The title is a nod to Hayek's famous essay "The use of knowledge in society".
I think that essay is the best thing Hayek ever wrote. But I don't really know that, because I haven't read everything Hayek ever wrote. Possibly nobody has read everything Hayek ever wrote (except Hayek, but he's dead). But there will be people reading this who have read more Hayek than me. Or just different things that Hayek wrote than me. And if you put together all the different things Hayek wrote that different people reading this have read, it will be more Hayek than I have read, and probably more than than any single one of those individuals has read. So if I've missed some even better writing by Hayek, I will be sure to hear about it in the comments. Or perhaps another blogger will post and say "Nick, you're wrong, you've missed...".
Which illustrates my point here, and Hayek's point in that essay. Individually, each of us knows little. But we know different things. The problem in society is to bring individuals' disparate knowledge together. Hayek's point is that a price system is a good way to bring disparate knowledge together. My point is that blogging is a good way to bring disparate knowledge together.
A simple theory of the failure of economics in the recent financial crisis is that macroeconomists didn't understand finance, and finance people didn't understand macro. (I have forgotten who came up with that theory, but someone reading this may remember, and will comment, which again illustrates my point). It's hard enough to know a lot about a lot, but the way in which academic conversations typically take place, through journal articles, books, and seminars, exacerbates this specialisation. Was it Deirdre McClosky who said that economics is a conversation (illustrating my point yet again, because someone will probably remember)? It is a conversation, but it's usually a conversation in which small groups of like-minded people huddle together to talk about the same narrow set of things. And there are often very long lags, like years, between someone saying something in one journal article and someone else replying in another. Those who are not ordained members of the academic cathedral aren't specifically excluded from the conversation, but are rarely invited, and it is usually hard for them to take part, so they rarely do. And usually only specialists understand the conversation anyway, in part because each huddle of specialists has their own gang code.
Blogging is a different form of conversation, and in some ways it is a better form of conversation. It's much easier to listen in and join in. Your physical location is almost irrelevant (time zones apart). Where you are employed doesn't matter (as long as you have time to join in). The time lags between getting an idea, writing it, publishing it, comments appearing, other bloggers posting in response, your replying to those comments and responses, are very short. It's like a 24-hour seminar held everywhere at once with a record of what everyone said, so you can even arrive late at the seminar and not miss anything.
And bloggers try to get as wide an audience as possible, so try to make their writing accessible to as wide an audience as possible, which means including non-specialists. (I don't really know why the difference in technology leads bloggers to try to reach a wider audience than authors of academic journals, but it seems to happen anyway, for whatever reason).
Comments are an integral part of blogging. Many of these potential benefits require comments if we want to turn them into actual benefits. When I post on some subject, there is almost always someone who knows more about some part of that subject than I do. Or maybe someone who knows more about most parts. And they can comment, and add their knowledge to the mix. And these are people in different specialisations, different countries, not in economics, who I have never met or have never heard of. People I would never get to meet if I gave a seminar. And they all get to meet me too, and each other. And commenters can argue among themselves, not just with me. And anyone can read them, as well as me. Knowing they are out there frees me to write about things where I know I don't know everything, or even much. And sometimes, it frees me just to try to ask a good question.
I'm not saying economists should abandon all other forms of conversation, and just blog. I don't need to argue that blogging is always better, just that it is sometimes better. There's a role for blogging, as well as other forms of economic conversation. Maybe even some of us, with a comparative advantage in blogging (we are really good at blogging, or really useless at anything else, take your pick) should specialise in doing it.
I have learned more from reading blogs, and from writing blogs, than I would have done otherwise. I have learned far more widely than I would have learned otherwise. Blogs are a great way to bring together the disparate knowledge of widely dispersed people. Before blogs I was in danger of becoming a burned-out ex university administrator. Now I haven't felt as intellectually alive since grad school.
(And the biggest danger to blogging is lack of civility, because it can cause the conversation to break up again into huddles of like-minded people.)
I was going to write something along these lines before I read Kartik Athreya on the subject. (And I would never have read him if it weren't for bloggers like Scott Sumner or David Beckworth responding to him.)