Opposite What You’re Told, Rising Ignorance Is Very Bullish

With his eponymous company, Henry Ford aimed to produce cars for the “multitude.” And so he did. It’s almost a waste of words to write about how he did it, but the short story is that Ford spread the production of cars across thousands of hands and machines.

With each human on his assembly lines engaging in evermore specialized tasks, automobile production soared. While Ford’s assembly lines weren’t basic (they were operational marvels), the logic was: when individuals are freed to do what they do best, their productivity skyrockets. Work divided is broadly accepted as a good thing. With the latter, the individuals who comprise what we call an “economy” have the greatest odds of pursuing the kind of work that most tessellates with their unique skill set

Looked at through the prism of going to school, the division of labor is the equivalent of never having to take a math class again if you can’t stand math. On the other hand, if you love math and history class is your personal somnolent, division of work is the school equivalent of never having to take history again. Basically we get to channel our energies and thinking toward what we’re comparatively best at, while leaving things that bore us or that shrink us to others. Cooperation among specialized individuals thankfully allows us to forget a great deal so that we can learn a great deal about things that matter to us.

Where it gets interesting is that within reason, most in the economics or policy space wouldn’t bat an eye at anything meant to extol the virtues of work divided based on specialty. At the same time, it’s a safe bet that most who would eagerly nod their heads to the genius of work divided would look askance at narrow knowledge attained (or not) after years in the classroom.

The same deep thinkers who lustily cheer comparative advantage on the job fear the application of same to school, or lack of school altogether. As discussed in last week’s write-up, news shows entertain their viewers with man-on-the-street interviews whereby the man-on-the-street is asked who is President of the United States, who wrote the Declaration of Independence, who is the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, who is Speaker of the House, or insert here your version of common knowledge.

Relentlessly pursue specialization on the job and you’ll be well regarded, but apply this same approach to book knowledge such that you sleep through classes, and suddenly you’re an idiot featured on Jesse Watters Primetime.

Needless to say, rising ignorance about the U.S. as it is today, and how it was, is said to be a terrifying signal of schools not teaching. Similarly discussed in last week’s write-up, American Enterprise Institute scholar Frederick Hess believes a rising lack of school-acquired knowledge and lack of rigor at elite universities is so worrisome that he’s described it as a “national security” risk. Maybe Hess could be convinced otherwise. That is so because rising ignorance is an undeniably bullish signal.

That’s true firstly because wealth is information. And in a world defined by relentless production of new knowledge, it’s only logical that humans are going to forget progressively more of what most of us used to know. Progress is born not of what we learn, but of what we can unlearn. Thinking about Ford, that most Americans don’t yearn to work in factories in 2024 in the way that they yearned to do so in 1924 is a huge sign of knowledge shed amid soaring progress.

From there, the proliferation of knowledge is the surest sign that ignorance about all manner of things will more and more be the American norm. Just as narrow pursuits elevate us on the job, so will they in life. Seriously, what is AI but a hugely bullish sign that staggering amounts of formerly essential knowledge will no longer be. Call it progress.

So while we’ve probably always overrated the value of knowing how to solve the quadratic equation, or knowing who wrote the Declaration of Independence (I only know the latter), get ready for ignorance of so much that we all used to know by heart as technological advance frees us to specialize more and more. By today’s book knowledge standards, the people of tomorrow will surely be “dumb,” which means they’ll be incredibly prosperous and happy.

Republished from RealClear Markets

Author

  • John Tamny

    John Tamny is a popular speaker and author in the U.S. and around the world. His speech topics include "Government Barriers to Economic Growth," "Why Washington and Wall Street are Better Off Living Apart," and more.

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