Saturday, December 15, 2018

Are Societal Structures Really "… the result of human action, but not the execution of any human design?"


This phrase from Adam Ferguson (quote in context here) is bandied about quite a bit by supporters of markets and, specifically, in the context of Friedrich Hayek's views of markets and society. The phrase brings to mind the inductivist view that science proceeds first by observations"just observe." However, in the case of creating social structures, "just act." This formulation can lead one to think that in science any random observation can lead to knowledge, or in society, any action will contribute to the spontaneous order. Such thinking denigrates the individual and minimizes such achievements as Newton's laws of motion and Mises's work on socialism's calculation problem.

If we accept Mises's definition of human action, "purposeful behavior" (Human Action, p 11), we take it that each action is rational and aimed at a certain end (this is not to say that impulsive or instinctual actions involve thought processes, but that the ones that concern us in economics and social interaction do). Therefore we can say that each action is designed by the individual for a specific purpose. When individuals act with a purpose in mind they are supported by the entire background of biological and societal evolution that preceded them. For that reason, actions are not random but are stochasticly targeted in the sense Denis Noble describes in Dance to the Tune of Life (194-197), varying only part of the theoretical structure.

In acting, each person impinges upon the plans of others. As each person adjusts their plans to mesh with others' their actions produce effects that feed back into the system, producing new effects unanticipated by the original actors. These new effects produce plan revisions, and so on. The pattern is the same as Karl Popper's tetradic schema:

P1 → TT → EE → P2
 Where P1 is the initial problem state, TT is a tentative solution or theory, EE is the error-elimination process applied to the theory, and P2 represents the new problem state that has been generated by the process.

This concise representation is simply that of a Darwinian or evolutionary approach to knowledge, reflecting the iterative process of markets that is so foreign to the state and political governance.

New knowledge is created at the frontier by trial-and-error based upon what we currently believe to be true. Individuals produce the mutations to our theoriesscientific and socialthat make progress possible. These mutations are tested against reality and retained or discarded based on the results. Sometimes, when problems with an accepted theory become too great science takes a step back, and we discover we "know what ain't so."

At this moment in history, it appears that what we are in such a position with economics and society. In economics we are in the grips of the neoclassical synthesis, which provides an intellectual argument for the state, an institution that already resists falsification through power and violence. In society the failed arguments of natural rights have opened the floodgates to identity politics and the intellectually sterile ad hoc strategy of resistance to it. It would seem that we are heading for a giant reset in which one hopes for a rethinking of the whole project of governance resulting in institutions developed through the trial-and-error of what I have called evolutionary liberalism. Only then might we have Peace on Earth.

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