Friday, November 18, 2011

Karl Smith understands Hayek better than many Hayekians

This is a great statement by Karl Smith. The point really transcends Hayek, of course. After all, Hayek is often not the best source to go to if you want to give primacy to an evolutionary [dare I say yet again - pragmatist] understanding of the world over a logical foundationalist understanding of the world. His Austrian fellow-travelers are often far too caught up in deductionist conceits, and after all it was Hayek that Keynes was referring to with the "remorseless logician" line - and he had some cause for it. Hayek certainly matured into a more evolutionary understanding of our knowledge of the world and he left behind some of the most important applications of those ideas we have. Anyway - these are important insights where ever they come from. I picked up a lot of these ideas from Dewey and Rorty, and most importantly Keynes. But Smith is right to cite Hayek too - it's not a point that should be lost on libertarians (and before people go nuts in the comment section, it should go without saying that I know it's not lost on many libertarians and this is what attracts many libertarians to Hayek in particular - but you're not going to convince me for a second that the sort of thing Smith describes, this cult of reason, isn't out there - even among people who know Hayek and therefore should know better).

Anyway - I've talked long enough. Time to let Karl Smith talk:

"[C]ommon sense lies – as Hayek might have said – between instinct and reason. It has evolved over generations of folks dealing with each other.

And, importantly it does not depend on reason itself. People don’t have to have any understanding of why they believe what they believe for what they believe to be usefully true. That is, operating as if the world was this way informs you about the world.

A reasoned theory of the world should acknowledge this anchor. In some way our reasoning should accommodate common sense. Either as a special case, or as an approximation, or as a local maximum or something.

Otherwise, you have a hard time explaining why common sense has stood the test of time and cultural selection.


  1. Keynes would agree that the Austrian reliance on deductive logic is not good for science, and it can be argued that Keynes was a prototypical logical empiricist.

    Speaking of Hayek and the Hayekians though, I have a question for you, Daniel Kuehn.

    What did you think of the working paper ("Comparing J.M. Keynes’s and F. Von Hayek’s Differing Definitions of Uncertainty as it Relates to Knowledge: Keynes’s Unavailable or Missing Knowledge Concept Versus Hayek’s Dispersal of Knowledge Concept") written by Michael Emmett Brady?

    You shared it with your audience some time ago, but did not give a personal opinion.

  2. I don't know a lot of self-professed Hayekians who ignore or scrimp on Hayek's views on social evolution. That's what makes Hayek well.. Hayek.

    Only in a few parts of his economic reasoning does he ever fall back on deductive reasoning or sound like a logician. See his Pure Logic of Choice.

    But what stands out for Hayek, as every Hayekian I've talked to will corroborate, is his understanding of invisible processes, emerging orders, spontaneous creation, etc.

  3. Mattheus, come on. This is creeping towards shill territory.

    Certainly Hayek has this perspective - certainly the later Hayek. But people who identify themselves as "Hayekians" often identify themselves as "Austrians" in general and can definitely slip into the logical foundationalist stuff from that route.

    People can also claim to be in line with someone's thinking and depart from or neglect certain elements of it. Keynes certainly thought like this two on the evolution of conventions and the growth of knowledge through experience - but I'd be the first to admit that not all "Keynesians" think like this.

    Moreover, we have ample proof of Hayekians REJECTING emergent orders because they're not the emergent orders they like. The social order in the U.S. has largely been an emergent order, but you'll see Hayekians denounce it all the time as being exactly the opposite because it's an emergent order they don't like. Many Hayekians are pro-emergent order up until the minute it's not a libertarian emergent order, and THAT'S when they start talking like planners. THAT'S when my whole point about "libertarian social engineering" comes in. And you see this everywhere, so don't tell me this isn't commonly ignored. It's ignored a lot.

    The difference between me and a lot of libertarians out there is that while I'm something of a neoliberal centrist today, I think I'd probably be a minarchist in the late 1700s. The neoliberal order we have today is for the most part an emergent order, and it's emerged from very well understood social and historical trends. A libertarian who would have been a minarchist in 1700, a minarchist in 1800, a minarchist in 1900, and a minarchist in 2000 may be a lot of things, and may have a lot of insights - but it's not clear at all that that libertarian respects or adheres to emerging orders and spontaneous creation.

