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The Tricky Ways of Democracy

By Dr Selwyn R. Cudjoe
September 11, 2018

"Democracy will never be supplanted by a republic of experts."

—Thomas Piketty, Capitalism in the Twenty-First Century

I want to compliment Dr. Keith Rowley for the informative and well-argued address he made to the nation on Sunday about his government's intention to get rid of the refinery operations of PetroTrin. One may not agree with everything he said or the conclusions he arrived at, but it was courageous of him to share his thinking with the nation.

Dr. Rowley's decision reminded me of Domingo de Vera's lamentation when he heard that Anthony de Berrio, a Spanish governor of Trinidad (1580-1597), had committed the unpardonable act of slaughtering many horses in the middle of the unknown. "There is this about the great actions of living men: they are calumnied by many, praised by few and rewarded by no one" (V. S. Naipaul, The Loss of El Dorado). I hope the latter outcome is not Dr. Rowley's fate.

Listening to Dr. Rowley, few could come to any other conclusion but that something has to be done to solve the deteriorating situation at PetroTrin. What he didn't tell us is that much of the "Petrotrin mess" occurred "between 2005 and 2009 under the Patrick Manning government." (Varnus James, Express, September 6). Although Dr. Rowley's action seemed logical, I couldn't help but think of Dr. Eric Williams' decision to scrap the railway in 1968 because, in his estimation, it was not economically feasible to retain. I am not sure that many people today accept "the wisdom" of his decision.

The most glaring omission in Dr. Rowley's address was the absence of any humanist, historian, or sociologist in the many committees upon which the government relied to make its decision. It was as though economists and accountants are the only ones who are capable of evaluating these important aspects of national life.

The oil industry started in La Brea in 1857. However, in treating the production of oil as only an economic activity, Dr. Rowley failed to acknowledge the importance of this industry to our national development. It did not only provide dollars and cents for our citizens. It fashioned our people's lives enormously.

While the advice of Dodderidge Alleyne and Euric Bobb, "two of our most distinguished sons of this nation" ("Reinventing Petrotrin"), was important and that of the members of Selwyn Lashley's Committee (Helen Drayton, Chandrabhand Sharma, Robert Riley, Wilfred Espinet, Gregory Marchan, David Abdulah—primarily accountants and economists), was just as important, none of these committees consisted of "distinguished sons and daughters" who excelled in other fields of human endeavor.

This is not to suggest that we should not rely on expert analysis when we make these decisions, but we tend to forget that economics does not deal only with "the allocation of scarce resources." It also involves the social relations among people and how we distribute the fruits of our labor. After all, a gallon of gas does not, in and of itself, determine its price. It is people, taking into account all the economic and social factors, who decide its price.

The abandonment of an important social good such as Petrotrin cannot be left to the narrow expertise of economists and accountants alone. Today, the government has to convince a weary public about the perspicacity of a decision that was made primarily by those experts.

Thomas Piketty analyzed global inequality in his book Capitalism in the Twenty-First Century. He argued, "It would be a mistake to underestimate the importance of the intuitive knowledge that everyone acquires about contemporary wealth and income levels even in the absence of any theoretical framework or statistical analysis…Indeed, the novels of Jane Austen and Honore de Balzac paint striking portraits of the distribution of wealth in Britain and France between 1790 and 1830."

When committees are established to make decisions about our national patrimony, it cannot be left exclusively to economists and accountants to decide even though they consider the human implications of their decision-making. Although the government argues that it works in our best interests, it always finds ways to withhold information that is necessary for citizens to make rational decisions about what our government is getting us into.

It is always government knows it all (possesses superior wisdom), knows what's best for us (assumes a paternal attitude), and demands we leave it to the experts (a form of autocracy). The government has concluded certain arrangements with Venezuela and is working to establish a Sandals resort, yet certain details of those arrangements are too secret for the public to know. Piketty warned: "Democracy will never be supplanted by a republic of experts—and that is a very good thing."

The public is asked to accept the decision of these experts as the cumulative wisdom of those in charge. When we remember that many of our leaders didn't know what the Mahabharata is or its importance in the lives of 30 percent of our population, it should give us pause to think and ask, How readily should we accede to the wisdom of those who are placed in charge of making decisions that affect our nation?

There will always be trade-offs when we make momentous decisions about our future. Allowing people/scholars from varied disciplines and experiences to participate in such decision-making always guarantee better outcomes.

Professor Cudjoe's email address is He can be reached @ProfessorCudjoe.

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The Slave Master of Trinidad by Dr. Selwyn R. Cudjoe
The Slave Master of Trinidad by Dr. Selwyn R. Cudjoe