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Walter Williams
Walter E. Williams
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Does Washington Know Best?


According to some estimates, there are more than 100 million traffic signals in the U.S., but whatever the number, how many of us would like Washington, in the name of public health and safety, to be in sole charge of their operation? Congress or a committee it authorizes would determine the position of traffic signals at intersections, the length of time the lights stay red, yellow and green, and what hours of the day they can be flashing red.

While you ponder that, how many Americans would like Washington to be in charge of managing the delivery of food and other items to the nation's supermarkets? Today's average well-stocked U.S. supermarket stocks 60,000 to 65,000 different items from all over the U.S. and the world. Congress or some congressionally created committee could organize the choice of products and their prices. Maybe there'd be some cost savings. After all, what says that we should have so many items from which to choose? Why wouldn't 10,000 do?

You say, "Williams, those are ludicrous ideas whose implementation would spell disaster!" You're right. Nobel laureate Friedrich Hayek, one of the greatest economists of the 20th century, said it is a fatal conceit for anyone to think that a single mind or group of minds, no matter how intelligent and well-meaning, could manage to do things better than the spontaneous, unstructured, complex and creative forces of the market. The biggest challenges in any system, whether it's an economic, biological or ecological system, are information, communication and control. Congressmen's taking over control of the nation's traffic signals would require a massive amount of information that they are incapable of possessing, such as traffic flows at intersections, accident experiences, terrain patterns and peak and off-peak traffic flows.

The same information problem exists at supermarkets. Consider the challenge in organizing inputs in order to get 65,000 different items to a supermarket. Also, consider how uncompromising supermarket customers are.

We don't tell the supermarket manager in advance when we're going to shop or what we're going to buy and in what quantity, but if the store doesn't have what we want when we want it, we'll fire the manager by taking our business elsewhere. The supermarket manager does a fairly good job doing what's necessary to meet that challenge.

You say, "C'mon, Williams, nobody's proposing that Congress take over the nation's traffic signals and supermarkets!" You're right, at least for now, but Congress and the president are taking over an area of our lives infinitely more challenging and complex than the management of traffic signals and supermarkets, namely our health care system. Oblivious to the huge information problem in the allocation of resources, the people in Washington have great confidence that they can run our health care system better than we, our physicians and hospitals. Charles Darwin wisely noted more than a century and a half ago that "ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge." Congress exudes confidence.

Suggesting that Congress and the president are ignorant of the fact that knowledge is highly dispersed and decisions made locally produce the best outcomes might be overly generous. It could be that they know they really don't know what they're doing but just don't give a hoot because it's in their political interest to centralize health care decision-making. Just as one example, how can Congress know whether buying a $4,000 annual health insurance policy would be the best use of healthy 25-year-old Joe Sanders' earnings? Would he be better off purchasing a cheaper catastrophic health insurance policy and saving the rest of the money to put toward a business investment? Politicians really don't care about what Joe thinks is best, because they arrogantly think they know what's best and have the power to coerce.

Hayek said, "The curious task of economics is to illustrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design." We economists have failed miserably in that task.

Walter E. Williams is a professor of economics at George Mason University. To find out more about Walter E. Williams and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at



7 Comments | Post Comment
"The curious task of economics is to illustrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design."

I really like that. I learn something every time I read Williams or Fields. They are mentally refreshing.

Recent elections prove that if you like your liar, you can keep your liar. No shortage of liars and those willing to support liars, at the grocery store or stopped at a red light.
Comment: #1
Posted by: Tom
Mon Nov 11, 2013 9:00 AM
Sir;... I offer you the prize for beginning an article with the most stupid premise ever... Why shouldn't everything be left to the appropriate level of authority???... Really; why do other people besides the people who live on my street set the speed limit, while only I pay for the upkeep of it??? One reason alone makes so many issues national issues, and it is the parties... We have majority rule, and not democracy... If you can make majorities and give majorities so that the minority can actually hold power by gerrymandering there is no one to stop them, since both parties do it, and both get their own particular benefit from it... But it does not work...

