Over the years, I’ve developed a pretty good litmus test for whether or not someone’s a serious person. Pop quiz: You go to the doctor, he diagnoses you, and prescribes antibiotic X. Now, did he prescribe antibiotic X because
- out of all possible alternatives, it’s the best medicine for your specific condition, body, and circumstances? or
- the drug rep for antibiotic X dropped by earlier in the week and whispered sweet nothings in his ear?
If you instinctively answered (1), sorry, but you’re naive. It’s possible, of course, but it surely ain’t probable. Not because the doctor’s a hack, mind you, but because of the nature of the transaction: If you feel so bad that he’s prescribing for you in the first place, pretty much any antibiotic is going to make you feel a whole lot better. And given that they’re all very similar, chemically and functionally….
If you’ve still got an idealized view of the medical profession (thanks, Hollywood!), consider financial advisers. Same question: Your investment guy takes your check and puts it into mutual fund Z. Is it because
- Fund Z truly has superior performance, based on a long, hard look at your particular life situation?, or
- Fund Z’s wholesaler took your investment guy out for golf last weekend?
Here again, your financial guy is on the up-and-up. It’s just that, like antibiotics, all the major mutual funds are pretty much the same — they’re a bit different around the margins, but for all intents and purposes you could invest the same money in any of them and get basically the same return. If fund Z is a point or two ahead this year, then you can be sure that fund Y will beat it next year. Same as it ever was.
Financial guys and doctors know it, too, which is why they’re generally pretty cynical about their professions. While the public thinks docs and financial guys are experts without portfolio — which impression they enjoy, of course, they wouldn’t be human if they didn’t — docs and financial guys know that 90% of what they do can be, and probably soon will be, automated. Their real successes, the ones they only share with other pros over drinks, are in that 10%, that the public doesn’t know about and wouldn’t understand anyway. The real art of medicine (finance) is on the margins.
A counterexample is instructive. I’ve met a lot of docs and financial guys; too a man they were cynics about their jobs. I’ve also met a lot of academics and journalists — true believers all. No one is more confident in xzhyr judgment about vast questions of war and peace than some crop-haired, tatted-out nose-ringer who went straight from boarding school onto the tenure track, or into the newsroom. These people should be confronted with evidence of their own ignorance pretty much daily. When I was teaching, for instance, hardly a week went by without an undergrad stumping me with a question… and this in classes that were right in my wheelhouse!
Docs and financial guys with any experience at all might go months without seeing something that stumps them, in other words, yet they’re the first to admit their own ignorance (among other members of the guild, at least). Professors and journalists would rather be drawn and quartered than admit they don’t know something, though every day must have its surprises for them.
The crucial flaw, I think, is the inability to recognize scale. The financial world, for instance, is so complex that specialization is necessary — your investment guy, I guarantee you, consults a retirement specialist on any but the most basic questions about your IRA (though of course he might not tell you that). Ditto medicine — your family doc can tell you to a high degree of accuracy that you’ve got cancer, but the minute he makes the diagnosis he turns you over to the specialist. A big part of the art of “medicine” and “finance,” then, is knowing the limits of the discipline. Everyone knows the basics, and because they know the basics, they know it’s impossible to master all of the subject. A pass in o-chem, in other words, doesn’t qualify you to be an oncologist, any more than a pass on the Series 7 makes you the Wolf of Wall Street.
“Democracy,” such as it is, should work the same way. In small, organic communities — the kind of place where your kids go to school with the mayor’s kids, and the police chief stops by to have a brew and some barbecue every now and again — elected representatives are truly representative. I trust Mr. Smith to share my basic worldview and priorities…. not least because Mr. Smith lives three houses down, and we see each other in church every Sunday. Under those conditions, democracy can and does work….
… but alas, only under those conditions. Representative government, like medicine and finance, simply doesn’t scale. Modern life is too complex; there’s just too much to know. Worst, the kind of person who wants to be a “representative” is the kind of person who naturally gravitates to journalism or academia — a pompous, sanctimonious blowhard, in other words, who despite daily lessons in his own pig-butt ignorance still manages to convince himself that he’s an unlimited expert on life and times. It simply doesn’t scale.Loading Likes...