As the sum of all human knowledge grows, so does each individual’s relative ignorance

The more men know, the smaller the share of all that knowledge becomes that any one mind can absorb. The more civilized we become, the more relatively ignorant must each individual be of the facts on which the working of his civilization depends.

—Friedrich Hayek. The Constitution of Liberty, 1960.

During the Enlightenment, men like Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson voraciously read all they could about the latest advances in all fields and were able to absorb the state of the art in almost every discipline. This was because the Dark Ages had destroyed and stifled so much that the sum of all human knowledge was relatively tiny. However, since then, every field has become so specialized that no human could possibly hope to grasp even the fundamentals of every field. It follows that legislators are largely unqualified to meddle. In order to avoid blundering, they must restrict their interference to the bare minimum.

If computer operating systems were stable, the legislature would undoubtedly say, ‘Because the whole country uses that operating system, and the prosperity of the country depends on it, it has national security implications. If all the computers in the country suddenly stopped working, there would be riot and starvation. Clearly, that is too much power for a private company to have. So we are going to set up a new government agency, the Operating System Oversight Department. We will take submissions from industry, education, and the other various stakeholders, and we will hold hearings to determine how the system should be changed.Then we’ll instruct the software engineers accordingly.’

Of course, the result would be disastrous, no doubt akin to the stillborn Soviet computer industry. The only reason this folly is avoided is that software development moves so fast that even the pompous fools in the legislature, who believe themselves competent to meddle in so many other fields, know well enough to stay away. Other industries, however, are not so fortunate. Legislators blunder blindly into numerous areas without a proper understanding of the long-term, prosperity-killing consequences of their actions.

This article is an extract from the book ‘Principles of Good Government’ by Matthew Bransgrove