Bryan Caplan

We Have a Winner: Hayek as if Orwell Mattered

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Here's a sweet rewrite of a typical Hayekian paragraph (Hat tip: Reg Hall):

The successful application of science in our society has fostered the belief that the society itself can be similarly manipulated to our benefit. We need powerful arguments, not yet articulated, to counter this belief. Debunking specific proposals will not do. We must explain why the application of technology to social problems is of limited utility and even harmful when pushed beyond the limit. Only then will we controvert ‘scientific’ socialism.

From 231 words to 70 - very nice. But I think I'd trim even this down to 57 words - and add some italics:
The success of science in our society has fostered the belief that society itself can be manipulated to our benefit. We need powerful new arguments to counter this belief; debunking specific proposals will not do. We must explain why using science to solve social problems rarely works and often backfires. Only then will we defeat ‘scientific’ socialism.

Question: Once you put it plainly, does Hayek seem better, worse, or about the same?


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COMMENTS (6 to date)
Acad Ronin writes:

The rewrite is too clear. Cognitative disonnance means that we value those things we struggled to understand. When something is clear and concise it will appear self-evident and so something we already knew.

Fundamentalist writes:

Much better! Mark Twain once wrote that the literary artisan can catch an airy thought and turn it into a cabbage, but the artist can convert it to a rose.

dearieme writes:

Better. Clear thinkers sound better when clearly expressed.

Reg Hall writes:

Equipped with a masters in chemistry, I am less qualified to respond than most of you. However, emboldened by the sucess of my precis, here goes.

First, I can't decide whether Hayek's objective in this passage was to rally the political opposition or to advance an academic proposition.

As propaganda, Hayek's concerns about socialism seem obvious now but I suspect that this was written in the late 30's or 40's. Hayek was very aware of the threats from both NAZI and Soviet socialism. In the UK, the Soviet economic model was taken seriously by eminent sociologists like Laski who was enormously influential in the Labour Party. That party, when elected to power in '45, moved rapidly to exert state control over the 'means of production'. The political opposition certainly needed to be energised.Its a shame that the prose was turgid but I have more sympathy for the endeavor if this was his goal.
As an exercise in philosophy, it is less remarkable.Empirical science has little to do with planned outcomes. The experiments are planned while the environment is rigorously controlled. The results are then analysed and with luck a hypothesis is confirmed (never proved) or a new hypothesis is formulated. This is difficult enough in physics. In society at large the environment cannot be controlled outside the gulag and in truth not even in it. Karl Popper, whom I suspect Hayek knew, would have laughed the case out of court. Governments nevertheless engage in 'experiments' with results that rarely meet expectations.

Plinius writes:

It seems to me you lost the main problem with the engineeristic approach, namely that whole passage (not so bad actually) about a single plan: "the direction of all forms of human activity according to a single coherent plan should prove to be as successful in society as it has been in innumerable engineering tasks".

Ted writes:

I think you weaken the argument by substituting "science" for "engineering". The first term has become rather broad and lost the connotation of numerical precision: there's political science, but no political engineering...

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