Humility about our ability to plan or steer the future from the top down should be the chief virtue of tech regulators. We’re fond of quoting Hayek’s great line that “The curious task of economics is to demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design.”
So it’s worth remembering what Hayek said on this day 39 years ago, when he accepted his Nobel Prize in economics, about the danger of that Prize helping to entrench technocratic experts:
I am not sure that it is desirable to strengthen the influence of a few individual economists by such a ceremonial and eye-catching recognition of achievements, perhaps of the distant past.
I am therefore almost inclined to suggest that you require from your laureates an oath of humility, a sort of hippocratic oath, never to exceed in public pronouncements the limits of their competence.
We urged something similar earlier this year in a coalition letter urging the Senate to “look foremost for humility as both a guiding principle and a personal characteristic of the candidates” for the top roles at the FCC and FTC:
Many of those who follow Internet policy assume simply that we need more tech-savvy regulators — in other words, better technocrats. Tech-savvy is important, but not as important as appreciating that even the smartest among us don’t know what the future will look like or how to get there — as if “there” were a single place. Beware those who talk about “steering” technological change, “comprehensive” approaches, or “pulling policy levers.” These technocratic buzzwords reveal a fundamental misconception: that a better future can be engineered from the top down.
Instead, the first rule for policymakers should be: First, do no harm. We need regulators who can resist the frequent urge to “do something” about problems that are rapidly mooted by technological change anyway