Current Reading

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

I'm currently reading Notes on the Death of Culture: Essays on Spectacle and Society by Mario Vargas Llosa.

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Sunday, July 2, 2017

Next reading: Hayek's _The Counter-Revolution of Science_

I couldn't bring myself to read Dewey.  He's just too boring.  Now I understand progressive educators a bit better:  Reading Dewey would be enough to make anyone hate reading.  I'll try again, after I've had a bit more summer vacation to recover, but for now I need a break.

Instead I'm reading The Counter-Revolution of Science by F. A. Hayek.  I picked it up on a whim, while browsing the science section of a used bookstore.  Honestly, two chapters in, I think I'm going to be pretty critical of this book, but since it's a book that says a lot of things I'm inclined to agree with I suppose that my negative commentary on it will be a useful corrective.

This book is quite critical of social science as science, arguing that it's a mistake to approach social questions with the methods of natural science.  On the surface, I may be primed to agree, for a number of reasons.  First, as I've noted many times, the technocrats of the modern managerial classes like to derive their "ought" statements from news reports in the "According to a recent study..." genre.  They want the world to be simple. They want neat theories that avoid the complexities of human nature, and they want policies that people will comply with rather than either game it or push back.   Well, people aren't like that, but I work in a system where many try to pretend that people are or ought to be like that. So I ought to like a Hayekian critique.  Also, Hayek was very much a libertarian, and I lean libertarian in my non-academic politics, and to a certain extent that bleeds over into my academic politics. (Though only to an extent; in the end I still like the authority of the sage on the stage, and a true libertarian has to distrust authority.  In my defense, I like the authority of the sage who analyzes complex questions from many angles, not the authority of the well-funded technocrat who holds forth on Best Practices.)

In order to understand my ambivalence about Hayek's writings here, we first have to understand a bit about where Hayek was coming from.  Hayek wrote much on economics and politics, and won a Nobel Prize for his economics work.  However, while he did economics work that earned praise from the wider profession (I'm not qualified to judge it myself, I can only surmise that it must have been respected if he won a Nobel), he also produced a lot of political and ideological commentary that was much more controversial.  He argued quite forcefully that the modern Western administrative state will lead to tyranny as surely as the 20th century Marxist states did.  Indeed, among non-academic audiences The Road To Serfdom is arguably his most popular work, and in there he argues that the complexity of managing an economy will inevitably require a more and more comprehensive administrative state that ultimately takes away human freedom.

As much as I disdain managerial liberals, it is an empirical fact that Western Europe didn't turn into Eastern Europe.  That's just a fact.  There are numerous reasons for that, reasons that I won't pick apart in gory detail here, but surely we must include among those reasons the fact that managerial liberals tend to balance their well-meaning obsessions with a bit of selfish laziness.  They might want to make the world into a particular image, but they also want to see good things happen while carving out a comfy and self-flattering niche for themselves.  One easy way to do that is to let market-driven processes do their part in society (and thereby do some good), while also administering some programs that can be made to look like they are doing some good.  It's a win-win for everyone.  Western managerial liberals don't need the total domination that Russian rulers (and their viceroys) need.  Culture matters, and Western managerial liberals have ways of making themselves feel like they are doing good without the total domination that Eastern Europeans require.  So we simply haven't seen Western societies with mixed economies turn into Eastern European tyrannies.  I certainly won't defend everything that Western social engineers have done, but Hayek's prophecies failed badly.

Also, managerial liberals are ill-suited for true tyranny, because true tyranny requires that somebody be able to say "You!  Against the wall!  Now!"  Western liberals would  never do that.  They'd say "You!  Report to this place with the following forms filled out!  Within 60 to 90 days or as summoned!"  There have been plenty of abuses by Western authorities, plenty of individual-scale human rights violations that are as appalling as anything out of the East, but it isn't the managerial liberals who want to scale it up.  When they see those things they feel terrible and say "This calls for an immediate investigation and evaluation process, followed by a top-to-bottom review and retrospective analysis for the formulation of reform guidelines!"  That bureaucratic process might not do anybody any good, but it also won't entrench the abuses that they're responding to.  Mostly it will entrench ineffectual responses to abuses, while sending a message that abuses need to be kept on a level of "plausible deniability."

