Glenn Reynolds on The Legislator’s Knowledge Problem

In the modern corporatist state, regulations and their operationalization are far more complex than any mind can possibly understand — causing insuperable problems for the limited mind of your Congressman:

Economist Friedrich Hayek explained in 1945 why centrally controlled “command economies” were doomed to waste, inefficiency, and collapse: Insufficient knowledge. He won a Nobel Prize. But it turns out he was righter than he knew.  In his “The Use of Knowledge In Society,” Hayek explained that information about supply and demand, scarcity and abundance, wants and needs exists in no single place in any economy. The economy is simply too large and complicated for such information to be gathered together.  Any economic planner who attempts to do so will wind up hopelessly uninformed and behind the times, reacting to economic changes in a clumsy, too-late fashion and then being forced to react again to fix the problems that the previous mistakes created, leading to new problems, and so on.  Market mechanisms, like pricing, do a better job than planners because they incorporate what everyone knows indirectly through signals like price, without central planning.  Thus, no matter how deceptively simple and appealing command economy programs are, they are sure to trip up their operators, because the operators can’t possibly be smart enough to make them work.

Hayek’s insight into economics and regulation is often called “The Knowledge Problem,” and it is a very powerful notion. But recent events suggest that it’s not just the economy that regulators don’t understand well enough — it’s also their own regulations.

This became apparent when various large businesses responded to the enactment of Obamacare by taking accounting steps to reflect tax changes brought about by the new health care legislation. The additional costs created by Obamacare, conveniently enough, weren’t going to strike until later, after the November elections.

But both Generally Accepted Accounting Principles and Securities and Exchange Commission regulations require companies to account for these changes as soon as they learn about them. As the Atlantic’s Megan McArdle wrote:

“What AT&T, Caterpillar, et al did was appropriate. It’s earnings season, and they offered guidance about , um, their earnings.”So once Obamacare passed, massive corporate write-downs were inevitable.

They were also bad publicity for Obamacare, and they seem to have come as an unpleasant shock to House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., who immediately scheduled congressional hearings for April 21, demanding that the chief executive officers of AT&T, John Deere, and Caterpillar, among others, come and explain themselves.

Obamacare was supposed to provide unicorns and rainbows: How can it possibly be hurting companies and killing jobs? Surely there’s some sort of Republican conspiracy going on here!

More like a confederacy of dunces. Waxman and his colleagues in Congress can’t possibly understand the health care market well enough to fix it. But what’s more striking is that Waxman’s outraged reaction revealed that they don’t even understand their own area of responsibility – regulation — well enough to predict the effect of changes in legislation ..

Read the whole thing.

UPDATE:  Jeffrey Friedman and Andrew Haldale on the same topic.  Here’s Haldale:

Complex control of a complex system is a recipe for confusion at best, catastrophe at worst. Complex control adds, not subtracts, from the Knightian uncertainty problem. The US constitution is four pages long. The recently-tabled Dodd Bill on US financial sector reform is 1,336 pages long. Which do you imagine will have the more lasting impact on behaviour.

Hayek somewhere says virtually the same thing.  HT Arnold Kling.

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