Hayek on the Use of Superior Expert Knowledge as a Justification for Paternalism

In my most recent post on paternalism, I criticized claims that paternalistic policies can be justified on the grounds that government-appointed experts have greater knowledge than consumers and are less likely to be influenced to cognitive error. Among other points, I emphasized that government experts have no way of determining how much benefit consumers get from potentially risky products and therefore no good way of deciding which products should be banned or restricted on the grounds that their costs outweigh their benefits. In a recent e-mail, NYU economist Mario Rizzo (himself a leading academic critic of paternalism) points out that F.A. Hayek made a similar point in his classic 1945 article, “The Use of Knowledge in Society”:

It may be admitted that, as far as scientific knowledge is concerned, a body of suitably chosen experts may be in the best position to command all the best knowledge available—though this is of course merely shifting the difficulty to the problem of selecting the experts. What I wish to point out is that, even assuming that this problem can be readily solved, it is only a small part of the wider problem.

Today it is almost heresy to suggest that scientific knowledge is not the sum of all knowledge. But a little reflection will show that there is beyond question a body of very important but unorganized knowledge which cannot possibly be called scientific in the sense of knowledge of general rules: the knowledge of the particular circumstances of time and place. It is with respect to this that practically every individual has some advantage over all others because he possesses unique information of which beneficial use might be made, but of which use can be made only if the decisions depending on it are left to him or are made with his active cooperation.

Hayek’s point was directed at arguments for socialist central planning (common in Hayek’s time). But it applies with almost equal force to modern expertise-based arguments for paternalism. Last year, I discussed the broader relevance of Hayek’s thought to our own times in this post. In a follow-up post, I argued for the modern relevance of Hayek’s critique of conservatism.

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