Boettke on knowledge, expert opinion and democracy

After a Brisbane interlude, picking up the threads of the previous post on Chapter 9 of Boettke on Hayek.

At the end of the pervious post we were looking at the issue of establishing agreement (coordination) among diverse individuals and groups – diverse at several levels, religion, politics, culture and personal ambitions, tastes, temperaments and preferences. How to promote peace, freedom and prosperity in this situation?

John Gray suggested a modus vivendi, a minimal set of shared values like the rules of the road that enable drivers to set out for different destinations at different speeds for many different purposes with a good chance of arriving safely. The great underpinning principle that Hayek emphasised in that context is the rule of law.

The last part of the chapter treats the knowledge problems of democracy, the problem of informed voting when we never have enough knowledge. Hence the problem of how much to trust to experts. Boettke looked at the clash between the “wisdom of crowds” approach versus the expertise of experts and the meritocracy. He notes that we will be inclined to accept a consensus of well-qualified experts because the institutional framework of science is such that it generally leads to the discovery of truth, citing Polanyi on The Republic of Science (1962) and Tullock on The Organization of Inquiry (1966). Of course it can take some time for the jury to deliver a verdict on matters pertaining to systems that are very large, very small or very complex. It took over a century to get from Copernicus to Newton and several decades for relativity to be generally accepted as an advance on Newton.

Michael Polanyi was optimistic about the authority of leading scientists although his own breakthrough on the adsorption behaviour of gases that he formulated in 1914-16 was not accepted in the field for many years. It has been described as a “premature discovery”, something that is out of step with the paradigm so the paradigm has to evolve to make the theory acceptable.
Austrian economics suffered a similar fate but rather like Bill Hutt, who joked that he was forgotten in his own lifetime, Austrian economics got out of step in its own lifetime with the rise of positivism and scientism.

Tullock had a less rosy view of science and he sketched a scenario (a situational analysis) to suggest how a combination of motivational and institutional factors could enable a field to degenerate to the level of Lysenko’s genetics. Publishing in 1966 he thought the social sciences were gone but the natural sciences were still in rude good health. Not sure where he placed economics, it probably depended on the day of the week. He may have spoken too soon because there is a rapidly growing literature on bad science.

Whatever we think about this situation there is nothing better than good science and we just have to do our best to recognize good science and promote it. More to the point and the argument of Boettke’s book we have to promote institutions to maintain diversity of opinions and productive exchanges between rival schools. Deirdre McCloskey has written about the habits and practices that make for imaginative criticism and healthy competition in the world of ideas and that line of work contributes to the picture that Boettke is painting in this book.

Boettke is hopeful that Hayek’s “vast expanse of work” can contribute to the task of institutional conservation, renovation and renewal. He makes a nice point on the role of political infrastructure to define the ecology of social space. The ecological turn of phrase is appropriate because we need to consider the downstream effect of institutional changes and especially the red and green tape of regulations and big government. The ill effects, like the dead fish downstream of point pollution, may be distant in time and space. One of the tasks of institutional economics is to perform due diligence in the form of regulation impact statements like the environmental impact statements much beloved by the opponents of coal mines.

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10 Responses to Boettke on knowledge, expert opinion and democracy

  1. Nato

    Whenever I hear ‘expert’ I think David Kilcullen. It doesn’t matter which side of an insurgency I imagine myself on, I’d want him advising me. I fear that puts my definition at odds with the mainstream. Am I the only one who sees a worrying trend to raise experts above implementation advisor to policy decider?

    Better than good science is the truth. I’ve been convinced by a line I heard a couple of years ago that science doesn’t provide us facts, but theories that best describe the observed evidence.

    There were translations of Popper’s lectures posted at the rathouse on the importance of asking questions

    +brain candy warning+

    There’s 3 examples of why a 50 year old thought experiment can still be contentious. Is quantum or classical “good science”?*

    Did you hear the one about chicxulub being just another meteorite event, not the ground zero for extinction? Is meteor hypothesis still good science?

    I’m geeking out too hard, aren’t I?

    My point is that when ” the experts are wrong ” stops being an option, you’ve moved from science to exegesis. The world is too marvelous to shrink to our brains and life is too precious to trust to politicians.

    *Quantum is ALL wrong! But it’s still better than realism 😉

  2. pbw


    So, this stuff provides a “classical” alternative to events which precede their causes?

    And what’s wrong with realism?

  3. pbw


    Polanyi’s optimism about the Republic of Science, was based on a model of partially overlapping realms of expertise, such that “experts” in neighbouring domains have sufficient knowledge of neighbouring domains to keep the neighbouring scientists honest, and that this series of overlaps extends from any specialty to the boundaries of scientific expertise. Polanyi likened it to column of marching soldiers keeping in line and in step by reference each to his neighbour. It assumes that the vast majority of scientists have intellectual and personal integrity and that strong-walled silos do not develop.

    “Climate science” blew that to pieces. I say that as a great admirer of Polanyi.

  4. pbw

    If you are heading for Budapest next July, you might want to call in on this:

  5. I am bespoke


    I the only one who sees a worrying trend to raise experts above implementation advisor to policy decider?


  6. Rafe

    Thanks pbw I have relatives in Budapest so I can see myself there in July with a paper on the dogs in the philosophy of science who didn’t bark to warn us about the debacle of climate science, or barked up the wrong tree at the climate realists.
    We cant blame Polanyi for climate science but he never came to grips with the situation where the experts have lost the plot (consider Keynesians).
    Also he had a serious feud with Popper starting early in the 1950s that meant two men who should have been together in the front row to defend science were at odds with each other.

  7. Iampeter

    “rules of the road”, “knowledge problems of democracy”, “adsorption behaviour of gases”, “rise of positivism and scientism”, “Hayek!” etc, etc.

    Urgh, Rafe I don’t want to be rude, but this is like reading some psychedelic, post-modern, descent into total confusion about everything. What even is this? Would it help if I took some mushrooms?

    What ever this is, it’s got nothing to do with politics, economics or anything near these topics, that’s for sure.

  8. .


    Please shut up. If you knew anything about Hayek, you’d understand what the post is about.

  9. Iampeter

    Nobody understands what this post is about. It’s incomprehensible.
    If you pretend otherwise then you are being dishonest.
    If this is an accurate representation of Boettke’s book then you’re not going to learn anything about Hayek from it or about any other topics either.

  10. .

    I am starting to doubt that you know anything about Hayek, Mises, Kirzner etc.

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