Aziz Rana’s account of the takeover of American national security by experts, and of the public’s acceptance of that state of affairs, offers an important and novel perspective on what ails us in national security today. In this Comment, I suggest that while Rana is correct to identify our deference to experts as a central aspect of the problem, the problem is more complicated. First, the phenomenon of elite control over foreign and security policy questions is not new, but likely dates back to the founding—when elites ruled not based on expertise but on the basis of status, class, and legal barriers to more popular input. Second, deference to expertise is not just an ideological assumption of the modern age, but is also a rational response to greater threats and increased complexity. Third, deference may rest as much on secrecy as it does on epistemological assumptions about national security information. Because of classification, the general public often lacks not just expertise, but the very facts necessary to make an informed assessment.
That said, Rana’s reminder of the importance of popular decision-making on national security policy is an important one. Unwarranted deference to experts (especially when they make judgments on secret information) not only undermines democratic legitimacy, but may induce poor decision-making, by facilitating groupthink and other biases. And most importantly, decisions about national security are never only about national security; they nearly always implicate other values, such as privacy, liberty, or human dignity. The national security experts have no expertise in assessing the normative questions that conflicts with these values raise. Those normative questions must be made by us all.