Seven percent of American adults believe that chocolate milk comes from brown cows, according to a survey conducted earlier this year by the Innovation Center for US Dairy. That may sound horrifying, but ignorance about how food is produced is nothing new. On April Fool’s Day, 1957, the BBC broadcasted “a three-minute segment about a bumper spaghetti harvest in southern Switzerland,” as Hoaxes.org states. The “documentary” explained that the bumper crop was due to “an unusually mild winter and to the virtual disappearance of the spaghetti weevil.” The television audience “watched video footage of a Swiss family pulling pasta off spaghetti trees and placing it into baskets. The segment concluded with the assurance that, ‘For those who love this dish, there’s nothing like real, home-grown spaghetti.’”
The BBC didn’t immediately explain the hoax, and “hundreds of people phoned the BBC wanting to know how they could grow their own spaghetti tree. To this query, the BBC diplomatically replied, ‘Place a sprig of spaghetti in a tin of tomato sauce and hope for the best.’”
Should we be alarmed at our ignorance?
Few Americans live on farms anymore; many who live in urban areas have never gardened. Many of us use appliances and gadgets having no idea how they are constructed and work. Without the skills, knowledge, and efforts of others, most of us would quickly perish. Not one of us would enjoy our current standard of living. But one of the advantages of living in a modern society is that we don’t need to know how to construct the things we take for granted on a daily basis; we don’t even need to understand how they work.
In 2008, British artist Thomas Thwaites set out to make a toaster from scratch. After nine months of mining, smelting, and assembling raw materials, he succeeded in making a rudimentary but extremely expensive toaster. When he used it for the first time, the toaster melted.
To Thwaites this illustrated his helplessness as a consumer so divorced from self-sufficiency. It also illustrates the magic of specialization and exchange: thousands of people, none of them motivated by the desire to do Thwaites a favor, have come together to make it possible for him to acquire a toaster for a trivial sum of money.
In his book The Constitution of Liberty, Nobel laureate Friedrich Hayek pours a bucket of ice water on those who claim they are not ignorant:
Compared with the totality of knowledge which is continually utilized in the evolution of a dynamic civilization, the difference between the knowledge that the wisest and that which the most ignorant individual can deliberately employ is comparatively insignificant.
Philosopher Karl Popper saw our universal ignorance as “sobering and boundless.” Writing in his essay “The Logic of the Social Sciences,” he points out that our ignorance can never be solved since each solved problem reveals “new and unsolved problems.” Thus, we “discover that where we believed that we were standing on firm and safe ground, all things are, in truth, insecure and in a state of flux.”
Where does boundless ignorance lead us?
Our state of boundless ignorance leads directly to “the case for individual freedom,” Hayek argues in The Constitution of Liberty. Achieving “our ends” depends upon us recognizing that we are ignorant of much of what we need to flourish. Hayek writes,
It is because every individual knows so little and, in particular, because we rarely know which of us knows best that we trust the independent and competitive efforts of many to induce the emergence of what we shall want when we see it.
We live comfortably in a state of ignorance because, in a modern economy, others are free to cooperate and provide for our needs without necessarily even knowing of our existence. Hayek in Law, Legislation and Liberty, Volume 2, puts it this way:
The possibility of men living together in peace and to their mutual advantage, without having to agree on common concrete aims and bound only by abstract rules of conduct, was perhaps the greatest discovery mankind ever made.
Hayek’s “greatest discovery” is one of which many are ignorant. Some rail against the independent and competitive efforts of many that produce the modern world. Others take freedom for granted.
When does our ignorance matter?
Does our ignorance mean that we need to be directed by the self-proclaimed wisest among us?
“Humiliating to human pride as it may be,” Hayek explains in The Constitution of Liberty, “…freedom means the renunciation of direct control of individual efforts.” When we renounce controls, “a free society can make use of so much more knowledge than the mind of the wisest ruler could comprehend.”
Are we becoming more prideful and arrogant? There is evidence that a declining percentage of Americans believes that uncoerced cooperation best satisfies our needs. “According to an April 2016 Harvard University poll, support for capitalism is at a historic low,” states an article at ForeignPolicy.com. “The Harvard poll echoes a 2011 Pew Research Center survey, in which 46 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds had a positive view of capitalism, and 47 percent a negative one.”
Being ignorant that spaghetti is produced by processing wheat is not inherently a problem. On the other hand, ignorance of the market order can become a problem. The cornucopia of food that predictably appears on supermarket shelves today is the product of a market process in which farmers, manufacturers, trucking companies and supermarkets spontaneously cooperate on our behalf.
If Americans are ignorant of these invisible market processes, they may support socialism and policies that interfere with the freedom of others to cooperate and create. Just look at how the thriving Venezuela of yesterday became the impoverished, chaotic, socialist Venezuela of today.
Not knowing how spaghetti or chocolate milk get made won’t cause starvation, but socialism might.