing to which a man can grow accustomed, as he can to other terrible things; he can even grow accustomed to the sun. And the horrible thing about all legal officials, even the best, about all judges, magistrates, barristers, detectives, and policemen, is not that they are wicked (some of them are good), not that they are stupid (several of them are quite intelligent), it is simply that they have got used to it.

      Strictly they do not see the prisoner in the dock; all they see is the usual man in the usual place. They do not see the awful court of judgment; they only see their own workshop. Therefore, the instinct of Christian civilisation has most wisely declared that into their judgments there shall upon every occasion be infused fresh blood and fresh thoughts from the streets. Men shall come in who can see the court and the crowd, and coarse faces of the policemen and the professional criminals, the wasted faces of the wastrels, the unreal faces of the gesticulating counsel, and see it all as one sees a new picture or a ballet hitherto unvisited.”

      Note that, while the jury is made up of common men, not lawyers, these common men have the law and the process and their duty explained very carefully to them, and are then allowed to pass judgement within an ancient and reveed legal framework. Totally down with this. What would be bad is if people *who wanted to be on juries* simply stormed the court, refused instruction, and did what they wanted on the premise that all this law and pomp were stupid and no self-respecting man would dirty his hands with it – which is more like what I’m hearing from certain politicians regarding business.

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