The Limits of Legal Expertise

What kind of experts are legal experts ― and is their authority in danger?

In an interesting article on “The Limits of Expertise” published on Quillette last month, Alex Smith attempts to explain the seemingly generalized loss of faith in expertise, and to offer some solutions. While Mr. Smith doesn’t discuss the law, I think that his analysis is applicable to legal systems. After all, lawyers and judges are ― or are supposed to be ― experts too, and they, like others, are arguably vulnerable to a loss of faith in their expertise. The New Zealand Parliament, indeed, is so concerned about this that it is considering imprisonment and forced abjurations as remedies to what it deems excessive criticism of the judiciary, something I and others are trying to push back against. Seeking to understand the causes of the loss of faith in legal experts seems more likely to be productive response to this issue than criminalization.

Mr. Smith observes ― like many others ― an unpleasant fact: “smart people keep getting it wrong and scepticism about their competence has grown as a result”. “It” might be the path of the economic cycle, the outcome of an election, or even, says Mr. Smith, the next “[a]pocalyptic deadline[] for climate change devastation”. There has been no shortage of misguided forecasting in the last few years. And yet, “[n]obody says, ‘I want someone unqualified to be my president, therefore I also want someone unqualified to be my surgeon.’ Nobody doubts the value of the expertise of an engineer or a pilot.” Skepticism of experts isn’t as pervasive as some might think. How to make sense of this?

Mr. Smith argues that the key to this puzzle is a distinction between “closed systems” and “open” ones. The former ― like “a car engine or a knee joint” ― “are self-contained and are relatively incubated from the chaos of the outside world”. They can be understood, and even controlled. Experts in such systems have no public trust problem. Open systems, by contrast, ― things like “the economy”, “politics”, and “climate” ― “have no walls and are therefore essentially chaotic, with far more variables than any person could ever hope to grasp”. They are impervious to (complete) human understanding, let alone control. And it’s the overconfident experts in open systems, who thought they understood them much better than they really did, and even imagined that they might be able to control them, and have been discomfited, who have spectacularly lost the confidence of the public.

Now, Mr. Smith is not calling for such experts to be put out of work. If anything, he wants there to be more of them ― or at least more viewpoints among them. Individually, such experts need to be humble and remember that there is no chance of their coming into the possession of the whole truth. Collectively, “over time,” they can “mitigate[] the chaos of the open system” by letting individual opinions confront one another and known mistakes to be weeded out, albeit only to be replaced by new ones. But the failure recognize the necessity of, and enable, such confrontation leads straight to “inevitable excesses of hubris, that attract us like moths to a flame” ― and to the inevitable discrediting of experts that results.

There are valuable insights here, the more so because they are not new. Mr. Smith’s distinction between open and closed systems does not exactly track F.A. Hayek’s line between “nomos” and “taxis” ― order spontaneously evolved and order designed ― but it is not entirely dissimilar. Mr. Smith’s message about the need for humility and the impossibility of controlling open systems is as Hayekian as it gets, extrapolating from Hayek’s admonition in The Fatal Conceit: The Errors of Socialism that “[t]he curious task of economics is to demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design”. To be sure, there can be some dispute about where the line between open and closed systems lies, and whether particular areas of knowledge might move from one category to the other as scientific knowledge expands. Mr. Smith suggests that “climate” is an open system ― but even if he is right that our current level of knowledge is such that we cannot fully understand, let alone control it, the same might have have been true of knee joints a couple of centuries ago. In any case, these questions, and some over-generalizations in Mr. Smith’s argument (notably, the claim that all “open” systems are “natural”) do not detract from its essential soundness. But how does the law fit into it?

There are those who think that the law is largely a closed system, which technical and perhaps observational skills allow one to master and so to provide right answers to the questions that arise within it. In a post some years ago I described Hayek and Ronald Dworkin  as “right answer romantics” who are mostly convinced that judges can do this.

More realistically, perhaps, it seems plausible to think of law as a “semi-open”, rather than a completely closed, system. Mr. Smith applies this term to medicine, though without explaining why, or quite what it means. With respect to law, it might refer to the view that, while the law often provides right answers that a sufficiently skilled person can discover, it does not always do so, and leaves some questions to the realm of what Lon Fuller, in “Reason and Fiat in Case Law”, referred to as “fiat” ― “order imposed” when reason and technical skill in interpreting the law provide no adequate guidance. (Fuller was describing judicial fiat, but we can also think of legislative and executive fiat in constitutional law, and perhaps even administrative fiat in statutory interpretation.)

