Walter E. Williams

One of the great contributions of Nobel Laureate economist Friedrich Hayek was to admonish us to recognize the insurmountable limits to human knowledge. Why? Not even the brightest minds, and surely not the U.S. Congress, can ever have the knowledge to shape an economic system entirely to our liking. To think we can represents the height of arrogance and a pretense of knowledge. The billions upon billions of interrelationships between an economic system's human and non-human elements defy human capacity to know.

Let's examine just a few pretenses of knowledge. Under Social Security law, Congress forces workers to set aside a portion of their earnings for retirement. Take a 25-year-old -- let's call her "Mary" -- who earns $40,000 a year. Her Social Security tax is about $2,500. Here's my question to you: Was having $2,500 forcibly taken out of Mary's pay for retirement her best possible use of that money? Mary might have saved and invested several years to open a small business. She might have put it toward private schooling or music lessons for her child, or any number of things that might have made her, and possibly our nation, wealthier in the future.

How about Congress' mandate for more fuel-efficient cars? According to a National Research Council of the National Academies of Sciences 2002 report, delivered by Dr. Leonard Evans to the Washington-based Competitive Enterprise Institute, Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards have contributed to between 1,300 and 2,600 traffic deaths a year. Congress' mandate for higher gasoline mileage leads to the production of lighter, smaller and less crash-worthy cars, resulting in unnecessary deaths. Through technological innovation and natural market forces, cars were already becoming more fuel efficient before CAFE standards were mandated. But more important, how does Congress know whether this loss of life is worth the amount of fuel saved? Do they even know or care about the tradeoff?


Walter E. Williams

Dr. Williams serves on the faculty of George Mason University as John M. Olin Distinguished Professor of Economics and is the author of 'Race and Economics: How Much Can Be Blamed on Discrimination?' and 'Up from the Projects: An Autobiography.'
 
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