Academic journal article The Cato Journal

Censoring and Destroying Information in the Information Age

Academic journal article The Cato Journal

Censoring and Destroying Information in the Information Age

Article excerpt

Almost everyone knows the importance of information and communication to economic progress. The more information we have the more productive we can be, both individually and collectively. The easier it is for us to communicate our information to others and to receive their information, the more likely we will make production and consumption choices that serve the interests of all. No wonder people are so impressed with the recent breakthroughs in information and communication technology that have moved us into what has become known as the "information age." Who could possibly condone, much less recommend, policies that destroy and distort valuable information by censoring its communication? Far more than you might think!

Large amounts of information or knowledge, (1) which could be used to improve the lives of billions of people by improving economic decisions, are being systematically suppressed and destroyed by government censorship that is supported enthusiastically by many who claim to be outraged by government censorship of any type. One reason for this enthusiasm is that censorship can be used to concentrate benefits on politically organized groups by imposing far greater, but highly dispersed, costs on the general public. This standard public choice argument of concentrated benefits trumping dispersed costs, as useful as it is at explaining the success of many perverse policies, cannot adequately explain the pervasive censorship we discuss in this article. Much of this censorship harms not only the general public but also many well-organized interest groups. The problem is that few people recognize some of the most harmful forms of government censorship as being censorship. And since they don't recognize it for what it is, many erroneously see censorship as the most effective and least costly way for government to achieve social objectives that almost everyone claims to support, such as protecting the environment, reducing waste, ensuring an adequate food supply, reducing our dependence on foreign oil, improving education, creating better jobs, and expanding the availability of high-quality health care.

The Real Information Age Began Long Ago

People commonly think of the information from scholarly research and scientific discovery as far more important than the seemingly mundane information that each of us has on our particular situations, preferences, skills, and aspirations. But, F. A. Hayek (1945) pointed out that scholarly and scientific information alone are not enough to inform economic decision-makers on the best use of their scarce resources. No economic system can function properly without utilizing what Hayek calls the "knowledge of the particular circumstances of time and place," which is unique to each of us, constantly changing, and impossible for any group of authorities to know in its entirety. Without some means of communicating all this widely dispersed information from those who have it to those best able to use it, and communicate it in a way that motivates those receiving it to respond in the most appropriate ways, the level of prosperity largely taken for granted in market economies would be impossible. Making use of highly specialized physical and human capital, which greatly increases our productivity, would be extremely limited if we could not communicate information to others on the value of their specialized efforts to us and receive in return information on the value of our specialized efforts to them. As Hayek made clear, countless numbers of people can communicate this information simultaneously to countless others in a clear and compelling way, and immediately update it in response to constant changes in the information of time and place, through market prices which emerge from the voluntary exchange of private property.

People can communicate much of the information most important to their well-being far more effectively through market prices than they can through cell phones, land-line phones, faxes, e-mail, text messaging, and other technological marvels associated with the "information economy. …

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