In 1945, the Austrian economist and public intellectual F.A. Hayek published an article on “The Use of Knowledge in Society.” It was a response to those advocating for planned economies, but its lessons can be generalized. Hayek was making a profound argument: We must appreciate the limited ability of central authorities to collect and use information. Even if we could make a government agency that was lean, efficient, and staffed only with able and selfless professionals, he pointed out, it would still struggle to achieve its ambitions.

The roadblock isn’t intentions; it’s information. It is “a problem of the utilization of knowledge,” Hayek wrote, “which is not given to anyone in its totality.” No one can ever have all the information necessary, much less all of it smartly combined and analyzed, to make the right decisions. In his words, “the knowledge of the circumstances of which we must make use never exists in concentrated or integrated form but solely as the dispersed bits of incomplete and frequently contradictory knowledge which all the separate individuals possess.” In other words, the countless minds thinking about, engaged in, and influenced by a policy matter will always know more in combination than any single body.

I am not an economist and in no way qualified to analyze Hayek’s views on the price system or business cycles. But I do know a little bit about policymaking. My views have been formed by work for six different government bodies over nearly 20 years—from a state legislature and Congress to the White House and Department of Education. What I glean from Hayek’s article is a five-part test that should be used by government officials prior to acting:

In my experience, government bodies often decide to act and then use whatever information is available to decide how to act. For instance, during the education-accountability era, led by states in the 1980s and ’90s then tightly embraced by Washington with the No Child Left Behind Act (2001), governments decided they wanted to hold schools accountable for results. They used reading and math test scores largely because that was the information that was available.

The “Hayek Test” suggests that government officials should first figure out what the right information consists of and then decide whether they are actually able to acquire enough of it. Only then should they decide on any action. In the case of education accountability, the federal government might’ve first asked, “What are all the things that we care about when it comes to school performance?” Then it would’ve asked, “Are we actually able to collect, analyze, and make use of all of that data for all of our schools?”

Hayek helps us recognize something that should be obvious: That it’s much easier for small, local agencies to answer “yes” to such questions than large, faraway bodies. An entity that oversees three nearby schools is better able to respond to changing conditions than a central body overseeing 3,000 schools spread far and wide.

Usable information takes different forms based on the size of the government body. A small-town mayor can take a daily briefing from his director of transportation to understand exactly what’s happening with traffic or road construction and know what citizens are experiencing. But if the Secretary of Transportation in Washington wants information on the status of each city’s roads, she’d need a statistical analysis of available standardized data reflecting averages and themes and largely devoid of personal experience.

Understanding how these types of problems result from centralized economic planning, Hayek argued for free markets and the price system. There are analogous strategies for other policy domains. Federalism and localism push decisionmaking down—local police make most day-to-day law-enforcement decisions, not the Attorney General. Similarly, tradition allows us to use knowledge accumulated over generations instead of constantly gathering information from scratch. G.K. Chesterton astutely noted that tradition offers a vote to our predecessors—he called it “the democracy of the dead.”

And in this regard, Hayek’s article remains particularly salient for our policymakers. He argued that scientific knowledge—in this case, knowledge of general rules of human behavior—isn’t everything. There is instead a “very important but unorganized knowledge” discovered and possessed in “particular circumstances of time and place.” This kind of specific knowledge seldom lends itself to statistical form.

I was a young congressional aide when No Child Left Behind was under consideration and tried to convince my boss, a representative from Maryland, to vote in favor. I was convinced the test data generated by this legislation would revolutionize education. We’d have information from all 100,000 public schools on reading and math proficiency. We’d be able to quantify the performance of different student subgroups.

But the congressman was suspicious of the law’s narrow focus on reading and math scores. He thought that those were poor indicators of school success. He didn’t think this data would necessarily enable experts to improve schools and thought emphasizing standardized tests would obscure the invaluable knowledge that local practitioners possessed. He believed good educators continuously adapt to changing community conditions, student needs, and so on, and he believed a cumbersome federal framework would hinder such work. Obviously my boss didn’t refer to what I’m calling the Hayek Test, but in hindsight, I see he was reasoning along those lines.

