… is from page 255 of Thomas Sowell’s 1995 book, The Vision of the Anointed: Self-Congratulation as a Basis for Social Policy :
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.
Truer words were never written or spoken. Yet intellectuals continue to mistake their abilities to construct elaborate abstract models that are said to be of social or economic reality – such as economists’ system of simultaneous equations that describe General Competitive Equilibrium – for an ability to engineer society or the economy in ways that improve society or the economy. This error is what Hayek called “the fatal conceit .”
This conceit, however, is typically fatal only for people generally; it’s not fatal for the social-engineering intellectuals. These intellectuals’ models, so elaborate and impressive on paper – and their presumptions that lead them to use these models as policy guides – win these intellectuals tenure, prizes, uncritical attention from (and often space in) the New York Times, generous consulting fees from governments and NGOs, and intoxicating places at court beside those with power.
The rest of us are pawns being shoved, tugged, and yanked* about by diktat-issuing politicians and bureaucrats who flatter the intellectuals by using their whiteboard models as pretenses for all this shoving, tugging, and yanking. The intellectuals want a sense of being influential; the politicians want power; and those who are shoved, tugged, and yanked are, sadly, mostly in want of understanding of what is being done to them.
* Calling some of this shoving, tugging, and yanking “nudging ” doesn’t change the reality that government force is being wielded. This pig is made no prettier by being smeared with lipstick.