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Eye on Boise: Should experts set policy? Senator fears elitism, totalitarianism

By Betsy Russell Idaho Press

BOISE – When he said during a legislative hearing Monday that “listening to experts to set policy is an elitist approach” and that he’s “fearful it leads to totalitarianism,” Sen. Steven Thayn didn’t expect his comments to go viral and show up in newscasts about Idaho across the country.

But he stands by his comments and doesn’t regret them, he told the Idaho Press.

“If you deconstruct what ‘listen to the experts’ means, some people take that to mean ‘follow my experts,’ ” said Thayn, R-Emmett, a fourth-term state senator who previously served three terms in the House. “I agree you have to listen to experts, but some people mean ‘blindly follow the experts I agree with.’ There is no unbiased expert.”

Here’s what Thayn said during the hearing: “One of the things that I have heard in this pandemic that has bothered me is that there’s a lot of people who are willing to go back to school, go back to work, and yet we’re letting a few fearful people control the lives of those people who are not fearful.

“What’s happening is that we’re having a standardized approach by people saying that we need to listen to the experts,” he said. “Listening to experts to set policy is an elitist approach, and I fear an elitist approach. I’m also fearful that it leads to totalitarianism, especially when you say, ‘Well, we’re doing it for the public good.’ America was founded on the idea that people weighed their own risks, did what they thought was best for their own interests.

“… The role of experts should be to give us the best information they have, and we should weigh it. They should never set policy.”

I talked with a couple of experts about Thayn’s comments, including a political scientist and a medical expert.

Jasper LiCalzi, professor emeritus at the College of Idaho, has just retired and moved back east to Philadelphia, near relatives.

“His comments made it out here, too,” LiCalzi said by phone.

The political scientist who taught at the C of I for 27 years said he’s not aware of any political theories that suggest listening to experts is elitist or leads to totalitarianism.

“It is kind of a populist take, that the common people know just as much as anybody else,” he said.

But, he said, “he has a kind of a skewed view of how things were set up, especially with the Constitution. The whole purpose of the Constitution was to create a strong national government to be involved in things like public health.

“It’s kind of a warped libertarian populism put together. Your actions affect others. And even any libertarian is going to say that. Any kind of rights you have stop when they infringe on others.”

LiCalzi said Thayn’s language is reminiscent of language used by the market libertarian Friedrich Hayek in his popular book, “The Road to Serfdom,” but Hayek’s theories centered around the danger that centralized economic planning would erode freedoms and lead to totalitarianism.

As far as danger in government listening to experts, LiCalzi said, “He didn’t say anything like that.”

“So he’s really kind of conflating a couple of different types of ideologies,” LiCalzi said.

Thayn told the Idaho Press, “I agree that experts should be consulted, absolutely. But I just didn’t want to move to a situation where experts were setting policy and really upsetting the responsibility, the shift of power between the role of the people and the role of government. My purpose, my major purpose, is to build the capacity of people. And the No. 1 component or ingredient to build the capacity of people is acceptance of responsibility.”

Dr. David Pate, who is both a physician and an attorney and the retired CEO of St. Luke’s Health System, took issue with the idea that Idaho is following a “standardized approach” to deal with the coronavirus pandemic.

“I don’t know anybody who really knows what’s going on and would look at Idaho and how we’re handling this pandemic and in any way come to the conclusion that we’re taking a standardized approach,” he said.

Between the state’s seven public health districts and cities, counties, school districts and other entities across the state, he said, “In fact, what I’m amazed at is just how many different approaches we’re taking.”

Also during the hearing, Thayn advocated quarantining only “individuals that have infectious diseases,” and said, “What we’re talking about in this COVID is quarantining everyone when they’re not sick and taking away the ability of people who feel like they’re not particularly susceptible to becoming sick that they have to be quarantined also.”

Pate said that can work with some infectious diseases – notably with the first SARS virus, in which people didn’t become infectious until they were extremely ill – but not with COVID-19.

“This virus is completely different,” he said. “What we are seeing is large percentages of people that are asymptomatic and … they don’t even know they’re infected, and they’re still contagious.”

Plus, he said, “This virus, you can potentially be infectious for up to several days before you develop symptoms. And that’s why we changed our position on masks. For most illnesses, we don’t necessarily recommend masks, except for health care workers. But this one is so difficult because so many people are infected and don’t know it, and still able to transmit this virus, that actually the only way we really can contain this virus is to try to keep people away from each other as much as possible. But then when they have to interact, everybody’s going to have to wear a mask, because we have no idea who’s infected and who’s not.

“You cannot contain this disease by just having people who are sick quarantined,” Pate said. “This will never work with this virus.”

As far as the role of experts in setting policy, Pate said, “I have mixed feelings. Part of it I agree with, part of it I disagree with, and part of it I don’t understand.

“I actually agree that medical professionals should not be setting the policy,” said Pate, who is a member of Gov. Brad Little’s coronavirus task force. “We do everything we can for every single life. Our efforts are directed every day that we improve the health of every single patient and we try to save every single patient whose life is threatened. That’s what we do, and that’s how we do it. If that is your approach, then basically it doesn’t allow for taking any kind of risk or balancing those risks with other policy objectives.

“The part of his quote I disagree with is this notion that we should downplay or disregard what medical experts and public health officials say,” Pate said.

“The part that I don’t know what he means, I don’t understand his reference to relying on experts being elitist,” the doctor said. “I’m not sure what he’s trying to convey there. Frankly, I think if you don’t rely on your medical and public health experts, you’re being very foolish.”

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