But we might also think of law as an open system ― open, that is, to influences of the social sciences, of morality (not identified, as in Dworkin’s work, as the one true interpretation of the morality expressed in the pre-existing political decisions of the community, but understood as something more personal), perhaps even of more subjective factors. Richard Posner’s “pragmatism” is an unusually forthright expression of this view, but it is also associated with various “legal realist” and “critical legal studies” schools of thought.

Importantly, the Supreme Court of Canada seems increasingly to favour the view of the law as an open system. It insists that there are no judicially discoverable right answers to questions of statutory interpretation or even of constitutional justification of restrictions on rights and freedoms, and that in answering such questions administrators ― regardless of whether they are legally trained ― can be “experts” to whose judgment courts ought to defer. It believes that an undefined balance, rather than the interpretation of the constitutional text, ought to guide the resolution of constitutional disputes. It even claims that acquaintance with “social values” is as if not more important to its own legitimacy as is legal skill.

Now, the view that the law is an open system, exposed to outside influences and impervious to purely technical understanding and control, is not inherently implausible ― no more so than the opposite view that the law is a fully closed system. (I agree with neither of these views ― but I don’t think they are crazy.) The trouble is that the Supreme Court and its (too) numerous fans in the Canadian legal profession and beyond want to have it both ways: they want to treat law as an open system in which the influence of extra-legal, non-technical considerations is inevitable and legitimate, while claiming for the Court the authority to which experts in closed, but not open, systems are entitled. Hence the decisions signed “by the Court” or by improbably large numbers of purported authors that present legally dubious holdings as oracular pronouncements; hence the attempts to delegitimize criticism of the Supreme Court as a danger to the Rule of Law. Such behaviour would be understandable, perhaps even defensible, if the law were entirely a matter of technical skill. But if the law is seen as the product of judgments based not on technical craft, but on policy considerations or morality, they can only proceed from what Mr. Smith rightly describes as hubris.

The position of legal academia is worth considering too. In the good old days, whenever those were, it may have been thought that law professors, like other lawyers, were closed-system experts. Some might still defend this view, but it is not a popular one these days. Rather, law professors like to present themselves not just as the systematizers of and commentators upon legal craft, but as teachers of, and writers on, “history, culture, economics, and political economy” ― as Lisa Kelly and Lisa Kerr wrote in an op-ed in the Globe and Mail earlier this year. While, as I noted in my comment on this op-ed (which is generally relevant to the issues discussed in this post) I am skeptical of the ability of most law professors to be true experts in such a variety of areas, I take the point that academic law, no less (actually, rather more) than adjudicative law, is at least a semi-open, if not a fully open system.

What follows from this? I think it would be wrong to wish to close down the legal system, as it were. I do not think that it is possible, or indeed desirable, to insulate the law entirely from external influences ― whether those of the (social) sciences or even, to some extent at least, those of ideology. (Of course, the permissible scope of outside considerations is a difficult question, as is that of the manner in which they must be integrated with the law’s more technical aspects.) However, whether we view the law as an entirely open system (and, as noted above, I think that this too is a mistake) or as a semi-open one, we cannot insist that legal experts are entitled to the unquestioning deference that experts in closed systems can expect and still receive. As Mr. Smith says, when experts deal with open ― or, I would add, to the extent that they deal with open elements of semi-open ― systems, they ought to be humble about what they can know and what they can achieve, and they ought to make sure that a diversity of views informs their opinions and decisions. Neither condition obtains to anything like a sufficient degree in Canadian law, and in the Canadian legal academy, right now. This, as Mr. Smith suggests, is likely to undermine confidence in expertise ― and for those who care about the Rule of Law, that outcome is not a desirable one at all.

Author: Leonid Sirota

Law nerd. I teach constitutional law at the Auckland University of Technology Law School, in New Zealand. I studied law at McGill, clerked at the Federal Court of Canada, and then did graduate work at the NYU School of Law.

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