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The Role of the Economist in a Free Society

Summary:
In May the MPS Regional meeting was hosted in Texas, and I gave one of the lunch talks on the theme of "Lessons for MPS from 'The Pretense of Knowledge'."  It was a tour through the ideas of various major thinkers in the history of MPS and their cautions against the economists as orchestrator of social betterment.  Obviously my title for that talk draws on Hayek's Nobel lecture. EconLib has published my essay into parts for posting online under the title "The Role of the Economist in a Free Society".  The first part focused on my discussion of Mises and Knight. The second part focuses on my discussion of Friedman, Stigler, Buchanan and Coase. What is currently missing is my extended discussion of Hayek's Nobel address, which I highly recommend to everyone to read very closely.  So

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In May the MPS Regional meeting was hosted in Texas, and I gave one of the lunch talks on the theme of "Lessons for MPS from 'The Pretense of Knowledge'."  It was a tour through the ideas of various major thinkers in the history of MPS and their cautions against the economists as orchestrator of social betterment.  Obviously my title for that talk draws on Hayek's Nobel lecture.

EconLib has published my essay into parts for posting online under the title "The Role of the Economist in a Free Society".  The first part focused on my discussion of Mises and Knight. The second part focuses on my discussion of Friedman, Stigler, Buchanan and Coase.

What is currently missing is my extended discussion of Hayek's Nobel address, which I highly recommend to everyone to read very closely.  So let me just give a few passages here from that lecture that I would highlight.

  • We have indeed at the moment little cause for pride: as a profession we have made a mess of things.
  • It seems to me that this failure of the economists to guide policy more successfully is closely connected with their propensity to imitate as closely as possible the procedures of the brilliantly successful physical sciences – an attempt which in our field may lead to outright error. It is an approach which has come to be described as the “scientistic” attitude – an attitude which, as I defined it some thirty years ago, “is decidedly unscientific in the true sense of the word, since it involves a mechanical and uncritical application of habits of thought to fields different from those in which they have been formed.”1 I want today to begin by explaining how some of the gravest errors of recent economic policy are a direct consequence of this scientistic error.
  • If we are to safeguard the reputation of science, and to prevent the arrogation of knowledge based on a superficial similarity of procedure with that of the physical sciences, much effort will have to be directed toward debunking such arrogations, some of which have by now become the vested interests of established university departments.
  • If man is not to do more harm than good in his efforts to improve the social order, he will have to learn that in this, as in all other fields where essential complexity of an organized kind prevails, he cannot acquire the full knowledge which would make mastery of the events possible. He will therefore have to use what knowledge he can achieve, not to shape the results as the craftsman shapes his handiwork, but rather to cultivate a growth by providing the appropriate environment, in the manner in which the gardener does this for his plants. There is danger in the exuberant feeling of ever growing power which the advance of the physical sciences has engendered and which tempts man to try, “dizzy with success”, to use a characteristic phrase of early communism, to subject not only our natural but also our human environment to the control of a human will. The recognition of the insuperable limits to his knowledge ought indeed to teach the student of society a lesson of humility which should guard him against becoming an accomplice in men’s fatal striving to control society – a striving which makes him not only a tyrant over his fellows, but which may well make him the destroyer of a civilization which no brain has designed but which has grown from the free efforts of millions of individuals.

Get the point?!  Hayek wasn't that subtle about what he was arguing.  Read Bruce Caldwell's wonderful account of Hayek's experience associated with the Nobel Prize.

Peter Boettke
Peter Joseph Boettke (January 3, 1960) is an American economist of the Austrian School. He is currently a University Professor of Economics and Philosophy at George Mason University; the BB&T Professor for the Study of Capitalism, Vice President for Research, and Director of the F.A. Hayek Program for Advanced Study in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics at the Mercatus Center at GMU.

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