Smoke! Fire! An alarm rings out. Someone makes an emergency call to the local fire department. Still you can’t wait inside the building. So you make your way to the exit and reach the door.
Does that door swing inward or outward?
Depends on where you live. In the Netherlands, the doors swing inward to allow the trained firefighters more immediate access to the situation, so they can save people and put out fires. In the United States, the doors swing outward to allow individuals to take matters into their own hands, so they can get away from the fire and save themselves.
Isn’t that interesting?!? It’s a small but salient nod to each country’s epistocratic ideals.
Epistocracy comes from the Greek, meaning, “Rule of Knowledge.” Most societies have some level of deference to those with more education and experience in a particular field of study. Including the United States of America. But in the Netherlands — and Europe, more generally — epistocratic ideals are taken further. Power is put in the hands of highly-trained experts. Our family came up against this when we needed to do some travel during the school year and we asked about independent study options. Independent study (or home-schooling) is unthinkable for the Dutch because it takes education out of the hands of trained educators. And the same thinking applies to many other areas of society. There’s a clearly-credentialed education path — or “opleiding” — for everything from Butcher to Hair Stylist to Traffic Cop. And of course, firefighters need to be empowered to do whatever their expertise suggests might be needed, in the case of a fire.
Americans approach things differently. Many professionals have educational degrees that are completely irrelevant to their ultimate career path. It’s much more common — even after specialized training — to start with some entry-level position, gain experience, and “work your way up” to positions of higher influence. We also have a strong “Do It Yourself” culture, with products and stores and YouTube channels standing by to help the average citizen do the sorts of jobs that Dutch people would only entrust to trained tradesmen. Americans emphasize the rights of individuals to educate themselves, protect themselves, and act in their own self-interests. Which is why individual access to a fire door is more important than expert access to a fire door.
With our current COVID-19 crisis, I find myself torn between the epistocratic ideals of the Netherlands and the pragmatic individualism of the United States.
I’m not an epidemiological expert! Why should it be up to me to determine how much of a risk I might or might not be to others?!? Why should I have to make all the decisions about my kids’ schooling and sports involvement? I’ve found myself firmly adhering to the guidance of Dr. Amy Acton and Dr. Anthony Fauci, who have advanced degrees in public health. I figure they (and other public health experts like them) have got a lot more experience than I do, and they’ve got a far more comprehensive picture of the pandemic than I do. So, if they tell me to where a mask, I wear a mask. If they tell me to stay at home, I stay at home. I’m not resentful of their expert opinions; I’m thankful for their expert opinions.
At the same time, I also understand why many Americans feel the need to take matters into their own hands a lot of the time. American politicians regularly exercise their power for the sake of political gain. Business leaders regularly exercise their power for the sake of economic gain. So we can’t just take what they say at face value. We have to read between the lines. We have to make judgment calls. We have to make our own decisions about who we can trust in which circumstances.
I don’t think that the Dutch system is a perfect system. I’m not sure it would ever work in the United States. But I find myself falling back upon the epistocratic ideals I picked up during my years in the Netherlands. I wish the true experts were empowered to exert greater influence in times of uncertainty like this.