How Ignorance dooms Autocracy

Tier Type of knowledge Recommended actions System Compatible with autocracy?
(1) Certainty (known knowns) Just do it Administration Yes
(2) Probability (known unknowns) Hypothesis testing Academic freedom Temporarily Yes, eventually No
(3) Ignorance (unknown unknowns) Decentralized feedback and accountability Individual liberty No

As the Egypt crisis drags on, the issue of autocracy vs. democracy in development gets new life. One of the classic arguments against autocracy is that it can't cope with uncertainty, not to mention ignorance.

Autocrats defend themselves by claiming they live in a word of certainty, where they can solve problems with known solutions (Tier 1 in the above table) through sheer administrative effort.

If the world is really more in Tier 2, where academic freedom is necessary to test and reject hypotheses, then autocrats sometimes try to carve out the space for it, while restricting other kinds of freedom. This can sometimes succeed for a while, but a House Divided against itself cannot stand forever -- it will eventually revert to no freedoms or all freedoms.

Much of the development problem is really in Tier 3, where you don't even know the probabilities of solutions to problems working. Then you need entrepreneurs for business, inventers for technology, and political reformers for institutions, all using a trial and error method where they are accountable to positive and negative feedback. In other words, you need unhindered democracy and markets to support continuing innovation for development to keep proceeding to the highest levels.

So, for example, the Soviet system (not to mention the MVP) tried to make a system work in Tiers 2 and 3, when it could only possibly work in Tier 1.  For a while it sort of worked, as Tier 2 science facilitated imitation of technology invented in the Tier 3 West.  But eventually Tier 2 scientists became dissidents, Lysenkoism corrupted Tier 2 anyway, and the system eventually collapsed altogether from the lack of innovation that was only possible in Tier 3. Would anyone like to predict a similar long-run fate for {insert NAME of temporarily successful autocracy here}?

As usual, we will give the economist who understood all this the best the last word:

All institutions of freedom are adaptations to this fundamental fact of ignorance…certainty we cannot achieve in human affairs. (FA Hayek)