I haven’t mentioned that he was a former high school teacher and well understood how much more knowledge local leaders have compared to those far away. And I was overestimating the ability of a central authority to choose the right measures, to collect the data, and to make use of them. He voted against the legislation. It became law, nonetheless, and his concerns were largely borne out.

If a government agency becomes convinced that conditions have deteriorated far enough, it will put aside the knowledge problem and act. The pre-No Child Left Behind era was considered troubling enough that it begot the No Child Left Behind Act. This was not entirely irrational, but we failed to recognize the knowledge problem and our good intentions went awry. This is not to say that all efforts to centralize decisionmaking are indefensible, but rather that policymakers too easily convince themselves that centralization, which means the acquisition of more power, is the right answer.

* * *

Hayek’s 1944 book, The Road to Serfdom, is well known for its argument that grand state planning leads to an increasingly authoritarian state. One of its themes is the coercive power of the state. As society believes more and more that authorities have the knowledge to act ably, more decisions are made centrally, the state increases in power, and the process begins again. As a result, those wanting to influence society increasingly see the attraction of working for the state. As Hayek wrote, as “the state will alone decide who is to have what, the only power worth having will be a share in the exercise of this directing power.”

The attraction is especially strong for those with technical expertise in some area of governing. As Hayek noted, “There is little question that almost every one of the technical ideals of our experts could be realized within a comparatively short time if to achieve them were made the sole aim of humanity.” The potential of centralized government to bring about very specific ends creates “enthusiasts for planning.”

Hayek recognized that there are two types of governing beliefs among state leaders. There are those who believe in “central direction and organization of all our activities according to some consciously constructed blueprint.” The better approach, he thought, was the other, “that the holder of coercive power should confine himself in general to creating conditions under which the knowledge and initiative of individuals are given the best scope so that they can plan most successfully.”

Now here is something to which every policymaker should aspire, using government authority to encourage non-government authority. The challenge, of course, is the policymaker’s accepting the diminution of his own authority. If you are going to empower others, you must accept that those empowered will do things that you don’t agree with and don’t like. You must put the principle of devolving power above your personal policy preferences. In my experience, though, most people who seek positions of authority do so because they want things to go their way, not someone else’s.

A decade ago, I was working at the White House, and the Bush administration was contemplating new regulations under the No Child Left Behind Act. One issue was whether to categorize a particular set of schools as low-performing, which would make them subject to intervention.

I was a strong supporter of this kind of tough accountability and wanted to aggressively identify and address failing schools. I was very firm in my views, and the trappings of White House employment do very little to encourage self-doubt. Back then everyone liked you when you worked at the White House. Everyone returned your calls. It was easy to feel smart and accomplished.

Sitting with my boss in his office in the West Wing, we considered using our authority to force the outcome that we liked. But in truth, it would’ve been a one-size-fits-all ruling from Washington. Did we know enough about the history of the schools that would be affected? No. Did we know how families and educators would react? No. Could we have made swift adjustments as facts on the ground changed? No.

In the end, we didn’t do it. This was a turning point in my policymaking career. I was realizing that the conservative principle of decentralization, when combined with the dose of humility and judiciousness essential in public service, demanded a course of action foreign to reformers on both sides of the aisle: relinquishing power. Standing up as a conservative policymaker required standing down, and the best use of authority is enabling and invigorating others.

But in moments of actual governing, it is terribly tempting to reach a very different conclusion, and the pressure is there for conservatives not to go soft and give in to the status quo—to use the authority it was so hard to acquire. If you believe that you have identified the right answer and know you possess the power to make it happen, your instinct will be to act. You might consider it governmental malpractice not to act.

I saw this early this decade when I was involved in crafting legislation to overhaul teacher evaluation in New Jersey. Here, too, I thought that some districts were not subjecting educators to rigorous enough evaluation, meaning that there were students assigned to the classrooms of ineffective teachers. The bill gave the state government substantial authority—at the expense of principals and district administrators—and there were detailed rules on what percentage of the teacher’s evaluation had to be based on student success and the consequences for educators deemed ineffective.

