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George Kennan and Hayek’s Knowledge Problem

In 1950, George Kennan delivered a series of lectures on American diplomacy since the turn of the twentieth century. These lectures would later appear in book form, appropriately titled American Diplomacy.

In the opening of his lecture on American policy in the Far East, he paused to specifically disclaim any specialized knowledge about that region, despite his having been a diplomat before, during and after World War II. He went on, 

“If it should seem in an academic setting unscholarly, or perhaps not even useful, to examine this subject against such a backdrop (of less than comprehensive knowledge), I can only say that this is what the policy makers in Washington, for the most part, have to do. The heart of their problems lies – and will always lie – in the shaping and conduct of policy for areas about which they cannot be expert and learned.”

With this statement Kennan had stumbled, perhaps accidentally, upon a specific application of Hayek’s famous “knowledge problem” – the idea that government planning always fails due to a lack of specialized knowledge of the planners. 

Kennan’s observation was essentially that the problems that plague the attempts at economic planning are no less in force when it comes to the attempted diplomatic planning of world affairs. 

As we look back at history and see politicians frustrated in their attempts to bend the world to their wills, we can see why those attempts have failed and why the answer to any problem will never be more government intervention, foreign or domestic. 

Published in Uncategorized