Another piece might be the information about which mining engineers are especially skilled at designing an operation for extracting bauxite from the ground. A third piece is information about how best to transport the bauxite to a processing factory. A fourth piece is information on how to make a crucial part for the engine of the truck or the locomotive that will transport the bauxite. A fifth piece is how to design the roads or rails on which that truck or locomotive will be driven.
Clearly, the number of pieces of information that must be found and used for bauxite to become, say, the aluminum sheeting that forms the casing of the printing press that produced the pages that you are now reading is staggeringly large. It is a number far larger than the mere one billion pieces of the jigsaw puzzle in my example.
It’s foolish to expect any one person (or small group of people) to find all the pieces of information necessary for the production of aluminum sheeting (and for the production of fuselages for airliners, the production of oven foil, the production of soda cans ... the list is long).
Not only is the mere finding of all the many pieces of information too difficult to entrust to a small group of people; so, too, is the task of putting these pieces together in a way that yields useful final products.
Let’s now amend the example to make the jigsaw puzzle an even better metaphor for economic reality. Suppose that, unlike with regular jigsaw puzzles, each piece of this puzzle can be made to fit snugly and smoothly with any other piece. In this case, merely assembling all of the one billion puzzle pieces so that they fit together neatly is easy. But note that it is possible to create an unfathomably large number of scenes with these pieces.
Trouble is, only a tiny handful of these scenes will please the human eye. Most of the scenes will be visual gibberish. The challenge is to arrange the pieces together so that the final result is a recognizable scene—say, of a field of sunflowers or of a bustling city street. Only if the scene is recognizable is the assembled puzzle valuable.
Now imagine yourself standing alone before a gigantic table covered with these one billion puzzle pieces. What are the chances that you alone can put these pieces together so that the final result is a coherent visual image—a useful and valuable final result?
The answer is “virtually zero.”
The number of different ways to combine these one billion pieces together is unfathomable—it rivals the number of atoms in the universe. So even if the number of possible valuable scenes is one million, that’s still only a minuscule fraction of the gargantuan number of possible ways that this puzzle can be assembled. The vast majority of images that can be created by arranging and rearranging these one billion pieces will be meaningless and, hence, worthless.
The size and complexity of the puzzle ensures that putting a central planner (or committee of planners) in charge of assembling the puzzle won’t work. There’s simply no way that a planner, gazing at a huge pile of puzzle pieces, can foresee any of the possible meaningful pictures that might emerge once these billion pieces are assembled.
So the planner must discover what meaningful pictures are possible. Yet he can make this discovery only in the process of actually assembling the puzzle. This jigsaw puzzle doesn’t come in a box whose cover depicts the final result.
Of course, the planner can’t assemble all one billion pieces at once. At each point in time, the human limits of the planner’s attention and capacity enable him to take notice of, and to fit together, only a tiny fraction of the billion pieces.
How can the planner know, as he proceeds, if the groups of pieces that he has so far assembled will or will not turn out to be part of a larger, meaningful picture? Are the five million pieces assembled so far, although the image they now depict looks like nonsense (say, a green glob), destined to become part of a meaningful image (say, a forest) once they are combined with another five million or another 500 million pieces? Or is the current assembly of the five million pieces destined to remain meaningless—impossible when fitted with the other pieces to be part of a meaningful, pleasing image?
How is the planner to sensibly choose whether to keep going with his current assembly or to start over? The best he can do is guess. Unable to see the future, the planner has no way to know if the image depicted by the five million pieces that he has assembled so far will prove to be useful or useless when they are combined with the remaining 995,000,000 pieces. Although all-powerful in deciding which pieces go where, the planner is flying blind.
Yet the planner faces a second insurmountable difficulty. Even if he somehow could foresee from the start what the final image will be if the puzzle is assembled correctly, the planner is incapable of arranging and re- arranging such a huge number of pieces in ways that will bring about this final, valuable image. The puzzle pieces are too many, and the ways that they can be combined with each other too great, to enable a planner to perform the assembly successfully.