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This blog is primarily for me to blog my responses to books that I'm reading. Sometimes I blog about other stuff too, though.

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Monday, July 10, 2017

Hayek, Chapters 6-8

To be honest, Hayek could trim a lot of his prose.  (OK, I could too, but a blog is basically a rough draft.)  That said, a few observations:
1) In chapter 6, I think Hayek is to some extent right to critique technocrats for treating social organization as a variable to play with for the purposes of optimizing some other measure, e.g. optimize productivity or learning or whatever.  What if people want to use their land for something other than the most profitable function?  What if people want to organize their region into small suburbs instead of subjecting their infrastructure to region-wide governance?

I can think of good reasons to optimize many things and ask people to re-organize in many cases, but are my reasons "good enough"?  That's a value judgment, and different people will reach different conclusions in different cases.  Technocrats treat people and their interactions as means rather than ends unto themselves.

2) In chapter 7, Hayek gets into the social scientist's assumption that outside observation is at least as good as inside knowledge.  I think that when it comes to operational details of a business, Hayek has a very valuable point.  That said, the detached view also has value, and you probably learn the most from a combination of perspectives.

However, I find it rather amusing to see a defense of local knowledge against detached outsider scientists coming from the right flank of the economic/political spectrum, because it comes quite close to "Westerners could never understand a non-Western society" arguments that you get more from the cultural left.  In fairness, honest libertarians have always combined economic views from the right with socially liberal views and respect for self-determination.  Hayek does not lack for self-consistency, but it's still funny to see a social justice argument from him.

I should add that in some ways Hayek and the social justice arguments for marginalized groups are the opposite of post-modernism.  PoMo types tend to (maddeningly) argue "You can see nothing because you are stuck inside the power structures that color your perspective", leaving unanswered "OK, but you're also spouting off while standing inside the power structures, so how do you know anything?"

I think the better PoMos have answers, but not the typical dilettante spouting off to be contrarian.

3) In chapter 8, Hayek talks about the possibility of an institution serving a purpose for which it was not designed.  I find this to be one of the hardest points to make in talks with colleagues.  As long as, say, the latest idiotic "Strategic Planning" or "Assessment" exercise has some ostensibly good justification, I'm supposed to focus on that rather than the fact that it never works but does serve the self-interests of bureaucrats disconnected from the stated mission of the university.  If people could better understand how patterns of action (or inaction) can be self-sustaining while running counter to earnestly-stated (and even honestly-believed) proclamations then maybe we could do a better job of fixing things.

Or maybe it would all devolve into cynical looting when people allowed themselves to discuss how things actually work.

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