The Problem of Ignorance

by | Jun 25, 2008

I have no idea of the number of traffic signals in our country, but whatever the number, how many of my fellow Americans would like the U.S. Congress to be in charge of their operation? Congress, or a committee they authorize, would determine the length of time red stays red and green stays green and […]

I have no idea of the number of traffic signals in our country, but whatever the number, how many of my fellow Americans would like the U.S. Congress to be in charge of their operation? Congress, or a committee they authorize, would determine the length of time red stays red and green stays green and what hours of the day they can be flashing red. Or, how many Americans would like Congress to be in charge deciding what items, in what quantities, your local supermarket has on its shelves? Right now the average well-stocked supermarket carries somewhere between 50,000 and 60,000 different items. Do we really need such a choice in light of the fact that several decades ago Americans made do with just 10,000 different items? Would you also want the government agency that delivers our mail to also manage delivery of items to supermarkets?

You say, “Williams, where are you headed with this?” Nobel Laureate Friedrich Hayek, one of the greatest economists of the 20th century, called it a fatal conceit for anyone to think that a single mind or a single committee can somehow do things better than the spontaneous, unstructured, complex and creative forces of the market. The big problem in any system, whether it’s an economic, biological or ecological system, is information, communication and control. For congressmen, or a committee they select, to take over control of the nation’s traffic signals requires a massive amount of information that they cannot possibly possess such as traffic flows at intersections, accident experiences and changes in peak and low peak traffic patterns.

The same information problem exists at the supermarket. Consider the challenge we give supermarket managers. We don’t tell them in advance when we’re going to shop, what we’re going to buy and how much, but if they don’t live up to this challenge, we’re going to fire them by taking our business elsewhere. The supermarket manager does a fairly good job doing what’s necessary to meet that challenge. You can bet the rent money that Congress couldn’t begin to produce such a satisfactory outcome.

You say, “C’mon, Williams, nobody’s proposing that Congress take over the nation’s traffic signals and supermarkets!” You’re right, at least for now, but the information problem exists in all areas of our lives. Right now Congress tells each American how much should be set aside out of his weekly paycheck for retirement. How can they have the information to know what’s the best use for the $70, or so, taken from you and put into Social Security? Might you benefit more by saving that money to start a business, purchase tutoring lessons for your children, or putting it in a private retirement plan? Unlike congressional control of traffic signals and supermarkets, the effects of Social Security aren’t apparent because we don’t have the information about what people would have been able to accomplish if they were able to keep more of their earnings.

You might argue that saving for retirement is important, but so is saving for a home or your children’s education. Would you want Congress to force us to put money aside for a home or our children’s education?

Oblivious to the huge information problem in the allocation of resources, the people in Washington have confidence that they can run our lives better than we can. Charles Darwin wisely noted over a century and a half ago that “ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge.” Suggesting that Congress is ignorant of the fact that knowledge is highly dispersed, and decisions made locally produce the best outcomes, might be overly generous. They might know that and just don’t give a hoot because it’s in their political interest to centralize decision-making.

Thomas Jefferson might have had the information problem in mind when he said, “Were we directed from Washington when to sow, and when to reap, we should soon want bread.”

Walter Williams (March 31, 1936 – December 1, 2020) was an American economist, commentator, academic, and columnist at Capitalism Magazine. He was the John M. Olin Distinguished Professor of Economics at George Mason University, and a syndicated editorialist for Creator's Syndicate. He is author of Race and Economics: How Much Can Be Blamed on Discrimination?, and numerous other works.

The views expressed above represent those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors and publishers of Capitalism Magazine. Capitalism Magazine sometimes publishes articles we disagree with because we think the article provides information, or a contrasting point of view, that may be of value to our readers.

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