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Pretense of knowledge
Question of the Day
One of the great contributions of Nobel Laureate economist Friedrich Hayek was to admonish us to recognize the insurmountable limits to human knowledge. Why? Not even the brightest minds, and surely not the U.S. Congress, can ever have the knowledge to shape an economic system entirely to our liking. To think we can represents the height of arrogance and a pretense of knowledge. The billions upon billions of interrelationships between an economic system’s human and nonhuman elements defy human capacity to know.
Let’s examine just a few pretenses of knowledge. Under Social Security law, Congress forces workers to set aside a portion of their earnings for retirement. Take a 25-year-old — let’s call her “Mary” — who earns $40,000 a year. Her Social Security tax is about $2,500. Here’s my question to you: Was having $2,500 forcibly taken out of Mary’s pay for retirement her best possible use of that money? Mary might have saved and invested several years to open a small business. She might have put it toward private schooling or music lessons for her child, or any number of things that might have made her, and possibly the U.S., wealthier in the future.
How about Congress’ mandate for more fuel-efficient cars? According to a National Research Council of the National Academies of Sciences 2002 report, delivered by Leonard Evans to the Washington-based Competitive Enterprise Institute, Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards have contributed to between 1,300 and 2,600 traffic deaths a year.
Congress’ mandate for higher gasoline mileage leads to the production of lighter, smaller and less crashworthy cars, resulting in unnecessary deaths. Through technological innovation and natural market forces, cars were already becoming more fuel efficient before CAFE standards were mandated. More important, how does Congress know this loss of life is worth the amount of fuel saved? Do they even know or care about the tradeoff?
A major part of the knowledge problem Congress, and, for that matter, any of us, faces is what’s seen and what’s unseen. In the case of Social Security, what’s seen are the beneficiaries with a monthly check. What’s not seen are the outcomes that might have been had people not been taxed for Social Security.
According to the National Council for Capital Formation, Social Security lowers private saving and investment and, as a result, gross domestic product is at least 5 percent lower than it otherwise would be. Moreover, had people been able to use the money for private retirement plans, they would earn much more than the paltry sum Social Security pays out.
The same principle applies to CAFE standards. What’s seen are cars getting more miles per gallon. What’s unseen, or the connection not made, are the thousands of Americans killed as a result of the less crashworthy cars produced due to congressional mandates.
Another example of the seen/unseen problem is the Bush administration’s 2002 steel tariffs. The tariffs’ seen beneficiaries were steel industry executives, stockholders and the approximately 1,700 steelworker jobs saved. According to the Consuming Industries Trade Action Association, higher steel prices, resulting from the tariffs, caused thousands of job losses in the steel-using industries. Since companies that used steel had to pay higher prices, they became less competitive domestically and internationally.
Each of us is faced with the knowledge and the seen and unseen problems. I believe most Americans would see themselves in a much better position of determining what’s in our own best interests than politicians, who are mostly concerned with re-election. At least I hope that’s the case.
Walter E. Williams is a professor of economics at George Mason University and a nationally syndicated columnist.
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