Stumbling and Mumbling: The pretence of knowledge
Chris Dillow makes a very important set of points regarding scientific research in the post reproduced below. We occasionally hear similar gibberish here, as in the phrase ‘research to retail’, which apart from the shared consonants is devoid of meaning but has the happy property of short-circuiting your synapses, and prevents thinking about the actual progress of research findings to the market. The problem here of course is that of not knowing what you don’t know.
Post reproduced in full:
One of the more unpleasant aspects of the New Labour government was its anti-Hayekian pretence that central government could acquire knowledge which, in fact, is unobtainable. The coalition has inherited this boneheaded idea.
Take Vince Cable’s recent speech:
There is no justification for taxpayers money being used to support research which is neither commercially useful nor theoretically outstanding.
The problem here is that it is impossible to predict what research will be commercially useful. History is full of examples of businessmen and scientists – let alone politicians – utterly failing to anticipate commercial uses, for example:
“There is not the slightest indication that nuclear energy will ever be obtainable”
“The wireless music box has no imaginable commercial value.”
“Radio has no future. Heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible. X-rays will prove to be a hoax.”
“While theoretically and technically television may be feasible, commercially and financially it is an impossibility.”
“There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home.”
“This ‘telephone’ has too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a means of communication. The device is inherently of no value to us.”
The notion that government can cut only “useless” science funding is an egregious pretence to know things that cannot be known. Instead, such cuts operate much as financial constraints for business operate: they diminish the ecology upon which natural selection operates.
The only reason I hesitate to call Cable a witless imbecile is that I doubt that he actually believes what he says.
Speaking of witless imbeciles brings me seamlessly to Gideon Osborne. He says:
People who are disabled, people who are vulnerable, people who need protection will get our protection, and more.
“But people who think it’s a lifestyle choice to just sit on out-of-work benefits – that lifestyle choice is going to come to an end.
Now, leave aside the hypocrisy of the heir to a multi-million fortune whining about folk getting something for nothing. Leave aside the fact that there’s little point encouraging people to find work if there’s none to be had. And leave aside the fact that the unemployed are, on average, significantly unhappier than those in work.
Even if we ignore all this, there’s still a problem here. It is, practically speaking, almost impossible for the state to distinguish between the “vulnerable” and the “workshy”. A more intrusive benefits system will bear heavily upon those with poor mental health, low IQ and poor social skills, whilst “scroungers” will continue to game the system. The distinction between deserving and undeserving poor might seem clear to bar-room bigots. But it is almost impossible to apply it to millions of individual people, except by creating a bureaucracy so large as to offset any savings on benefits.
Osborne is doing just what Cable and New Labour did. He’s assuming the state can know things which in fact it cannot.
Good Hayekians should be sceptical of what Osborne and Cable are claiming. Sadly, though, I suspect that the majority of people who claim to admire Hayek are wedded more to class war than to Hayek’s actual ideas.