- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 20, 2007

Radically different conclusions about a whole range of issues have been common for centuries. Many have tried to explain these differences by different and conflicting economic interests. Others, like John Maynard Keynes, have argued that ideas — even intellectually discredited ideas that political leaders still believe in — trump economic interests.

My own view is that differences in bedrock assumptions underlying ideas play a major role in determining how people differ in what policies, principles or ideologies they favor.

If you start from a belief that the most knowledgeable person on Earth does not have even 1 percent of the total knowledge on Earth, that shoots down social engineering, economic central planning, judicial activism and innumerable other ambitious notions favored by the political left.

If no one has even 1 percent of the knowledge available, not counting the vast amount yet to be discovered, imposing from the top of the notions favored by elites convinced of their own superior knowledge and virtue is a formula for disaster.

Sometimes it is economic disaster, which central planning turned out to be in so many countries around the world that even most governments run by socialists and communists began freeing their markets by the end of the 20th century. Then the economies of China and India, for example, began seeing rapidly rising growth.

But economic disasters, important as they are, have not been the worst consequences of people with less than 1 percent of the world’s knowledge superimposing the ideas prevailing in elite circles on those subject to their power — that is, on the people who together have the other 99 percent of knowledge.

Millions died of starvation, and of diseases related to severe malnutrition, when the economic ideas of Josef Stalin in the Soviet Union and Mao Tse-tung in China were inflicted on people living — and dying — under their iron rule.

In both cases, the deaths exceeded those caused by Adolf Hitler’s genocide, which was also a consequence of ignorant presumptions by those with totalitarian power.

Many on the left may protest they do not believe in the ideas or the political systems that prevailed under Hitler, Stalin or Mao. No doubt that is true.

Yet what the political left, even in democratic countries, share is the notion that knowledgeable and virtuous people like themselves have a right and a duty to use government power to impose their superior knowledge and virtue on others. They may not impose their presumptions wholesale, like totalitarians, but retail in numerous restrictions, from economic and nanny state rules to “hate speech” laws.

If no one has even 1 percent of all the knowledge in a society, it is crucial that the other 99 percent — scattered in tiny and individually unimpressive amounts among the population at large — be freed for working out mutual accommodations among the people themselves. These innumerable mutual interactions bring the other 99 percent of knowledge into play — and generate new knowledge.

That is why free markets, judicial restraint, and relying on decisions and traditions growing out of the experiences of the many — rather than the groupthink of the elite few — are so important.

Elites are too prone to overestimate the importance of the fact they average more knowledge per person than the rest of the people — and underestimate the fact their total knowledge is so much less than that of the rest of the population. They overestimate what can be known in advance in elite circles and underestimate what is discovered via mutual accommodation among millions of ordinary people.

Central planning, judicial activism and the nanny state all presume vastly more knowledge than any elite has ever possessed.

The ignorance of people with Ph.D.s is still ignorance, the prejudices of educated elites are still prejudices, and for those with 1 percent of a society’s knowledge to dictate to those with the other 99 percent remains an absurdity.

Thomas Sowell is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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