The More We Know, the Less We Know

Humans have a natural desire to create order out of chaos, but this desire, taken to its extreme, can lead to disastrous consequences.

The growth of human knowledge is a wonderful thing that can bring great happiness as it advances. We know more now than we did a hundred years ago, and this knowledge has allowed for countless improvements in the standard of living all over the world.

But while everyone recognizes the benefits of knowledge, there are those who misinterpret our collective advancement as an invitation to exert control over society, and to impose a centralized structure onto the masses of people doing their own things, working, living, and pursuing happiness in their own ways.

This is understandable. We, humans, have a natural desire to create order out of chaos, but this desire, taken to its extreme, can lead to disastrous consequences. Throughout history, “planned” societies run by a single person or small group of people have always failed, while the spontaneous actions of individuals working together have succeeded.Spontaneous actions of individuals working together have succeeded. The economist F.A. Hayek referred to this phenomenon as “spontaneous order”, the efficient systems that emerge without any particular plan or design.

But neither the historical record nor the teachings of economics have deterred those who think they can do better, and time and time again, would-be planners and technocrats emerge to try to implement their perfect vision of society. Historical examples include Vladimir Lenin and Woodrow Wilson. More recent examples include Cass Sunstein, whose book Nudge is all about how planners can subtly manipulate people into behaving the “right” way, as well as any number of scientifically-minded people who think that Big Data can solve all mankind’s problems.

Why do the same errors get made again and again? Why are we unable to learn from history? Part of it is no doubt attributable to a combination of human nature and wishful thinking, but there’s also a sense that as time passes and society’s knowledge advances, the once impossible task of central planning becomes more manageable.

Of course, they will argue, it was impossible to design a Utopia when all we had were slide rules and ledgers. But now we have computers and GPS trackers! The knowledge of mankind is so much greater than it once was, surely the planning problem is on the verge of becoming trivial. Alas, this analysis is mistaken, because it confuses individual knowledge with that of the entire society.

Hayek foresaw this error, and in his book The Constitution of Liberty, he points out the apparent paradox of knowledge. Namely, the more we all know, the more relatively ignorant each individual becomes. In other words, as total knowledge increases, the smaller fraction any one person can possess.

There was a time when men of great learning were regarded as knowing everything there was to know. Aristotle, Milton, Francis Bacon, and Erasmus were all seen as possessing the entire body of recorded knowledge. That’s an impressive distinction in any age, but when you consider how few books actually existed before the advent of mass printing, much less the information age, it becomes at least conceivable. The very idea of one person knowing everything is ridiculous.Today, the very idea of one person knowing everything is ridiculous. You could spend your entire life doing nothing but reading and not even come close to even finishing Wikipedia, much less all the deeper knowledge not recorded there.

So while it may seem that a more advanced society lends itself to technocracy, the opposite is actually the case. The very complexity that makes us desire order confounds efforts by any individual, committee, or government department to know enough to impose it.

To the contrary, I’ve always felt that the argument for liberty, for unplanned order, strengthens along with technology and information. When consumers have greater access to information, it allows them to make better decisions and avoid being cheated; it discourages fraud, malpractice, and charlatanism through online reputations that are visible to anyone; it permits near infinite research to eliminate the information gap between buyers and sellers. In short, access to information solves many of the problems that have been used for justifications of government intervention in markets.

There are still those who believe that the advancement of human knowledge will enable a perfectly designed, centrally run, computer driven economy that will make everything more efficient. Fortunately, what knowledge will actually do in the long run is make these people obsolete.

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