Bryan Caplan  

Sentences that Should Embarrass Any Grad Student

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The true author of each of these sentences is a noted Nobel prize-winner. Still, if a grad student wrote any of them, he should be embarrassed. I italicize the words that make each sentence blush-worthy, and follow each with a suitable snide remark to write in the margin in red ink:

Embarrassing Sentence: These rules will achieve their intended effect of securing the formation of an abstract order of actions only through their universal application...
Snide Remark: I guess we have never had an "abstract order of actions," because no rules have ever been "universally" applied.
Embarrassing Sentence: It is perhaps understandable that constructivist rationalists, in their pride in the great powers of human reason, should have revolted against the demand for submission to rules whose significance they do not fully understand, and which produce an order which we cannot predict in detail.
Snide Remark: Who ever objected to a rule on the grounds that he didn't "fully" understand it, or couldn't predict the consequences "in detail"? People normally object to a rule because they think they understand its consequences well enough to conclude that they are bad.
Embarrassing Sentence: [C]onstructivist rationalism tends to disdain any reliance on abstract mechanical rules and to regard as truly rational only behaviour such as is based on decisions which judge each particular situation ‘on its merits’, and chooses between alternatives in concrete evaluation on the known consequences of the various possibilities. It is fairly obvious that this kind of rationalism must lead to the destruction of all moral values...
Snide Remark: Well, then I guess that all moral values have already been "destroyed," because people do this all the time!
Embarrassing Sentence: It is this flexibility of voluntary rules which in the field of morals makes gradual evolution and spontaneous growth possible, which allows further experience to lead to modifications and improvements. Such an evolution is possible only with rules which are neither coercive nor deliberately imposed...
Snide Remark: Hmm, I guess this means that evolution never happens, because every society has rules that are coercive and/or deliberately imposed.
Embarrassing Sentence: Our submission to general principles is necessary because we cannot be guided in our practical action by full knowledge and evaluation of all the consequences.
Snide Remark: Have you ever heard of getting through life using partial knowledge of some of the consequences of action? I do it all the time.

The Nobel prize-winning author of all of these sentences is, of course, Hayek. But I'd say that his stature makes these flabby, pompous sentences more embarrassing, not less.


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COMMENTS (10 to date)
Scott Scheule writes:

I attended grad school in nudity. I'm tough to embarrass (if you ever wanted to make a "bare-ass"-"embarrass" pun, now's your chance).

Nonetheless, the only cure for snark is countersnark:

I guess we have never had an "abstract order of actions," because no rules have ever been "universally" applied.

Alternatively, we've simply never had such an order "secured." Doesn't mean that it never existed. Just meant it was shaky.

Well, then I guess that all moral values have already been "destroyed," because people do this all the time!

As if! Also: "cha." Several other possibilities suggest themselves: 1. moral values will eventually be destroyed by such act-morality, it just hasn't happened yet; 2. it is only total act-morality that will lead to this destruction and Hayek is showing the consequence of drawing this principle to its extreme. It doesn't mean half a society acting as act-moralizers (perhaps half the time even) will be enough to eradicate moral values.

Hmm, I guess this means that evolution never happens, because every society has rules that are coercive and/or deliberately imposed.

Yeah, but Hayek doesn't say that it's a necessity such bad rules not exist--only that there also be present some that are not coercive and/or deliberately imposed to get evolution.

Have you ever heard of getting through life using partial knowledge of some of the consequences of action?

Um, yeah? Which is Hayek's point--we are forced to do so, and therefore, we must submit to general principles.

It's important to note I've never read Hayek.

Franklin Harris writes:

No one should be more embarrassed than Kant, because every one of Hayek's sentences quoted seems to rely on some sort of Kantian view of rulemaking (i.e., general, universal principles without regard to consequences). Hayek is much better when he is in Humean mode.

Jody writes:

I'm with Scott and will elaborate if the thread demands. (Nudists of the world unite! You have nothing to lose but your, hey if you're naked, there really is nothing to lose.)

In general, I think it takes a very uncharitable reading (bordering on deliberate misreading) to draw Bryan's conclusions.

8 writes:

Have you ever heard of getting through life using partial knowledge of some of the consequences of action? I do it all the time.

