Walter E. Williams

I have no idea of the number of traffic signals in our country, but whatever the number, how many of my fellow Americans would like the U.S. Congress to be in charge of their operation? Congress, or a committee they authorize, would determine the length of time red stays red and green stays green and what hours of the day they can be flashing red. Or, how many Americans would like Congress to be in charge deciding what items, in what quantities, your local supermarket has on its shelves? Right now the average well-stocked supermarket carries somewhere between 50,000 and 60,000 different items. Do we really need such a choice in light of the fact that several decades ago Americans made do with just 10,000 different items? Would you also want the government agency that delivers our mail to also manage delivery of items to supermarkets?

You say, "Williams, where are you headed with this?" Nobel Laureate Friedrich Hayek, one of the greatest economists of the 20th century, called it a fatal conceit for anyone to think that a single mind or a single committee can somehow do things better than the spontaneous, unstructured, complex and creative forces of the market. The big problem in any system, whether it's an economic, biological or ecological system, is information, communication and control. For congressmen, or a committee they select, to take over control of the nation's traffic signals requires a massive amount of information that they cannot possibly possess such as traffic flows at intersections, accident experiences and changes in peak and low peak traffic patterns.

The same information problem exists at the supermarket. Consider the challenge we give supermarket managers. We don't tell them in advance when we're going to shop, what we're going to buy and how much, but if they don't live up to this challenge, we're going to fire them by taking our business elsewhere. The supermarket manager does a fairly good job doing what's necessary to meet that challenge. You can bet the rent money that Congress couldn't begin to produce such a satisfactory outcome.

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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