The concept of “dispersed knowledge” should be a commonplace!

I dare to state that the world would be a better place to live in if the concept of “dispersed knowledge” were a commonplace. Perhaps it is an elusive idea and that is why every now and then political intervention regards itself as the saviour from the “chaos of the market”.

But what most people are used to call “chaos” is, in fact, “complexity”. Every single rational agent is an administrator of the bits of information gathered by him from the limited range of his experience, using devices of perception, such as senses, social values, norms, and technologies. The said devices are mostly common to other agents and thus contribute to make the compatibility of several individual plans, the most of them unknown to each other, possible –and the stability of the social order rests on the degree of such compatibility.

As we said, social spontaneous conventions as language, monetary economy, trade, morals, and law systems –along with many others- are devices used by the these agents to cope with the complexity of an order of things built on a framework of plans of multiple individuals, most of them yet undiscovered. It is a complex order of facts, but it is an order still: spontaneous conventions make of the multiple bits of information from the different individual plans a coordinated set of resources applied to carry out the most of them. It is a complex system of coordination of knowledge, with gaps and perturbations, but it is a system that can deal with a higher amount of information than any individual or committee would be able to do.

Since our concept of rationality is mostly instrumental, regarding as “rational” a set of resources deliberately applied to attain a known aim, it is easy to consider the complex order resulting from spontaneous coordination of individual plans as “irrational” -and this charaterisation gains strength with every new crisis. At this point, what we have to notice is that the net benefits rendered by the extended society –i.e.: the spontaneous coordination of the dispersed knowledge from multiple individual plans and institutions- are higher than what any other alternative system of organization of human beings could bring about. The consequence of the argument is that dispersed knowledge is both a burden to central planning and lever to the open society.

We know that almost the whole work of F. A. Hayek is devoted to this quest, but if I had to choose a single paper that keeps the kernel of this philosophy I would choose “The Use of Knowledge in Society”. This would be a good starting point to make the idea of “dispersed knowledge” part of our cultural background, like heliocentrism or Gödel’s theorem.

Originally published on

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