There's a ton that's wrong with it, but it doesn't give you Eastern Europe.  It gives you a modern US city, where the police can get away with a lot but they also can't scale it up.  What scales it up is political cover for the police, and that (mostly) comes from a different segment of the political spectrum than managerial liberalism.

Mind you, the tools created by managerial liberals can and will be abused by illiberal authorities of other mindsets, but the point is that the modern mixed economy isn't enough to give you the sort of illiberal regime that Hayek feared.  You need other elements.  Venezuela is as close as we've seen to a left-liberal state sliding into tyranny gradually rather than overnight, and Venezuela had elements beyond left-liberal administrative types overseeing a mixed economy.  It had an openly Marxist and populist demagogue.

But I'm getting far afield from The Counter-Revolution of Science.  I think I'll just stop this post here, with my critique of Hayek's most famous prophecy, and take up the current reading in the next post.


philip ebersole said...

Hayek's The Road to Serfdom was not only a critique of the administrative state, but also a critique of interest-group liberalism.

His argument was that once a nation accepts that the purpose of government is to confer material benefits on contending interest groups, the end result will be gridlock.

People will accept the results of the free market, he thought, because they perceive it as impartial. And they might accept a general rule of equality for all. But once government takes on the responsibility of deciding who gets what, nobody will ever be satisfied. I think that is a good description of the USA in the late 1970s.

Hayek thought the end result would be a dictator who was not accountable to the various claimants.

Instead we had a new politics, based not on satisfying interest groups but on resentment of various interest groups of what other interest groups were getting. Austerity can be palatable if people think these undeserving other people are being cut off.

I agree with your common sense idea of pragmatically doing whatever works best in a given situation. But this requires a certain impartiality and idea of the common good, which is hard to achieve.

D.A. Ridgely said...

I concur about Dewey, in my opinion the least philosophically important member of the classic American Pragmatist thinkers but unfortunately the most obviously influential because of his extensive writing about education. If you want to read about American Pragmatism, William James is by far the smarter and better writer. (Some would say he's a better writer than his brother, Henry. I can't say because I've never managed to read his novels.) Charles Sanders Pierce (intellectual snob aside, it's pronounced "purse") is the most interesting of the lot, but I suggest reading about Pierce rather than Pierce, himself.

I would take some issue with your paragraph about the police. Sure, by themselves they don't have the juice to turn the U.S. into a police state of the Eastern European model, but I think you downplay the extent to which they are in cahoots with the liberal bureaucracy and how much they have in common; a love of tenure and strong unions, for example. Worse yet, we are seeing the erosion of the distinction between domestic policing and military missions thanks to our endless "wars" on drugs, terrorists or whatever else produces an acquiescent citizenry. True, Western European and North American governments have not gone the way of the Soviet empire. But Western Europe is vastly more of a surveillance state in recent years and, at least for certain segments of society, the U.S. already is a de facto police state by any reasonable criteria.

Mrs Sharon Sim said...
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Alex Small said...

I agree that the police have gone to a dangerous place. I agree that they're in cahoots with the bureaucracy to an often under-appreciated extent, but I drew the contrasts that I drew to take issue with Hayek's assumption that this would emerge from attempts to solve information problems in a regulated economy.

Honestly, I think the expansion of policing comes from what it usually comes from: A mix of desire for power and a frustration with the under-classes that stubbornly refuse to be "fixed" as the technocrats think they ought to be. When we can't fix social problems via case workers with clipboards we either try to medicalize it (whether via the disability system or the mental health system) or else criminalize it. What's ironic is that their crime rates are down but there's an ever greater desire to control them.