    Many, many Hayekians will talk about emergent order when it's convenient to talk about it and will pretend it doesn't exist when it's inconvenient.

  4. "Moreover, we have ample proof of Hayekians REJECTING emergent orders because they're not the emergent orders they like."

    IMHO, theory aside, in practice Hayekians (I prefer the term neoliberals) endorse whatever the oligarchs tell them too. YMMV.

    Harvey’s answer is the latter; utopian libertarianism nearly always gives way to the needs and desires of the business class.

    The Wrecking Crew, Thomas Harvey

    Invisible Backhand

  5. "I prefer the term neoliberals"

    Which tells more about you than the people you call neoliberal.

  6. Gah, I linked to the wrong article! Here's the correct article!

  7. "Many, many Hayekians will talk about emergent order when it's convenient to talk about it and will pretend it doesn't exist when it's inconvenient."

    Becuase Hayek was more than just emergent order? His work on legislation, law, and society includes that principle of spontaneous order, but he doesn't endorse it prima facie.

    Hayek would not look at an emerging Nazi society as great example of "emergent order" - the wonder of human civilization. He would be fully repulsed by it.

    You have to take Hayek in many pieces, one of the strong parts is emergent order, granted. But you can't take that as the SOLE Hayekian insight. Then we'd be bastard Social Darwinians.

    What all have you read by Hayek?

  8. Mattheus, nobody was talking about Nazis and nobody said emergent order was the only Hayekian insight. If all you can do is throw Nazis at me when I point out that Hayekians have a tendency to forget about emergent order in free societies very quickly when it goes against other priorities, then forget about it.

    Did you ever think - perhaps - that the robust democratic constitutionalism that spontaneously emerge, that is often criticized by people like Lysander Spooner and other unthoughtful libertarians - is robust precisely because it guards against less palatable orders that can emerge, such as Nazism?

    Obviously there is more to Hayek than emergent order. No one suggested otherwise. The whole problem I'm critiquing is that ideas about the robustness of spontaneous liberal orders get abandoned by many people precisely when it bumps up against these other priorities. Some people would rather have planned libertarianism than emergent constitutional democracy, and that's precisely the problem.

    I'm happy to admit when I think planning is worthwhile. What's bothersome is this charade that you guys are always against planning and only for the spontaneity of a free society. And what's amazing is that I think you actually believe that.

  9. Daniel's right. Libertarian orders depend on people happily accepting libertarian orders. But if they don't, and so far they haven't....

  10. Hayek wasn't an anarchist because he understood all this, of course.

  11. It's an awkward struggle all economists face, between "If only people understood why the world would be a better place if we did such and such" (look at the disaster that is the American health care system) and "Wow, people are lunatics, anything to mollify them." A libertarian society will lead to so much conflict because that's how people are. The society we have is the result of that conflict being handled RELATIVELY peacefully, thank god.

  12. Daniel,

    I don't buy the argument that constitutional democracy is a naturally occurring, spontaneous creation. In our case, it was created by a handful of wealthy men in the 1800th century in Philadelphia. I think there's lots more evidence to show that government is, in fact, a tumor on the naturally occurring spontaneous society. Government is not emergent or spontaneous. It is a deliberate caste system, planned by the current owners.


    Hayek wasn't an anarchist because he was old. He admitted in an interview with some Rothbard supporters that if he were a few decades younger he would join them.

  13. Daniel,

    "You have to take Hayek in many pieces, one of the strong parts is emergent order, granted. But you can't take that as the SOLE Hayekian insight. Then we'd be bastard Social Darwinians."

    This was my point. The Nazis was just an example. Don't get bent out of shape because the N-word got thrown around.

  14. Mattheus,

    Hayek said to a bunch of eager anarchists hoping for his approval that they could have some of it, which pleased them greatly and got Hayek off the hook. It's hardly evidence that Hayek believed his arguments should compel one to be an anarchist.


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