April Freeman Banner 2014


Knowledge and Decisions

A Tour Through the Vast Emptiness of Ignorance

MAY 01, 1996 by JANE S. SHAW

Ms. Shaw is a senior associate at PERC in Bozeman, Montana.

Physicists tell us that a solid rock is mostly empty space interspersed with occasional dense specks of matter. “In much the same way,” says Thomas Sowell, “specks of knowledge are scattered through a vast emptiness of ignorance, and everything depends upon how solid the individual specks of knowledge are, and on how powerfully linked and coordinated they are with one another.”

Knowledge and Decisions takes us on a tour through the vast emptiness of ignorance to show how dispersed knowledge forms the architecture of human institutions. Building on F.A. Hayek’s insights in “The Use of Knowledge in Society,” Sowell analyzes economic, political, and legal decisions in terms of their use or neglect of this knowledge. The book includes page after page of lapidary examples, from discussions of rent control, affirmative action, and intelligence tests to the reasons that people dislike “middlemen.”

Sowell also addresses American history over the past century. Because the United States is now a nation of employees (rather than self-employed farmers), many people do not bear the consequences of their decisions directly. With feedback from their decisions weakened, they tend to demand political changes that reduce others’ freedom and ultimately their own. And “experts,” who have incentives to ignore dispersed knowledge, “solve” problems by overturning alternatives that people have found to be more valuable.

Sowell addresses other aspects of decision-making, such as constraints, trade-offs, and incentives. But knowledge is paramount, partly because few understand its importance. As this book achieves greater recognition, that understanding should grow.


May 1996



Jane Shaw is president of the Pope Center for Higher Education Policy.

comments powered by Disqus


* indicates required
Sign me up for...


April 2014

Around the world, people are struggling to throw off authoritarianism, with deeply mixed results. From Egypt to Venezuela, determined people build networks to overthrow their regimes, but as yet we have not learned to live without Leviathan. In this issue, Michael Malice and Gary Dudney discuss their glimpses inside totalitarian regimes, while Sarah Skwire and Michael Nolan look at how totalitarian regimes grind down the individual--and how individuals fight back. Plus, Jeffrey Tucker identifies a strain in libertarianism that, left unchecked, could reduce even our vibrant movement to something that is analogous to the grim aesthetic of architectural brutalism. The struggle for our lives and freedom is a struggle for beauty; it begins inside each of us.
Download Free PDF