… is from pages 243-244 of George Will’s excellent 2019 book, The Conservative Sensibility (original emphasis; footnote deleted; link added):
Hayek was enthusiastic about markets, but not because of utopian expectations. He was enthusiastic because markets comport with what he called the Tragic View of the human condition. Human beings are limited in what they can know about their situation, and governments composed of human beings are limited in their comprehension of society’s complexities. The simple, indisputable truth is that every one knows almost nothing about almost everything. Fortunately – yes, fortunately – this is getting more true by the day, the hour, the minute. As humanity’s stock of knowledge grows, so, too, does the amount that, theoretically, can be known but that, practically, cannot be known. As Hayek wrote, “The more men know, the smaller the share of all that knowledge becomes that any one mind can absorb. The more civilized we become, the more relatively ignorant must each individual be of the facts on which the working of civilization depends.” So, in a sense, ignorance really is bliss because so many other people, who are also ignorant of almost everything, are knowledgeable about something, and we can make use of their knowledge. People who travel by air as routinely as earlier generations traveled by bus do not need to know anything about how planes are built or flown or, for that matter, why they fly. Advancing scientific and technological sophistication constantly multiplies the number of things we do not need to think about because others are doing this for us. This division of labor into ever more minute bits liberates us to get on with our lives.
DBx: It’s worth emphasizing that this division of knowledge and of labor is, as George Will says, not a source of perfection. It paves no path to utopia. Problems – sometimes very scary ones – arise, as problems have always arisen and will continue to arise.
What was understood by Hayek (and by other classical-liberal thinkers through the ages) is that there is no utopia, but that the ever-present human impulse to create one consciously will only worsen the human condition. And the more fanatical the attempt to consciously move and steer human society toward utopia the more likely will the result be humanity driven down a road to serfdom.
Government officials do not gain super-human knowledge, and are not transformed into angels, just because they’re elected democratically or because they’re appointed by democratically chosen representatives. Graduating from Ivy League law schools, sporting doctoral degrees from – or faculty positions at – prestigious academies, writing long and celebrated books, boasting Nobel Prizes, and being sincerely super-charged to the marrow with the finest of intentions are also absolutely useless at giving anyone anything remotely close to enough knowledge to improve the lives of millions of strangers through top-down interventions enforced, ultimately, at gunpoint.
It’s easy to imagine the state being god-like. People imagine such a thing all the time. And one reason for this great ease is that those who do the imagining – including those who build lovely formal theories of how the state will intervene in social-welfare-improving ways – ignore the fact that the amount of minute and ever-changing details that would have to be learned by state officials to enable them to design processes that stand any chance of improving human well-being are so enormous and dispersed as to be impossible for state officials ever to possess.
When a Christian or other religious person prays to God for something – to be cured of some illness, to have one’s children be better-behaved, to find a way out of challenging financial straits – the prayerful person simply assumes that God knows, or can easily discover, all the relevant knowledge needed for him to intervene from on high productively and in ways that avoid unforeseen ill-consequences. Given the theology of such religious people, this assumption is plausible: their God does indeed have such intellectual capacity (and also, of course, can be trusted to use this knowledge in non-self-serving ways and for the greater good).
But regardless of your theology, no one today admits to believing that human beings are godlike, or can be transformed by the holding of political office into divine creatures. Yet many of the people who summon the state to do their bidding in fact assume, without realizing it, that the state is indeed akin to the God to whom they offer their nightly prayers. No need to sweat the details; the state-god will figure them out and act on them wisely and well.