The Knowledge Problem of Privilege

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In this essay, Nathan Goodman (Center for a Stateless Society) discusses how the Knowledge Problems facing elites, “experts” or “representat­ives” recur not only in economics, but also in cultural conflicts over gender, disability, and other systems of structural social privilege. The danger of trying to make decisions for others, when cut off from the dispersed, tacit or local knowledge that they have, show how Hayekian limits on what we can know also apply to the the struggles and the challenges of other oppressed and marginalized people.

“IN HIS CLASSIC ESSAY, “THE USE OF KNOWLEDGE IN SOCIETY,” F. A. Hayek explains the concept of dis tributed knowledge. Every individual has unique knowledge shaped by their experiences and preferences, knowledge that may not be accessible to others, no matter how well educated they may be. But Hayek’s point about distributed knowledge applies to more than just economic issues. It also applies to social issues. . . .

“JUST AS WITH ECONOMICS, THESE SOCIAL PROBLEMS of epistemological hubris become bigger when government gets involved. By definition, politicians do not have the knowledge of everyone their policies will impact. But often, when marginalized groups are impacted, politicians become extra prone to ignore those from an affected population. . . .

“ULTIMATELY CALLS FOR PEOPLE TO CHECK THEIR PRIVILEGE are not an attempt to silence. Rather, they
are an attempt to get people to recognize the limits of their knowledge. Libertarians should have the humility to check our privilege, to listen to oppressed people who discuss their experiences, and to respect oppressed peoples’ rights to direct their own struggles for liberation. . . .”

Nathan Goodman is a writer and activist living in Salt Lake City, Utah. He has been involved in LGBT, feminist, anti-war, and prisoner solidarity organizing. He writes frequent commentaries for the Center for a Stateless Society ( and keeps a blog, Dissenting Leftist (

Introduced August 2013.

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