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Thursday, June 1, 2006

Freedom and the Pitfalls of Predicting the Future

Our Inescapably Imperfect Knowledge Means We Can Never Predict Our Own Future

The prospects for freedom in America and in many other parts of the world appear dim. Government continues to grow bigger and more intrusive, imposing tax burdens that siphon vast amounts of private wealth. Extrapolating these trends out for the foreseeable future, it would seem that the chances for winning liberty are highly unlikely. There is only one problem with this pessimistic forecast: the future is unpredictable and apparent trends do change.

Many years ago the famous philosopher of science Karl Popper pointed out, “If there is such a thing as growing human knowledge, then we cannot anticipate today what we shall only know tomorrow.” What does this mean? When I was in high school in the 1960s, I came across an issue of Popular Science magazine published in the late 1940s that was devoted to predicting what life would be like for the average American family in the 1970s. On the cover was a picture of a wife and children standing by a white picket fence waving good-bye to dad as he went off to work—in his one-seat mini-helicopter!

Inside, as best as I can recall, the authors talked about such things as color televisions, various new household appliances, robots that would do much of our work, and the use of jet planes for commercial travel. What was not mentioned, however, was the personal computer or the revolution in communication, knowledge, and work that it has brought about. When that issue of Popular Science was published, one essential element of the computer revolution had not yet been invented: the microchip.

Those authors could not imagine a worldwide technological revolution before the component that made it all possible was created by man. Our inescapably imperfect knowledge means we can never predict our own future. If we could predict tomorrow’s knowledge and its potentials, then we would already know everything today—and we would know we knew it!

This applies to social, political, and economic trends as well. Most people in 1900 expected the twentieth century to be an epoch of growing international peace and harmony. In 1911 Norman Angell argued in The Great Illusion that war had become so costly that it would be irrational to be drawn down that path any longer. But, instead, the past century was the bloodiest and most destructive in history due to the rise of political and economic collectivism. The conflicts that collectivism brought in its wake have cost possibly 250 million lives over the last 100 years. No one anticipated this turn of events when the century began.

When I was an undergraduate in the late 1960s the textbook assigned in my first economics class was the seventh edition of Paul Samuelson’s Economics (1967). There was a graph that tracked U.S. and Soviet Gross National Product (GNP) from 1945 to 1965. Samuelson then projected American and Soviet GNP through the rest of the century. He anticipated that possibly by the early 1980s, but certainly by 2000, Soviet GNP would be equal to or even greater than that of the United States. Notice his implicit prediction that there would be a Soviet Union in 2000.

  • Richard M. Ebeling is BB&T Distinguished Professor of Ethics and Free Enterprise Leadership at The Citadel in Charleston, South Carolina. He was president of the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE) from 2003 to 2008.