Saturday, July 21, 2012

Quotation of the day, outsourced to Don Boudreaux

From Hayek's The Counter-Revolution of Science:

"We flatter ourselves undeservedly if we represent human civilization as entirely the product of conscious reason or as the product of human design, or when we assume that it is necessarily in our power deliberately to re-create or to maintain what we have built without knowing what we are doing.  Though our civilization is the result of a cumulation of individual knowledge, it is not by the explicit or conscious combination of all this knowledge in any individual brain, but by its embodiment in symbols which we use without understanding them, in habits and institutions, tools and concepts, that man in society is constantly able to profit from a body of knowledge neither he nor any other man completely possesses.  Many of the greatest things that man has achieved are the result not of consciously directed thought, and still less the product of a deliberately coordinated effort of many individuals, but of a process in which the individual plays a part which he can never fully understand.  They are greater than any individual precisely because they result from the combination of knowledge more extensive than a single mind can master."

Hayek's work on emergent or spontaneous order is not a new contribution to economics at all. It goes at least back to Adam Smith and I only don't go earlier than that because I'm no expert on pre-Smithian economic thought. So Hayek is not terribly original in this regard, but he is eloquent and he provides fresh insights on an old idea.

And when I read passages like this my feeling is "exactly: that's not just economics but social science in a nutshell".

I've always found it interesting, then, that guys like Don regularly act as if guys like me are flaunting this truth. It's interesting first because I like it so much so it's strange that someone would assume someone like me wouldn't. But it's also interesting because it's along these lines that libertarians frustrate me so much.

Social order evolves without central or top-down direction. So the obvious question for a social scientist, it seems to me, is to ask how that evolution has happened in societies that have not had plans imposed on them.

The answer seems pretty obvious: the natural evolutionary path of unplanned human societies has been industrialization, the emergence of market democracies limited by the constraints of law, egalitarian social safety nets, public provision of public goods, and a steadily increasing recognition of human rights. If you want to ask "what human societies seem to spontaneously emerge?" that list pretty much hits the major bases for the last couple centuries.

The societies that deliberately try to change this evolutionary path constitute the great tragedies of the twentieth century, and the socieites that resisted the emergence of this evolutionary outcome in the first place constitute the backwards forces of reaction in the nineteenth century.

So you would think an appreciation of this point would lead people to question extreme changes in polity and have more faith in the spontaneous evolution of these societies that we observe all around the world.

You would think this point would give us pause when it comes to the more extreme libertarians (I'm not talking about the Greg Mankiw types) and the communists and planners alike. You would think this point would bolster the case for liberally oriented social democrats.

But it never seems to play out that way in the blogosphere.


  1. I agree with your point about social science. However, I have a question for you, Daniel Kuehn.

    What do you make of Dr. Michael Emmett Brady's criticisms of F.A. Hayek's approach to uncertainty and F.A. Hayek's article, "The Use of Knowledge in Society"?

    If you haven't read it, here it is.

  2. Just after I publish a post on how economics seems to involve people rediscovering the same insights over and over, you come up with this! Now I can't put it in.

    *walks away grumbling something about marginalism*


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