Wednesday, September 15, 2004

Happy Idiots

Tradition says that, “Ignorance is bliss.”

Will Rogers said, “Everybody is ignorant, only on different subjects.”

So how come everybody isn’t happy?

Perhaps our unhappiness springs from the corollary to Rogers observation, “Everybody is knowledgeable, only on different subjects.”

Perhaps, the more we know about a subject the more it’s real world state discomforts us but I recall a study done back in the ‘80s that showed that the less a person knew about the science and technology behind nuclear power the more afraid of it they were. Anecdotally, I think this true about global warming and other environmental subjects as well.

In politics at least, people are usually most upset that government doesn’t take some concrete action in an area in which the person knows the least about. People desire to bring government power down on the heads of others, not themselves. Artists think that government should regulate business and business people think the government should regulate artist. You never see giant protest where people scream, “Please tell us how to run our lives!”

Another Will Rogers’ quote might rescue us, “It ain't so much the things we don't know that get us in trouble. It's the things we know that ain't so.”

The more you believe the world works in a fashion that it does not, the more you are doomed to unhappiness. You will constantly compare the real world against the fantasy model in your mind and find the real world wanting. Your attempts to control or alter the world will repeatedly fail. You will eventually have to either discard your broken model or resort to some conspiracy theory to explain why it failed.

I have often observed that political extremist of all stripes are often very angry and hostile people. This is especially true of Leftist. The writings of early-20th century Marxist are filled with a pure white rage. They were enraged because they sincerely believed that all the negative consequences of poverty were easily avoidable. Every child that died from poverty did so wholly unnecessarily. The immediate application of Marxist remedies would have virtually instantly solved all the economic and social problems of the world. Refusing to do so was tantamount to standing over a child dying of an infection while holding a syringe of antibiotic but never using it.

As Sowell has observed, the belief in the capacity of humans to understand and control the economic world is a central facet of Leftist thought going back to the 17th century. Each generation of Leftist has firmly believed it understood the world nearly perfectly and if given power it could fix nearly everything. Looking backward we can see they were doomed to fail. Many of the brightest minds of humanity “knew things that weren’t so.”

Free-market economic theory, from Adam Smith onward, is grounded in the idea of ignorance. No human or group of humans, no matter how intelligent, can reliably predict how the economy will evolve in the future. No one can predict the consequences of government intervention. Real time knowledge about the economy is so poor that any attempt to operate on the basis of that knowledge is more likely to cause harm than good.

Economic happiness comes from carefully mapping out the boundaries of ones knowledge. It comes from admitting to oneself that one is ignorant of how the economy behaves outside of ones narrow specialty. It comes from admitting to oneself that humanity collectively is functionally ignorant of the real world, real time economy. It comes from building economic and political system premised on this lack of global knowledge.

Embrace ignorance. Be happy.