Op Ed: The Knowledge Problem of Privilege

By Neil Pruthi

I’d like to discuss “The Knowledge Problem of Privilege,” an essay by Nathan Goodman. I’ve met Nathan. I quite like him. And I quite like this essay.

Nathan introduces an application of the knowledge problem to social inequality. The knowledge problem is a concept that was introduced by economist Friedrich Hayek in 1945. Hayek proposed that agents in a market each possess unique knowledge of factors that influence the price in that market. Each agent has particular knowledge of her preferences, skills, budget, risk aversion, future plans, and other factors that all affect prices. No one agent can set market prices because the necessary knowledge is dispersed among producers, workers, consumers, and other individuals. This has important ramifications for central planning as well as for large, hierarchical firms.

“The Use of Knowledge in Society,” in which Hayek explains the knowledge problem, was later selected as one of the best twenty papers the American Economic Review (a top-level journal) ever published! It’s a pretty cool paper. I encourage you to read it. Oh, and read Nathan’s essay too!

So how does the knowledge problem apply to social inequality? Well, just as economic agents possess unique knowledge of markets, individuals possess unique knowledge of their social locations. Women, for example, have particular knowledge of misogyny. As Nathan writes, “Many individual women know things about sexual harassment, casual sexism, and a wide range of other gender issues that I will never know, because I am not a woman, and I do not experience them.” Like Nathan, I don’t have that particular knowledge, so it’s important that I don’t presume to understand women’s experiences as well as they do. It’s important that I take on less of a role than women when it comes to women’s issues. And the same goes for the experiences of racial minorities, LGBT individuals, individuals with disabilities, and other oppressed groups. Knowledge of social inequality is dispersed among all individuals in marginalized locations. We should recognize that no one individual or organization has access to that knowledge. As Nathan puts it, we should listen to marginalized groups talk about their experiences. And we should let marginalized groups take on a larger role than ourselves in their struggles.

Really, you probably would’ve been better off just reading his essay rather than reading this.

Uhhh. Well, see you Sunday!

“The Knowledge Problem of Privilege” by Nathan Goodman

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