After the bill was passed, in the state’s department of education we had internal debates about implementation. The biggest battle was over how swiftly and comprehensively to bring the law to life. Some thought that anything other than rapid statewide implementation was an invitation for local delay and mischief. But did we really know enough about each of New Jersey’s 600 school districts, which assessments they used, what complicating provisions might be in their various union contracts? Didn’t we need a pilot implementation plan? Everyone agreed that piloting—working with and learning from a few districts first—would broadcast uncertainty. It would encourage local differentiation and slow the pace of change. Interestingly—importantly—some of us thought these were assets, not problems. Others thought them a worst-case scenario.

The pro-pilot side won, and some of the expectations of both sides were realized. The pilot program did lead to differences in local implementation and course-corrections in overall policy. But it also revealed significant variation in the school districts and enabled the reforms to be better tailored to actual needs. It helped instill in practitioners a sense of ownership of the work—that it was being done with them, not to them. The very uncertainty we broadcast enabled local success.

A few years later, I wrote an article advocating the training of what I called “school choice technocrats.” These would be people who worked inside government to advance school choice. The term—“school choice technocrats”—was purposely paradoxical. School choice is the antithesis of state planning; it means not having the government run all schools and not having it decide where kids go to school. It means empowering families. But technocracy means governing by elite experts who use their knowledge and power to plan for others. The school choice technocrat, I hoped, would be an example of Hayek’s vision of a government official who doesn’t aim to control more and more but instead to foster citizens’ knowledge and initiative.

When some area of public life isn’t working, we needn’t look for a central authority to solve things. Public officials can find creative policy tools that broadly distribute authority so individuals and communities can use their knowledge and preferences to plan for themselves. In The Road to Serfdom, Hayek offered a helpful binary—“planning for competition” instead of “planning against competition.” This is governing with energy and purpose, but also with humility.

* * *

If The Road to Serfdom is a catalogue of the consequences of experts consciously dominating individuals, Hayek’s follow-up, The Counter-Revolution of Science (1952), describes the dangers of overlooking or disregarding individuals. He was warning us against studying “wholes,” namely big systems, to the exclusion of understanding their component parts. As Hayek noted, there is a major difference between observing individuals’ actions as if through a telescope and understanding what things mean to individuals on the ground. The “expert” central administrator may have well-developed theories, massive data sets, and fascinating regressions, but these are often just the illusion of knowledge.

When politicians and policymakers lose sight of individuals, and their countless motives and their interactions with one another, we fail to grasp how complex and intertwined lives are. We can miss that people create—without any direction at all—systems, associations, and traditions that serve them well. It is easy to think that all of our social structures were the product of advanced planning and conscious design, when in fact they are organic and adaptive. The technocrat may dream of systems that are more rational, more intelligible, and more efficient, but those who understand the evolutionary nature of existing systems should also marvel at their natural wisdom, complexity, and robustness.

I’ve found the differences between these worldviews profound. Looking to the daily lives of individuals, I can’t help but be humbled. I recognize how little I know about their activities, what they value and why, their goals and worries. I’ve found that it’s all but impossible not to be struck by what Hayek called the “spontaneous” order that results from individuals leading their vastly different lives together.

It is like the passive voice in English, when a writer emphasizes what has been done and de-emphasizes who has done it. It’s not that a single brilliant mind created a social practice; it’s that a practice was created through an unplanned process. Consider the difference between a national agency designed by law to solve poverty and the thousands of locally developed food pantries, shelters, health clinics, treatment programs, and so on. Hayek cleverly got at this point by differentiating the terms “institution” and “formation.” The former implies an actor—someone instituted. The latter highlights the upshot—something was formed.

Hayek suggests a light hand when it comes to governing. If we know only the smallest fraction about individuals and their associations, and if their unplanned interactions are generating such social benefits, we should show great care before meddling. I view this as the policy equivalent of the old saying, “Don’t speak unless you can improve the silence.” It is akin to the insightful formulation known as Chesterton’s Fence: Never take down a fence until you are absolutely certain that you know why it was put up.

As Hayek noted, if we believe that all valuable institutions are the work of human planning, it’s a short step to the view that we have complete power to refashion them. If we built the machine, then there’s no harm in adjusting the knobs. Tinkering is just good engineering.

