… is from page 61 of Thomas Sowell’s 2009 volume Intellectuals and Society:
Despite whatever vision may be conjured up by euphemisms, government is not some abstract embodiment of public opinion or Rousseau’s “general will.” Government consists of politicians, bureaucrats, and judges – all of whom have their own incentives and constraints, and none of whom can be presumed to be any less interested in the promotion of their own interests or notions than are people who buy and sell in the marketplace. Neither sainthood nor infallibility is common in either venue. The fundamental difference between decision-makers in the market and decision-makers in government is that the former are subject to continuous and consequential feedback which can force them to adjust to what others prefer and are willing to pay for, while those who make decisions in the political arena face no such inescapable feedback to force them to adjust to the reality of other people’s desires and preferences.
DBx: I confess that I find it nearly impossible to get my head around the fact that the reality described above is not universally understood and accepted by everyone who successfully completed second grade. Yet no one can deny that the great majority of proposals for government intervention are built on the presumption that government officials have superhuman powers to acquire knowledge, as well as superhuman powers to ignore their own self-interests as they use their powers to coerce strangers in pursuit of what these officials believe to be the general good.
If your next-door neighbor or your cousin Jake were to tell you that he has such powers, you’d correctly understand him to be either joking or gone looney. But let some politician confront you with the same claim – or let some pundit make such a claim about government officials – then, if you are a typical person, you find the claim to be not only credible, but so very credible as to cause you to trust government officials with the power to coerce you and your neighbors.
Indeed, you – again, if you’re a typical person and not one of us ideologically blinkered classical liberals or libertarians – find the claim about the superhuman abilities of government officials to be so obviously true that it doesn’t dawn on you ever to ask how the officials who will coerce you and others will get the information and knowledge that they must have in order to order you about productively. You simply assume that government officials possess the god-like power to become so extraordinarily well-informed. And because you never ask how officials will get the necessary information and knowledge, they never bother to tell you (or, for that matter, to tell even the freakish and unenlightened few of us who are so impertinent as actually to ask the question).
Today – June 30th – is Thomas Sowell’s 90th birthday. Happy Birthday, sir!
Oh, for a brilliant book-length treatment of the knowledge problem summarized in the above quotation, see Sowell’s stupendous 1980 volume, Knowledge and Decisions.