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Liberty Makes Ignorance Necessary

If we knew everything in the past and the future there would be little need for freedom.  If we could accurately know all that preceded our fleeting moment upon life’s stage, if we could know all the consequences of our present desires, and if we could know what we would desire in the future we could then chart a course to perfection without any detours and so freedom of action would be unnecessary and central-planning would make sense.

Freedom would not only be unnecessary it would be very inconvenient.  One free agent on this express to perfection would be the fly in the ointment and the monkey wrench in the gears. That one free person would rage against the machines, and would inevitably make an unforeseen choice and all the perfection would silently slip away.

In order to have the freedom to succeed there must also be freedom to fail.  We all need the freedom to act upon circumstances that we don’t fully understand to attain goals whose consequences we can’t fully appreciate.  Without this there is no freedom.  We can pretend as the progressive advocates of central-planning do that we can accurately predict the consequence of every action; however this is contrary to our real-world experience.

The reason failure is so prevalent is due to the fact that every individual is operating with imperfect knowledge of what is best or of what will eventually yield the best outcome that we must allow people the freedom to act upon their ignorance.  In this way the independent and competitive choices of many individuals will eventually lead through trial and error to the development of the best.  Since so many times the best emerges through accidental or unforeseen results of actions taken without complete knowledge of what the outcome would be we must leave room for accidents often guided by ignorance so that knowledge can grow.

It is an incontrovertible fact that as the fund of human knowledge grows the percentage that any one person can effectively know becomes smaller.  In other words, as general knowledge increases individual ignorance also increases.  Add to this the constantly increasing complexity of our civilization and it becomes obvious that people must be allowed to act upon the knowledge they possess without regard to the vast amount of knowledge they do not possess.  Otherwise no advancement would be possible, and we would live in a static society doomed to eventual demise.

It is this freedom to act in ignorance of all the consequences of their actions that allows the space for individual innovation.  The greater the freedom of individuals to interpret the world according to their imperfect knowledge and to organize their efforts based upon their understanding of the world as they see it the greater the opportunity for the accidents which make up the majority of progress.  If we take away the freedom to act upon our imperfect knowledge, if we take away the freedom to fail we will also take away the engine of progress and condemn ourselves to a stagnant world of limited possibilities.

As one person tries something another may build upon their result whether it succeeds or fails.  The ability to learn from and build upon the experience of others is the seedbed of innovation and the font of discovery.  It is our ignorance of all but a small fragment of reality that causes probability and chance to play such a large portion in our activities.  It is within this realm of probability and chance that the future grows.

This applies to social as well as technical fields.  The favorable accidents which become the building blocks of a vibrant, successful society do not just happen.  They are the result of someone taking a risk, doing something that hasn’t been tried before without the complete knowledge of what the result will be.  They include the chance of failure as well as of success and often the success achieved is not the desired end result of the action when it was initiated.  Freedom increases the opportunity for risk and opens the door to possibility.

When we look at the vast amount of knowledge that makes up the common store of information in the modern age and then look at the miniscule percentage that any one person could possibly gain, retain and understand we see that the difference between what the wisest knows and what the least wise knows is comparatively insignificant.  Everyone is operating based upon imperfect knowledge and the acceptance of grand assumptions.

To tell you the truth I am not really sure how electricity works.  Yet most of my life and lifestyle is predicated on the availability and use of electricity.  Most people have no idea how the economy works yet we all base our lives upon the fact that it does.  If we refused to act in areas where we had less than perfect knowledge we would do nothing.  One of the big differences between an advocate of liberty and an advocate of central-planning is that those who see liberty as man’s natural state understand that no one person or group is wise enough to make all the decisions for everyone.  Central planners by definition believe they are wise enough to do so.

The case for liberty made by such Enlightenment thinkers as John Milton and John Locke provided the philosophical foundation for the Framers as they wrote our Constitution.  They based their arguments for liberty on the realization that human ignorance and our need to act in the face of ignorance is a basic component of reality.

Every application of the tenants of Liberty reflect our need to give these actions based upon ignorance the widest possible scope to interface with chance and probability not certainty.  Certainty is unattainable in this life outside of a cultural straightjacket that restricts choice and eliminates the freedom to fail.  Such a society will be stagnant, stunted and doomed.  Without the freedom to fail on an individual basis and then fall forward from that failure a society has short-circuited the conveyor belt of individual success and charted the course to eventual systemic failure. The former USSR was a text book example of this scenario.

If we wish to avoid the trash heap of History we must be wise enough to learn that though acting upon ignorance may increase the odds of failure if we try to eliminate failure so that everyone gets a trophy and everyone succeeds we have consigned ourselves to the dead end that always awaits anyone or any society that believes perfection is attainable on this earth.

For it isn’t failing that marks a failure it is the refusal to rise from failure and move on to success.  We learn by failing.  We achieve by using our freedom to fail as a launching pad for success.  We fail because of our ignorance.  We succeed because of our failures.

Dr. Owens teaches History, Political Science, and Religion.  He is the Historian of the Future @ http://drrobertowens.com © 2013 Robert R. Owens drrobertowens@hotmail.com  Follow Dr. Robert Owens on Facebook or Twitter @ Drrobertowens / Edited by Dr. Rosalie Owens

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