Williamson’s latest column reminds us of the ‘fatal conceit’

Read Kevin Williamson‘s latest column at National Review Online, and you’ll encounter this passage:

Each of us knows approximately nothing. Even the very smart ones among us know basically zilch about almost all of the important aspects of anything and everything. We may have some specialized knowledge about our particular field of expertise, if we have one, but it is almost always the case that the deeper the expertise the narrower the specialization, because the really interesting questions turn out to resist generality and demand specificity. And it is always the case that the world outside our field of expertise is larger than the world inside it. E.g.:

Sheldon: I’m a physicist. I have a working knowledge of the entire universe and everything it contains.

Penny: Who’s Radiohead?

Sheldon: . . .

Penny: . . . ?

Sheldon: I have a working knowledge of the important things.

Recently, I was asked a question about Hindu nationalism, and whether I believed that there was an authentic theological basis for it. I’ve read the Bhagavad Gita and the Upanishads, lived for a time in the country that sometimes calls itself “Hindustan,” and have even encountered a couple of prominent Hindu nationalists. Even so, my knowledge of Hindu theology and its relationship to Hindu nationalism is superficial, to the extent that it exists at all, and my experience with Hindu literature and culture has produced at most a Socratic notion of the scope of my ignorance. I’d guess that I know more about the subject than nine out of ten Americans, but that is less significant than it sounds; if you have never read the works of Guy du Maupassant but you are familiar with the plot of “Boule de Suif,” then you are well ahead of the game compared with most 21st-century Americans you’ll meet. But the list of things about which you know nothing will remain effectively infinite.

That excerpt should remind us to keep in mind Hayek’s famous discussion of big-government advocates’ “fatal conceit” — the notion that expert planners have enough information to make critical decisions about most aspects of our lives.

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