Dispersed knowledge

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In economics, dispersed knowledge is knowledge, concerning all of the factors which influence prices and production throughout the economic system, that no single agent possesses.


  • Hayek had his greatest impact in the area of the division of knowledge. He first put forward his concept of the division of knowledge in his November 10, 1936, presidential address to the London Economic Club, “Economics and Knowledge.” Here he drew attention to the fact that knowledge is divided among the minds of all humanity. Economic systems that build on divided knowledge prosper. Those that attempt to centralize decision-making, on the assumption of centralized knowledge, falter. Decentralized knowledge implies decentralized decision-making.
    • Alan Ebenstein, Hayek's Journey: The Mind of Friedrich Hayek (2003), Introduction
  • [Hayek] thought that much knowledge is not verbally or explicitly known to the individual. This idea—of tacit (as opposed to explicit) knowledge—is difficult but important. It underlies to a considerable extent the idea of the entrepreneur—the individual who can make a profit but who cannot necessarily say how he does it.
    • Alan Ebenstein, Hayek's Journey: The Mind of Friedrich Hayek (2003), Introduction
  • When I look back, it seems so have all begun, nearly thirty years ago, with an essay on “Economics and Knowledge” in which I examined what seemed to me some of the central difficulties of pure economic theory, Its main conclusion was that the task of economic theory was to explain how an overall order of economic activity was achieved which utilized a large amount of knowledge which was not concentrated in any one mind but existed only as the separate knowledge of different individuals. But it was still a long way from this to an adequate insight into the relations between the abstract rules which the individual follows in his actions and the abstract overall order which is [thereby] formed....It was only through a reexamination of the age-old concept of freedom under the law, the basic conception of traditional liberalism, and of the problems of the philosophy of the law which this raises, that I have reached a tolerably clear picture of the nature of the spontaneous order of which liberal economists have so long been talking.
    • Friedrich Hayek, "Kinds of Rationalism", A lecture delivered on April 27, 1964, at Rikkyo University, Tokyo, and published in The Economic Studies Quarterly, Tokyo, vol. 15, March 1965
  • The dilemma of a socialized system is that the information flow overwhelms a centralized system if it is open to new ideas and data, that closing the system and forcing the plan to work forecloses alternatives and risks unhedged mistakes, and that decentralizing without real markets poses the problems discussed by Hayek. These information problems permeate virtually all economic processes.
  • Knowledge is one of the most scarce of all resources and a pricing system economizes on its use by forcing those with the most knowledge of their own particular situation to make bids for goods and resources based on that knowledge, rather than on their ability to influence other people in planning commissions, legislatures, or royal palaces.
    • Thomas Sowell, Basic Economics, 4th ed. (2010), Ch. 2. The Role of Prices
  • Knowledge is one of the most scarce of all resources, so that one of the most important differences among alternative ways of organizing an economy is in how effectively they use what knowledge exists. In a market economy, it is not necessary that the innumerable decision-makers understand the costs entailed by their decisions. It is only necessary that they be confronted with those costs in the prices charged. In a “planned” economy, however, those who plan the production and distribution have to be able to understand and quantify the costs their decisions entail— a far more formidable task, if actually done, but a task that can be evaded with rhetoric or with estimates whose validity the public is usually unable to judge at the time, and which will usually be forgotten by the time the real costs become clear, often years later.
    • Thomas Sowell, Basic Economics, 4th ed. (2010), Ch. 4. An Overview
  • Knowledge is one of the scarcest of all resources in any economy, and the insight distilled from knowledge is even more scarce. An economy based on prices, profits, and losses gives decisive advantages to those with greater knowledge and insight. Put differently, knowledge and insight can guide the allocation of resources, even if most people, including the country’s political leaders, do not share that knowledge or do not have the insight to understand what is happening. Clearly this is not true in the kind of economic system where political leaders control economic decisions, for then the limited knowledge and insights of those leaders become decisive barriers to the progress of the whole economy. Even when leaders have more knowledge and insight than the average member of the society, they are unlikely to have nearly as much knowledge and insight as exists scattered among the millions of people subject to their governance.
    • Thomas Sowell, Basic Economics, 4th ed. (2010), Ch. 5. The Rise and Fall of Business
  • Knowledge and insight need not be technological or scientific for it to be economically valuable and decisive for the material well-being of the society as a whole. Something as mundane as retailing changed radically during the course of the twentieth century, revolutionizing both department stores and grocery stores— and raising the standard of living of millions of people by lowering the costs of delivering goods to them.
    • Thomas Sowell, Basic Economics, 4th ed. (2010), Ch. 5. The Rise and Fall of Business
  • Knowledge is one of the scarcest of all resources. Glib generalities abound, but specific hard facts about particular places and particular things at particular times that are relevant to economic decisions are something entirely different and much more scarce. In some respects, governments are better able to assemble vast amounts of knowledge, but the kind of knowledge involved is often in the form of statistical or verbal generalities known as “expertise,” which is no substitute for the kind of concrete knowledge that someone in the middle of a particular economic situation has. Just picking the right location for a particular business in a particular community can be the difference between profits and bankruptcy, even though that kind of knowledge may not be exciting from an intellectual standpoint. Experts may indeed have far more knowledge than the average amount of knowledge among individuals in the general population but the total amount of knowledge among millions of people in the general population vastly exceeds the total knowledge that any group of experts can assemble.
    • Thomas Sowell, Basic Economics, 4th ed. (2010), Ch. 8. An Overview

See Also

Wikipedia has an article about:

Friedrich Hayek
Concepts and career Business cycle theory · Dispersed knowledge · Extended order · Spontaneous order
Books Prices and Production (1931) · The Road to Serfdom (1944) · Individualism and Economic Order (1948) · The Counter-Revolution of Science (1952) · The Sensory Order (1952) · The Constitution of Liberty (1960) · Studies in Philosophy, Politics and Economics (1967) · Law, Legislation and Liberty (1973) · The Denationalization of Money (1975) · New Studies in Philosophy, Politics, Economics and the History of Ideas (1978) · The Fatal Conceit (1988)
Notable essays "The Use of Knowledge in Society" (1945) · "Why I Am Not a Conservative" (1960) · "The Pretence of Knowledge" (1974)
Commentators Alan O. Ebenstein · Bruce Caldwell
Other topics On evolution · On dictatorship · On John Maynard Keynes