Some issues are national issues... Would you like defense to be handled by each individual state??? How about the quality of our drinking water, drugs, or food??? What about air quality if one state were allowed to dump poison into the lungs of your child??? Like it or not, the federal government has the power to regulate commerce, and while you would no doubt approve of business having a free hand with people and having the people without defense from them, then what would be the point of government at all???

You use the example of traffic lights... Consider how roads, traffic patterns and even speed might be manipulated by local governments to send traffic, and so business to one location rather than another...I have seen businesses closed because they were effectively denied traffic by road improvements for which they were handed the bill... Those with the staying power stayed and profited, and those on the margins were driven off; but consider upon which slight profit margins many businesses operate... Should they not all have an equal chance??? It will never happen so long as the local power is the only power, and neither will human rights...

We pay every government to know what it must, and do what it can for the citizens of this country... If it became clear that realistically or mataphorically, my government was always making my lights red, and giving the green light to others, I would. metaphorically speaking, have the right to run them out, and change my form of government... This Federal government, and all its little spawn governments that form an effective tyranny over people's lives has built layers of impediment which all poor people must surmount to succeed in life... I am not saying that the failure of law and of government to provide equality and opportunity means all lawlessness should then be lawful, but such is certainly natural... It is those who misuse the law, and construe it for their own benefit who make law meaningless... People do not just wake up one day and say: I am going lawless today... They instead learn over time that the law works to their disadvantage, and so lose all regard for it...

Some are so frightened by the tyranny we must endure that they can no longer make a left hand turn without an arrow, even when there is no left hand turn arrow they will sit through a green light for fear of a camera and a ticket...People sit at long red lights when they can clearly see no one is coming -out of fear of big brother and the police...Some one must have made a law that no one can use their head without permission, or have a brain without a right... And there is your problem, that government does not go to the people to see what it can freely do, but does what it wants saying the people are sovereign when the people are injured by it, and object...

