Big Brother's Feet of Clay

"That so many grandiose social schemes which sound plausible to the intellectual elites not only fail, but prove to be disastrously counterproductive, is by no means surprising when these schemes are analyzed in terms of the characteristics of the processes by which they operate, rather than the goals they seek or the visions to which they conform [however idealistic these visions may be].  At the heart of many of these schemes is third-party decision making.  Third parties typically know less, even when convinced that they know more, in addition to lacking the incentives of those who directly benefit from being right and suffer from being wrong.

"The knowledge brought to bear in even 'ordinary' processes--the manufacturing of a pencil, for example--usually exists as a sum of many small, overlapping circles of individual information and skills which altogether add up to a vast expanse of information, experience, and understanding.  As was pointed out in a celebrated essay years ago, no given human being knows enough to make even a simple lead pencil.  No single person knows how to mine the graphite, process the wood, produce the rubber, manufacture the paint, and make all the investment, marketing, inventory, and distribution decisions required to put a pencil in the hands of the ultimate consumer.  This is clearly even more true of the manufacture of an automobile or a computer, much less the enormously more complex social processes which enable a civilization to function.

"Even if the individual circles of knowledge possessed by members of the anointed [i.e. the intellectual liberal elite of our universities and government] are in fact larger than the average circle of knowledge possessed by those around them, these larger-than-average circles are still likely to be only a tiny fraction of the vast total.  To allow the anointed to preempt the decisions of millions of other people [by way of centralized decision-making, particularly through government agencies] is to confine the knowledge that is brought to bear on decisions to what exists within the circles of the anointed--in effect, shrinking the knowledge that can be used to a fraction of what is available.  It can hardly be surprising that poorer decisions often emerge from this process.  Indeed, dangerous decisions are often the consequence.

"When one considers how small a defect in reasoning can utterly destroy a whole elaborate analysis, it is truly staggering to expect intellectuals to construct social policies which will compare with what emerges from the systemic interactions of millions of other human beings, continuously adjusting to consequences reflecting the revealed preferences of others and the changing opportunities and constraints of technology.  The complex and highly sophisticated structure of Marx's Capital, for example, rests ultimately on crude and even bungling assumptions about the special role of labor in the economic process.  Sweeping assumptions about knowing the 'root causes' of crime, mindless extrapolations that produce hysteria about 'overpopulation' and 'resource exhaustion,' and shallow confusions of tax rates and tax revenues dominating discussions of the factual budget deficit, are just some of the fatally flawed intellectual output which seeks to displace systemic interactions with imposed 'solutions.'"

--Thomas Sowell, The Vision of the Anointed: Self-Congratulation as a Basis for Social Policy (New York: Basic Books, 1995), pp. 253-55.


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