Decades from now, there will still be a market for Jonathan Rauch’s new The Constitution of Knowledge. Rauch, a senior fellow at Brookings, offers an insightful way of understanding how reliable information is developed. This is a timeless topic, and his analysis and argument are novel, so it will be valuable to those interested in social and political matters regardless of when it’s read. But it is also a period piece; future students will learn a great deal about this era from the fact that one of the sharpest analysts of his generation felt compelled to write a book about reliable information.
Epistemology — the study of knowledge, including its methods, potential, and limits — is a well-trod but winding, brambly path. Rauch begins by providing a user-friendly map of centuries of often complicated thought on passion, reason, wisdom, and power. You will get your fill of Bacon, Hume, Locke, Montaigne, Popper, and Rousseau. But Rauch’s innovation is in demonstrating how Adam Smith’s approach to economics and James Madison’s approach to governing are similar to an ideal approach to knowledge.
Smith and Madison understood the appeal of centralizing power in order to generate desired outcomes. But they also understood the risks of consolidated authority. So they found ways to distribute power, respect liberty, and foster competition such that well-functioning markets and smartly designed systems of government would direct our instincts and energies toward the common good. Importantly, capitalism and constitutional-liberal democracies not only provide official rules; they also foster the development of beliefs, customs, and institutions. In total, then, free people in these systems — morally and professionally shaped by an array of entities and constrained by law — naturally go about the business of maintaining a vibrant economy and healthy state.
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