I was once on my way to becoming this kind of engineer. I’d gone to graduate school for policy. I was taught how monetary and fiscal policy can change the economy. I collected data and ran those fascinating regressions. I worked for a state legislature and Congress, where I learned to think in terms of laws and regulations. I was developing what Hayek called the “telescopic” view—comprehensive and from far away. But all the while, even as I was being pulled along by the hubristic impulses of the aspiring policy leader and the technocratic instructions from policy school, I was being followed around by countervailing lessons from the most formative, most humbling experience of my career: In 2006, I ran for the Maryland House of Delegates.

In campaigning, I knocked on over 10,000 doors. My district had farms, trailer parks, and public housing. It had middle-income townhouses and apartments, affluent suburban neighborhoods where houses had huge yards, densely populated row houses on tight city streets. I met government workers who played in cover bands in their spare time; entrepreneurs working at home in pajamas; people taking care of sick family members. I met folks who loved their local schools and the local library; three times I was asked if I wanted to join the Knights of Columbus.

I noticed that a surprisingly high number of people who had a “beware of dog” sign had no dog. I noticed older women disproportionately looked at my left hand to see if I had a wedding band. I learned to know what to expect when I approached a house with an American flag and a Semper Fi sticker on a car’s bumper. I was asked my views on abortion, the death penalty, and guns. But just as often I was asked about dredging, state policy on midwives, and that new speed bump the county put on the road just outside the neighborhood.

My experiences meeting so many different people, seeing so many different situations, were absolutely invaluable. They taught me the dangers of zooming out, of abstraction. I learned how people used rules of thumb, traditions, family, and voluntary associations to thrive. It was through retail politics, not graduate school, that I learned the difference between an “institution” and a “formation.”

To this day, when I hear aspiring policymakers leaning heavily on empirical analyses, trusting in their own intellectual and moral powers to solve every problem, and believing that human institutions need to be designed, my response is simple: “Go knock on 10,000 doors.”

* * *

I entered public service thinking of myself as a “conservative reformer.” What has remained constant over time is my belief in markets, in an enduring moral order, and in limits on government power. But what has shifted for me is where I put the emphasis in the term. I used to prioritize big, swift policy changes, whether with regard to schools, welfare, Social Security, or other domestic issues. I emphasized being a reformer.

But I’ve come to appreciate the risks of trusting that faraway government bodies know what reforms ought to be pushed, and how quickly. I increasingly emphasize the conservative part of “conservative reformer”—understanding the indispensability of humility, prudence, gradual change, existing institutions, and the empowerment of others. I have remained constant in my basic understanding of good government, but I’ve become more conscious of the mindset used to bring them to life.

Hayek understood all this long before I did. He deduced and explained the seductions of state authority, the dangers of technocratic exuberance, and the genius of evolved social formations—things I had to stumble upon while attending bureaucratic meetings and canvassing for votes in remote neighborhoods. He knew we can more readily trust individuals, communities, and the associations they form than anything created in Washington. He saw we could lean on philanthropy, nonprofits, and local governments instead of immediately turning our eyes to Washington. He hoped we would choose leaders who appreciate the limits of their own knowledge, the expanse of others’ wisdom, and the value of pluralism—leaders who possess a deep-seated desire to elevate and activate their neighbors, who will act on their principles in the best interests of country rather than simply acquiring more and more authority.And such figures can contribute to legislation that answers pressing problems, as welfare reform did in 1996 and the Every Student Succeeds Act in 2015. Both explicitly pushed authority down and out.

For me, the domestic-policy reform that has best exemplified this approach in recent years is “chartering,” the process that enabled charter schools to come about. The traditional policy approach to public education has been to have a single government body—the school district—own and operate all schools in an area. In some cities, this meant that one set of central-office experts made decisions related to hiring, contracts, purchasing, and much more for hundreds of schools. And in instances where that urban district was failing, the typical response was to centralize and give more power to the state or federal government.

Chartering went in the other direction. It empowered a vast array of community-based organizations to create different types of public schools. It empowered families to choose from among them. It was a policy that devolved authority. It appreciated the valuable differences among us. It allowed individuals and communities to plan for themselves. It helped create in America’s cities high-performing, nimble, dynamic, responsive systems of schools.

Government can be modest if politicians and policymakers appreciate the limits of central agencies, the complexities of individuals’ lives, and the spontaneous order around us. If public officials have as their North Star the empowerment of others, then government leadership can be meaningful, exhilarating, and inspiring. It can be deeply humble.

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