The impossibility industry

An economist I am not. But this piece by Glenn Reynolds had my head spinning over the vastness of attempting the impossible:

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.

I realize that economic planners might not want to analyze themselves, but I find myself wondering about something.

Is there some economic law which explains why it is that attempting the impossible generates a constant need to expand the ranks of those who attempt the impossible?

It isn't really supply and demand, because while there might always be popular demand for fixing problems, if the problem "fixers" by definition cannot fix what they're supposed to fix, but only create more work for themselves, any "demand" created is largely illusory. But still. The more broken things are, the greater the supply of "fixers." Regardless of actual demand.

But demand can be created, can't it? Those who do not have the knowledge to fix these problems because it is impossible to have such knowledge have to convince people that they do, lest they not be in demand. So it shouldn't surprise anyone that they would promote the idea that they possess superior knowledge. As long as no one figures out that this knowledge is impossible to have, everything will be OK, right?

Doesn't this also depend on convincing people that the impossible is actually possible? So what is the economic principle which explains why attempting the impossible is a growth industry? Is there an impossibility curve; i.e. the more impossible things seem, the greater the number of people attempting the impossible?

But they're simply fueling an illusion, because in logic, a thing is either impossible or it is not. Just as it is not possible for things to become more impossible, nor is it possible for impossible things to become possible.

If Hayek is right, the whole thing is a racket.

posted by Eric on 04.05.10 at 09:39 AM


You know you're there when the supply curve slope equals one.

OregonGuy   ·  April 5, 2010 11:32 AM

Well, the demand is real: people want the problems solved. That the problems can't be solved - or can't be solved reasonably - doesn't change that people demand it. If someone claims to be able to solve it, they can frequently extract a considerable sum (the "Supply") in advance, just as Amazon can get your money before they send they you the product. Of course, when things crash down and they don't deliver...

Well, sometimes they get away with it.

Patrick   ·  April 5, 2010 12:49 PM

"...a thing is either impossible or it is not."

The refusal of the court intellectuals to treat this as a true proposition demonstrates their lack of education--no matter how many degrees they have earned.

Brett   ·  April 5, 2010 1:55 PM

Is there some economic law which explains why it is that attempting the impossible generates a constant need to expand the ranks of those who attempt the impossible?

The Law Of Demagoguery states that for any problem, there are infinitely many gov't solutions that do not solve the problem but poll well.

TallDave   ·  April 5, 2010 7:54 PM

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