August 7, 2008
The Knowledge Problem
By Perry Willis
Quote of the Day:

"Whereof we do not know, thereof we cannot speak."
-- Wittgenstein

Subject: The Knowledge Problem

Our elected representatives are good at getting elected. We know this for the simple reason that they were elected. They passed the electoral test. But how much does the electoral test really tell us? Anything?

What else are the politicians good at, besides getting elected? How much do they know about energy, the environment, economics, and the many thousands of other subjects about which they pass judgment almost daily? Is it even possible for mere humans to know so much about so many things? We think not.

Can the politicians rely on experts to make good their lack of knowledge? With what expertise could they possibly decide which experts to use? And how could they find the time to hear and heed all that those experts might have to say?

To what extent does knowledge even guide the decisions politicians make? How often do politicians make a careful study of competing claims and act accordingly? And how many decisions are instead made because of political expediency or self-interest?

If our politicians lack the time to read the bills they pass, do they have the time to read competing studies on complex subjects before deciding how to vote on the bills they haven't read?

It seems to us that our entire legislative system, insofar as it does not obey the limits of the Constitution, is based on a fundamental fraud -- that our politicians know many things about many subjects, and are qualified to plan the lives of millions of people in thousands of ways.

We try to be more humble than the politicians. As a result, there is much that the politicians do about which never utters a word. Whereof we do not know, we tend not to speak. This is not because we lack opinions. We have as many of them as anyone has. But we're aware of our limitations.  

You can take our recent Dispatch about the money supply as an example of our reticence about complex, uncertain subjects. We found that data unsatisfying. We found more questions than answers. And when we do not understand something we tend to either remain silent, or to explain our uncertainties and keep studying.

But while we study, the politicians act. And unlike the recommendations we make to you for action, every decision the politicians make is backed by the force of a policeman's gun. We would assert that reckless decisions wedded to coercive force are far more dangerous than doing nothing at all. And more dangerous still than any Downsize DC action item.

All of us suffer from a "knowledge problem." There is no way that any finite human can know enough to have worthy opinions on more than a few subjects. Yet the politicians pretend they're Supermen and Superwomen who know enough to make vast decisions on a wide range of issues, and to force everyone else to abide by their supposed wisdom.

The politicians only passed an electoral test, and yet they feel as though passing that test is the same as passing every test, on every subject.

As for us, we place far more confidence in another kind of test -- the market test. The market test is one where people put their own money where their mouth is, and where no one is coerced to submit to the supposed wisdom of any other person.

But the market test does something else too. It takes advantage of the decentralized knowledge of hundreds of millions of people. No one knows everything, or even very much about most things, but most people know many things about small but important areas of life. It is this decentralized knowledge that drives the world.

A case in point is our ethanol campaign. Many people have knowledge about this subject that we here at do not have. They have written to share this knowledge, and in some cases to refute our claims. We placed a link to one such refutation on our website, because it is concise and largely compelling – and we don't know everything. (Sorry, that document is no longer linked from our website, as of February, 2011.)

But one thing is worth noting about those who have written to us about this subject. Almost none of them thinks that government should subsidize ethanol, or mandate its use. Quite the contrary. Instead, they believe that all energy subsidies and mandates should be repealed, so that decentralized knowledge can deliver us with the best solutions in the shortest time at the lowest price.

We agree. And if you agree, please send Congress a message asking Congress to repeal ethanol subsidies and mandates, and while you're at it, use your personal comments to also ask them to repeal all energy subsidies and mandates. You can send your message here.

Please also consider making a contribution to further our work. You can do so here.

Thank you for being a part of the growing Downsize DC army.

Perry Willis
Communications Director, Inc.
Filed under Downsizer Dispatch, Energy
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