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.