It is a shame that so many people find themselves having to appeal to the federal government for their rights, or that so many think they have only the right with their vote to deny rights...They have been misled... But it is the partocracy that has misled them... There is all kinds of resistence to democracy built into the constitution, and the parties which are not constitutional have only added inertia... To move government one must first move the parties, and it is amazing that this is ever possible... And yet; why should people have to fight their way to government with bags of loot and lists of voters to defend rights they claim, that if not specifically forbidden are not at all forbidden... It is not the job of local government any more than national government to limit any claim of right without an overwhelming amount of evidence of the danger of that right...
Too bad Washington must tell hicksville to get along with people because it is only civil...People do not need government to tell them what is right... They have to stop listening to those who tell them they can use government as a weapon against minorities...
Comment: #2
Posted by: James A, Sweeney
Mon Nov 11, 2013 9:18 AM
Re: Tom... Really, you like that??? Imagine what they might know about economics if the only example they had was outlaw capitalism that would be complete anarchy without the absolute minimum of governing our government subjects it too... When capitalism used to regularly work people to death, and destroy lives as it still does to a lesser degree today, do you think it was possible to really know the reason behind it since the reason behind capitalism as behind so much of human activity is irrational...Knowledge is judgement said Kant...
This so called economist has no perspective upon which to judge his own economy, but morally, or rather immorally, he refuses to judge it at all... Like so many, he presumes the principal is correct and the people are incorrect in regard to it... He does judge people, and he does judge the government people try to use to correct their situation; but he refuses to judge his economy fairly because he has prejudged it as perfect...He thinks capitalism will sooner find the Good blindly than the people will using all their senses...
Comment: #3
Posted by: James A, Sweeney
Mon Nov 11, 2013 9:30 AM
Yeah, I liked that. I'll not set it in stone and make it a philosophy to live by, but I think it adds perspective and insight into the study of economics. Guess what else? I understood it, too!
Comment: #4
Posted by: Tom
Tue Nov 12, 2013 5:49 AM
Re: Tom... All you have to do is read about nuclear physics and the History of the Atomic Bomb to realize how little people knew and how much they did with it... To say we know anything is nonsense... To say we know enough is obvious, and those who say we need to prove a fact or phenomenon of morality before it is believed and accepted is simply in evasion...
How we know is more relevant than what we know...Ontology, and properly, phenomenology is the science of science...And perk up now, because I am talking to you republicans... How we know is by way of ideas, and forms, or what you'all like to call principals, but are judgments, for as Kant said: knowledge is judgement...
What is known of dogs defines dogs, and is the concept of a dog... The principals held dear by the republicans which are not an asset to their thinking, but are an impediment to thought, are infinitely more complex than the idea of a dog...What the right holds might properly be described as a conceptual manifold, involving sociology, theology, economy, anthropology, and history... While no one would embark on any great study of dog behavior, genetics, or physiology without a willingness to call into question the definition and concept of a dog; the republican are nothing if not dogged in their slavish attachement to principals they believe are true and refuse to examine in the light of new evidence...
Take one interest of theirs as an example: Economics... Clearly, Good must be the aim of economics as a study, since, if you believe Aristotle, it is the aim of all human activity... Can this be good only for a few, for more, for many, as many of half the population??? Can your study be economics at all since the word means house management, and your principals reject all management??? True economics must take into account the softer sciences of sociology, and psychology as well as the general methods of science and philosophy...If the underlying principals of your study are taken as perfection while all evidence to the contrary is rejected, then what can be learned??? Nothing; and when things do not work as they should, those with perfect principals blame the human element...
The human element will never be perfect, but as Jesus said: Man was not created for the law, but the law for man...If, for example, you understand the law of supply and demand, it is not to manipulate supply to increase demand in order to injure and take from people... The idea is to make the understanding of the law work to the benefit of all people rather than just a few...Do you really want to know something, which more or less means knowing everything; or do you want to learn only enough to make money on the misery of others.???..Just as perfect principals reject all contrary information, so those who only seek wealth could care less for knowledge as a whole pursuit, what is commonly called a liberal education...
In any event, to learn how to learn is the fountain of knowledge... To be able to consciously assemble isolated fact into a concept, and to understand than no concept is written in stone, but is always in doubt is the first thing to learn...Consider economic reality as Duns Scottus suggested: Between the thought (economics) and the thing (economy) lies a abyss of difference (heterogeneity), and yet there is common ground (homogeneity), with the bridge between the two called: analogy...The idea of principals as being knowledge must always be doubted... They may serve as aids to thoughts, but never as substitutes for thought as the right so often employes them...We can never forget that just as scientific knowledge is supposed to serve humanity, so is economic knowledge is supposed to serve humanity, and the sure sign that your principals or concepts are wrong is the obvious injury of humanity resulting from them...
Comment: #5
Posted by: James A, Sweeney
Tue Nov 12, 2013 5:28 PM
If Williams or Alan West would run for President, the entire Tea Party would vote for them 100%. Then what would all the people calling them racist do? Would they become the racists when they tried to scuttle their chances?
Comment: #6
Posted by: DougMH
Sat Nov 16, 2013 5:57 PM
Re: DougMH;... Did you ever consider that you can like black people for the wrong reason, or hate them for the right reason without being a racist... If I were a racist, and like many who are prejudiced for other reason, I cared for black people though I believed they were congenitaly incapable of equality, that would not mean I was capable of true humanity in my relationships with them... There are plenty of black people who toe the republican line, and though they may be functionally idiots, a vote against them if they should run for office does not make one a racist or prejudiced... Judging people before knowing them is what makes prejudice... I see people as people... I know they are are different so it is a matter of convenience rather than of truth that I refer to black people as black...Since the unknown is still the unknown, and the high point of blindness is to pretend to see or know what I know or see not, then it is only wisdom to be careful of all I do not know because all people are dangerous, though only a fraction intend harm... I am careful around everyone, and I hope they are careful around me... When ever I enter the room I simply assume I am the most dangerous one of all because of my natural fear of people... It allows me to more freely breakdown barriors and make friends, since I can start with my own barriors...
At the risk of repeating myself: We are not all racists, and while we may all be prejudiced, and even think it is wisdom to be so, still, reasonable people discount their prejudice almost as soon as they feel it, while the ignorant take their prejudice as revelation... Your voting for a black man because he is a republican is never the same as a democrat not voting for him because he is an idiot...
Comment: #7
Posted by: James A, Sweeney
Sat Nov 16, 2013 9:11 PM
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