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 Reaganland by Rick Perlstein.

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Monday, July 10, 2017

Hayek, Chapter 10

All I have to say is that Hayek knows precious little about engineers.  Yes, they can be somewhat obtuse about things outside their technical interests, but generally their jobs require them to pay attention (even if more attention than they would like) to human factors, costs, uncertainties, etc. Rarely is the task as well-specified as he thinks, and rarely is the entire design under one person's control. I share his dislike of social engineering, but engineering is not what he thinks it is.

On the other hand, chapter 11 opens with a sentence that I can appreciate:

"Never will a man penetrate deeper into error than when he is continuing on a road which has led him to great success."

I look forward to reading the rest of it.

Hayek, Chapter 9

Having talked about the difficulty in getting people to see emergent order in chapter 8, in chapter 9 he talks about the belief in the superiority of planning over emergent order.  This is definitely a thing, especially among the educated classes.  I find it funny that technocratic liberals also tend to like "natural" food.  It's generally believed that if there is emergent order in an institution then there must be missed opportunities, because resources are not being directed.

On the other hand, I'm not sure how modern this is.  Central authorities have always banged their heads against emergent orders, determined to rule rather than go with the flow.  I doubt that they put it in the same technocratic language as their modern counterparts, but the ability to let go and steer on the margins has never been a strong suit of rulers.

Sadly, this chapter is somewhat jumbled (he took the opposition to planning a bit too literally), and not always well-argued.  Steps and connections are left out.  I did manage to parse out, eventually, what he meant when he talked about people trying to plan the progress of the human mind:  I don't think he was talking about engineering the human mind like geneticists in Orphan Black, but rather plans for scientific discoveries, technological progress, and the progression of ideas in other scholarly endeavors.  The problem is that you can't plan where you will go when you engage with the unknown.  Things almost always turn out to be harder than you planned, and sometimes serendipity happens.  Hayek's point was that if we knew what we could/would discover next then we would have already made the discovery, so there's a logical impossibility.  I just wish he had organized his thoughts more clearly.

After arguing that, Hayek quickly leaps to arguing against the idea that truth is not determined by deduction from observations, but from hidden causes which have determined the thinker's conclusions, and thus truth or falsehood can depend on the social position (race, class, etc.) of the person making the argument. It seems that he's arguing against ideas of implicit bias, but I don't really see how he got there from his previous point, unless he's making a very subtle argument against the idea that all of our knowledge is already in our minds (hence the possibility of planning) but some of it is fake (hence the possibility of bias or distortion).  It's a big leap of the argument.

Also, while I have no doubt that modern political correctness has plenty of antecedents (remember, one of the main themes of this blog is that all of this has happened before and will happen again), I'm mildly surprised that 1952 had substantial numbers of people arguing that implicit bias is a huge thing, or that the privileged cannot know certain things.  I suppose it's possible that the Marxists might have made the second point (I don't know, I'm just speculating) but that's the sort of argument that could easily be wielded by peasants against planners.  (Unless he's arguing against the idea that only the top of the ladder has the proper perspective.)

Near the end of this chapter, Hayek does offer one point that I like very, very much:  It is dangerous when people abandon religion but see no reason to submit to anything that they do not rationally understand. If people respect neither God nor arbitrary moral codes (and ultimately all "ought" statements are rooted in assertions rather than logic, a point that I spent this afternoon making to a colleague) then they could engage in great hubris.  If this comes at the same point in historical evolution as the rise of great technological capabilities (e.g. nuclear weapons) and a belief in the superiority of planning over emergent order then the unguided might create upheavals that lead to disaster.

I think we have the nuclear genie more-or-less controlled (arguably less, right now, with North Korea rattling the saber) but in higher ed I think we have undermined too many principles, leaving only short-term thought about individual selfishness.  Hayek might be greatly sympathetic to the good that can emerge from selfishness in market economies (and I am, as well) but institutions need rules (even for-profit companies require a certain amount of coordinated sacrifice for greater benefit down the road--it's the whole concept of investment in a project that involves more than one person!), and non-profit educational institutions supposedly offer a chance be supported while indulging one's passions via creative pursuits, in exchange for work that benefits students.  However, when the concept of duty collapses, when the quasi-monastic sacrifice inherent in academic work is regarded as an oppressive norm feasible only for men of a certain class and era, when pervasive and unfair bias is seen as driving every decision, then what is left but short-term selfishness?

Hayek, as a man of ideas, is less of a capitalist than he'd ever admit.  He wanted people to submit to duty and purpose without a clear answer to "Why do I have to listen and what is in it for me?"

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.