J.D. Thorpe

In contemplating the structure of society it seems implausible that any sort of order can exist without massive regulation and central planning. It seems very rational that society must concentrate the decision making process with experts in various fields. How can institutions as complex as ours be created in the absence of human design? The same question could be asked of popular website Wikipedia which has emerged through the voluntary contributions of random individuals with little to no guidance by a single authority.

The online encyclopedia, Wikipedia, not to be confused with insidious element Wikileaks, was created in 2001 by co-founders Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger. Wales garnered his inspiration for the project from the 1945 essay, “The Use of Knowledge in Society.” In it, author F.A. Hayek shows the problematic nature of assuming that experts have all the requisite knowledge to construct order in society. Hayek wrote, “practically every individual has some advantage over all others because he posses unique information of which use might be made.”

This is precisely the problem with central planning. If society is to effect the best use of information, it is imperative that we allow the billions of individuals to use their specific knowledge and not let bureaucrats impose a set of regulations that restrict individuals’ pursuits. For example, it is impossible for any small group of experts to know all the relevant information that are used in calculating market prices. Instead, the behavior and preferences of lots of individuals combine to set the price for goods and services.

Similarly, Wikipedia has been able to take advantage of spontaneous order. Individuals from all over the globe can use their knowledge of specific subjects to collectively create a huge online encyclopedia that is constantly updated. There isn’t one person or even a small group of people that decide on the content of every entry. Instead, the site flourishes by decentralizing power into the hands of individual users.

One could say that Wikipedia represents what a truly free society would look like. General rules are in place that cover functions such as what rises to the importance of an entry and the amount of references needed for content to be approved. It is important to consider that these rules apply to everyone. Therefore, they do not make exemptions based on a given users prominence or political affiliation.

Encyclopedias like an over-regulated society present problems because they do not adapt to changes in a quick and efficient manner. When new facts emerge, the process that enables a correction to the out-of-date information is lengthier due to a concentration of decision making in a small group of people. Quite frequently, decisions are made by individuals who do not have specific knowledge of the event. Therefore, modifications are not made in a timely manner and do not include the collective knowledge of society as a whole.

Wikipedia has solved this problem by providing a method that allows for rapid updates of information on any topic interesting to any people, anywhere there is a computer and Internet access. Whenever better information is acquired about an event, it can be included on the site within minutes. This parallels the free market where prices are subject to ever changing conditions in the market place. An unhampered market and Wikipedia are able to adjust to changing conditions without the approval of bureaucrats.

Wikipedia and the free-market system are prime examples of how order can be created without relying on the designs of people who somehow manage to set themselves up as omniscient experts.

Disagree? Then, continue to hang with the backwards trending “progressives” who seek information from stale encyclopedias and music from scratchy cassette tapes. The rest of us are moving on to iPods and browsing Wikipedia.