Big Government and The Problem of Knowledge

One of the basic insights of conservative political theory, explained at length by, say, Hayek, Friedman, Sowell, et. al., is that the progressive vision of big government is an unrealizable fantasy. It is a fantasy, first and foremost, because it involves a basic problem of knowledge. A vast command-and-control state that regulates the economic marketplace assumes that the state has the epistemological resources to effectively govern the almost infinite field of human endeavor, incentives, self-interest, and so forth.

It is no great secret that the progressive state is a religious replacement for the old, Judeo-Christian God; not for nothing did G.W.F. Hegel call the Almighty State "God walking on earth."

When it comes to the issue of knowledge, an attribute always reserved for the divine alone is, in progressivism, applied directly to the state: omniscience, the attribute of having all knowledge available at any given time to understand economic and cultural phenomena.

That's all pretty theoretical.

Here is the practicality. This week I was engaged with two separate government agencies, relating to the housing markets and the student loan markets. The brilliant, omniscient Federal government has put regulations in effect in each of these realms that are flagrantly contradictory. The housing right hand has no idea what the student loan left hand is doing. Each cog in the gigantic wheel has its own criteria for doing business, and there was, apparently, no "all-seeing" mind superintending the enactment of these regulations. Is this a surprise? The Federal government passes 2,000+ page legislation that no human being has ever read. We have to pass the bill so that, in the wise words of Rep. Pelosi, "We can find out what's in it." Likewise with the thousands of pages of non-legislative regulations. No human being has ever actually sat down and read these documents. And the worst part is that since no all-seeing mind crafted all of this regulation, there is no all-seeing mind who can actually resolve the problem for poor saps like me. Everyone involved is a "low-level" minion with his or her hands tied. Nobody is in charge. We are slaves of impersonal forces we have unleashed; we do not direct them, they direct us...into a quagmire.

Simply put: the all-powerful, centralized state, with its armies of experts and bureaucrats, cannot even know its own mind, much less the minds of diverse, free actors in a free market.

Far from being omniscient and omni-competent, the knowledge limitations and incompetence are simply built in from the beginning. This is a fallen, imperfect, finite world, and the political theory of progressivism pretends that it isn't. Our problems can be overcome if we simply expand the command and control of more and more fallen, imperfect, finite human beings.

The result is just more imperfection and incompetence, only SuperSized.

And you know who suffers? Free people and free markets. And that's the ultimate progressive design, of course.

Brian Mattson