ShareThis Page

Walter Williams: Ignorance vs. stupidity

| Friday, Nov. 17, 2017, 8:57 p.m.
Getty Images | iStockphoto
Getty Images/iStockphoto
Getty Images | iStockphoto

One of the most challenging and important jobs for an economics professor is to teach students how little we know and can possibly know. My longtime friend and colleague Thomas Sowell says, “It takes considerable knowledge just to realize the extent of your own ignorance.”

The fact that we have gross ignorance about how the world operates is ignored by the know-it-all elites who seek to control our lives.

Let's look at a few examples of the world's complexity.

There are an estimated 100 million traffic signals in the U.S. How many of us would like Congress, in the name of public health and safety, to be in charge of their actual operation? Congress or a committee it authorizes would determine the length of time traffic lights stay red, yellow and green, and what hours of the day, and at what intersections, lights flash red or yellow. One can only imagine the mess Congress would create. But managing traffic lights — and getting good results — is a far less complex task than managing the nation's health-care system and getting good results, which Congress tries to do.

I'd ask whether you would like Congress to control another task. The average well-stocked supermarket carries 60,000 to 65,000 different items. Wal-Mart carries about 120,000 different items. Let's suppose Congress puts you in total control of getting just one item to a supermarket — say, apples.

You would have to figure out all of the inputs necessary to get apples to your local supermarket. You need crates to ship the apples. Count all the inputs necessary to produce crates. There's wood, but you need saws to cut down trees. The saws are made of steel, so iron ore must be mined, and mining equipment is needed. The workers must have shoes. The complete list of inputs to get apples to the market comes to a very large, possibly unknowable, number. Forgetting any one of them would probably mean no apples at your supermarket.

The beauty of market allocation of goods and services, compared with government fiat, is no one person needs to know all that's necessary to get apples to your supermarket. Free markets, accompanied by free trade, including international free trade, make us richer by economizing on the amount of knowledge or information needed to produce things.

Think about this morning's breakfast. Let's suppose you and your spouse each had bacon and eggs, coffee and cocoa. The breakfast might have cost you $22. But what might it have cost you if instead of being dependent upon others, you produced your own breakfast?

What do you know about raising pigs? Do you know how to cure pork to make bacon? Then there are the eggs, which require knowledge about the care of chickens. What about getting pig and chicken feed? You'd have a big problem with the coffee and cocoa. I doubt whether you could simulate the growing conditions in Brazil and West Africa.

One thing that's guaranteed is that your breakfast would be far costlier than if you depended upon the benefits of others' skills that emerge from the division of labor and trade.

The bottom line is that each of us is grossly ignorant about the world in which we live. Nothing's wrong with that ignorance, but we are stupid if we believe that a politician can produce a better life than that which is obtained through peaceable, voluntary exchange with our fellow man anywhere on Earth.

Walter Williams is a professor of economics at George Mason University.

TribLIVE commenting policy

You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.

We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.

While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.

We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers

We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.

We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.

We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.

We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.