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Patently Expert

Marginal Revolution’s Tyler Cowen describes a book he recently purchased: Patently Absurd: The Most Ridiculous Devices Ever Invented. Judging from Tyler’s description, this book reminds me very much of another book that has long been one of my favorites: The Experts Speak, by Christopher Cerf and Victor Navasky.

The Experts Speak is an assemblage of pronouncements, by experts, that time has revealed to be spectacularly mistaken. Being a Beatles fan, one of my favorite examples is this gem offered in 1962 by the executives at Decca Records who, after auditioning The Beatles, decided not to sign them to a contract: “We don’t like their sound. Groups of guitars are on the way out.”

It’s fun to read such pronouncements today and hee-hee and haw-haw over them, just as I’m sure it’ll be fun to read about patented inventions from the past that time has revealed to be useless, often to the point of silliness when judged from our perspective today.

But there are serious lessons in such books. One obvious lesson is that being expert is a far cry from being infallible. A second lesson – related to the first but more subtle – is that decentralized decision-making and competition among many decision-makers is a vastly superior means of discovering the ‘truth’ – for example, if a long-haired group of guitar players from Liverpool really do or do not play music that lots of people enjoy – than relying upon experts given power extending over an entire society to go thumbs up or thumbs down on new ideas.

The latter means seems so rational, so much less wasteful and redundant, so much more focused and thoughtful, than allowing millions of flowers and weeds to bloom in a decentralized market. At least, such an idea was once believed by all of the experts. But it’s wrong.

The market’s mistakes, no less than its proven successes, are evidence of its dynamism, creativity, vibrancy, and value — not to mention its freedom.


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