I'm sure every voter who read your book might tell you the same thing!

brian writes:

This is why Hayek won his nobel prize for his work in economics rather than for his work in political philosophy. A great and insightful economist, but as a philosopher he had some ridiculous ideas: like how the goodness of an act must be judged independently of its effects:

"[C]onstructivist rationalism tends to disdain any reliance on abstract mechanical rules and to regard as truly rational only behaviour such as is based on decisions which judge each particular situation ‘on its merits’, and chooses between alternatives in concrete evaluation on the known consequences of the various possibilities. It is fairly obvious that this kind of rationalism must lead to the destruction of all moral values..."

I don't think this is obvious. In fact, I think judging a situation "on its merits" (yes, with Hayek's scare quotes) is the only way to judge its accordance with moral values.

Rules of thumb may be useful quite often, but that doesn't mean they are universally applicable. E.g. just because I have a rule of thumb saying "violence is bad" doesn't mean that I think self-defense is immoral. But to make this distinction, we must judge the situation on its merits, which Hayek refuses to do. You can try to refine your general principles, but you're doing so in order to judge situations based on its merits, based on the goodness of the specific act.

Ben Kalafut writes:

It's the same mushmouthed stuff one expects from Continental philosophers. Come to think of it, the Austrian "economists" fit that mold fairly well.

That isn't said to downplay Hayek's contributions to meta-economics but rather perhaps to put the associated pompous cruft into context.

Jacob writes:

Brian,

some of these sentences do seem a bit loose. But it seems you have a pretty superficial understandinreg of Hayek's overall argument, which leads you to misunderstand some inidividual statements. Many of your extrapolations do not follow from the quoted sentences.

"Hmm, I guess this means that evolution never happens, because every society has rules that are coercive and/or deliberately imposed."
Hayek states that coercive rules never result in the evolution of morals. It is sufficiently obvious that every society has rules that are coercive and deliberately imposed. Hayek states the evolution of morals does not come from those, but from informal rules. Pretty straight forward.

I myself havn't really read

8 writes:

It is perhaps understandable that constructivist rationalists, in their pride in the great powers of human reason, should have revolted against the demand for submission to rules whose significance they do not fully understand, and which produce an order which we cannot predict in detail.

He isn't saying they oppose the rules because they don't fully understand them and can't predict the consequences in detail. He's saying these people have a fatal conceit: they believe they are smart enough to understand everything, but no one can predict what will happen because we cannot understand the spontaneous order that develops, it is far too complex. Hence the need for evolution rather than edict.

People also don't typically oppose soceital rules because they conclude they are bad (although they might), they oppose them because they don't like them. Marriage and sexuality are great examples. People didn't sit around and consider the consequences of changing long-held general principles. When people predicted that divorce rates would soar, marriage would break down, out of wedlock births would increase, STDs would increase, etc., they were mocked.

liberty writes:

You think stuff is embarrassing, you should read Keynes some time :)

Seriously, Scott is correct, this is a bald misreading. And, I was also serious: you don't need to misread Keynesian macro to embarrass even an undergrad, or a child.

Daniel Klein writes:

Excellent critique, Bryan.

Hayek is lame as a theorist. His stuff on order and equilibrium is garbage, his definitions of liberty stink.

I'm pretty sure The Sensory Order is garbage, except the last chapter, which is just Michael Polanyi. I bet The Pure Theory of Capital is garbage. I know Milton Friedman thought so.

But at the end of the day his attitudes are excellent, and it is as historian and representative of liberal ideas and attitudes that he is great.

He was great in showing the perniciousness of the left (e.g., Naziism), in seeing liberalism as common decency, in seeing knowledge's richness and the poverty of model building, and in seeing thesolidaric/"cooperative" ethos of state collectivism as an atavism. I like his critique of social justice. Obviously he is great in dwelling on spontaneous order, though it's not clear that he really does that much with it . . . Not clear there is much to do with it, except maintain critical attitudes towards interventionism.

He was great in having the Smithian sense that sees by-and-large verities sustaining liberal presumptions. He was good on being suspicious of science. Ultimately he was good in not making excess claims for liberty.

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