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 The Demon in Democracy: Totalitarian Temptations in Free Societies by Polish philosopher Ryszard Legutko.

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Sunday, July 2, 2017

Chapters 1-2 of _The Counter-Revolution in Science_

Hayek spends much of the first chapter arguing that bringing science to social questions has done little to bring insight.  I already gave my general critique of Hayek as an ideologue in the previous post; here I want to focus on the nature of social science, and what I think Hayek gets right and wrong.

The biggest difference between natural science and social science is that natural science is more about discovery while social science is more about testing.  Yes, natural and social scientists both make discoveries and they both test hypotheses, but human experience provides us plenty of ideas about social issues, and in some sense most social ideas are right within a certain domain of applicability.  You don't need a double-blinded, properly-controlled, statistically rigorous study to know that standardized tests cannot tell you the entirety of a person's abilities, that humans have biases, that people often manage to rise above their prejudices, that people also fall short of their ideals, and that small changes in policy can have large or small effects in difference circumstances.  As basic ideas, I think that casual observation of the world is sufficient support for all of them.

What social science can do at its best is answer questions like "When? Under what circumstances?"  Social science can take us from "People have many biases, but they don't always control our behavior" to "Unconscious biases measured by this instrument have demonstrable effects in these settings but not those other settings."  Social science can take us from "Sometimes policy changes matter, sometimes they don't" to "Raising the minimum wage by $0.25/hour from a baseline of $10/hour will have little effect on unemployment in a city with a high cost of living, but raising it by $2/hour in a locale with a low cost of living could have measurable effects on unemployment."  Social science can take us from "Standardized tests don't tell you everything" to "Due to the narrow range of scores, the quantitative section of the GRE has little predictive power for PhD students in such-and-such field, but the relevant subject test explains X% of the variance in outcomes as measured by the following instrument."

So social science does not necessarily tell us much that we don't know on SOME level, but it tells us much about when our intuitions are valid and what their limitations are.  Hayek, being interested in grand social questions and large "Ought" issues missed that, on some level.  Ironically, though, Hayek's grandest hypothesis was falsifiable by casual observations (Western Europe is not a hellhole) without fancy statistical methods.  He railed against a harder enemy than he was actually taken down by.

Natural science operates in domains where we have much less intuition, and much less prior experience from which to develop ideas.  By the time we know enough to even frame a precise hypothesis about certain topics, we're often on our way to testing it.  That's not to say that wrong ideas never take off, and that there's never a contest of hypotheses, but we're definitely operating in realms where we have (comparatively) fewer preconceptions to cling to.

Ironically, the people who most abuse social science are probably closest in practice to Hayek's approach to social questions.  They run with a few findings that flatter their preconceptions and ignore contrary findings.  They love "ought" more than "is."  The only difference is that they flatter themselves with a pretense of empiricism, whereas he is openly critical of the excesses of empiricism.

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.