Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Little Bits of Knowledge

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, progressive intellectuals (a.k.a. socialists) looked on with envy as scientists enjoyed one stunning success after another in their attempts to explain the physical world. By borrowing the methods of the natural sciences, these intellectuals reasoned, they could invent a new kind of man, one liberated from the dead weight of tradition. They believed all of mankind's problems, from war to public health, could be solved by the intervention of modern science, recast as public policy.

Social scientists would correct social mistakes as certainly as their physical science brethren calculated atomic weights or described the laws that arrange the stars. Like elements in a chemical equation, citizens would live productive and meaningful lives according to a scientifically designed social order.

It did not work. Not only did it not work, but it lead to some of the most horrible crimes in history. Totalitarianism, eugenics, racism, nationalism, genocide, concentration camps, and gulags are all direct consequences of the attempt by progressives to substitute social calculations for traditions and individual choices.

Perhaps this is mankind's fate, to forever misapply the insights of one field of knowledge to another. Enthusiasm cannot overcome the limitations of infallibility. At best, we can hope to limit the size and scope of our mistakes, but we can never get rid of them altogether. They are our most reliable companions. They are part of our very nature.

But what is human nature? Human nature is tool for survival. It was built by a process of incremental discovery in a world of complex phenomena. Human nature is well-adapted to deal with small groups of individuals and little bits of information, but it is supremely confounded at trying to comprehend the sum and effect of all the knowledge in the system. Human nature struggles to conceive of the infinitely large and the very small. It is most comfortable in the middle-sized world of its own making: a world of predictable patterns, family, a few close friends, a couple hundred acquaintances, and a world where bits of knowledge are shared like food.

When people exchange knowledge because they are required to, we have an economy based on servitude. When that exchange occurs voluntarily, we have an economy based on cooperation. Either way, the exchange of little bits of knowledge is precisely what makes an economy. The more opportunity individuals have to specialize in a particular field of knowledge, the faster they can discover and exchange new knowledge with one another, and the faster the economy grows. Economic growth depends first on discovery, and discovery is an individual, not a collective act. It cannot be scripted, forced, or deliberately planned. It can, however, be encouraged.

The discovery and exchange of little bits of information results in yet another system far larger and more complex than any one person can comprehend, because that would mean that he already possessed all the little bits of knowledge owned by every actor in the system. Further, it would mean that he already knew how every other actor planned to use his little bit of knowledge, and how that use would affect every other exchange in the network, forever and ever. Humans do not possess such God-like knowledge. The 17th century French liberals had it right, "the world moves by itself."

Yet, our human nature still longs for a middle-sized world of understandable patterns. Consider something as simple as a football game. In the fall of every year, hundreds of thousands of football fans offer their predictions for "the game." Most of them are wrong. A few are right some of the time. None are right all the time.

The self-evident truth of football season this: we cannot consistently predict the outcome of even a simple game, a microcosm of human action where there are only twenty-two players on the field, and we have a wealth of information about each of them, and everyone knows the rules, and we have officials who enforce the rules. The outcome depends on events unseen, unanticipated, and unknowable.

If we cannot foresee the outcome of a simple game, what on earth leads us to believe that we can foresee the outcome of a world where there are 6.5 billion people discovering and exchanging bits of knowledge, hundreds if not thousands of different, shifting, sometimes conflicting rules, and no consistent enforcement?

Scientific socialism failed to deliver what it promised because it did not recognize the importance of individual knowledge in producing a larger social order far beyond anything one person intended. Socialism continues to succeed as a political faith because it appeals to that part of human nature that is awed and frightened by the vast phenomenon of human exchange that we call the economy. Socialism promises to reduce boundless life to a set of variables in a social equation, something one man can manage.

That is the enduring appeal of socialism. Like religious faith, it gives some structure to a mysterious world. Like religious faith, it uses a set of metaphors. Metaphors are useful, even necessary for human existence. But metaphors are not the same as physical laws, and people are not as predictable as physical constants. Like religious faith, it is all too easy to mistake metaphors for immutable truth.

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