Smith, Hayek, and Will on Society’s Complexity

by Don Boudreaux on June 26, 2008

in Complexity & Emergence, Cooperation, Immigration, The Economy, Trade

George Will’s column in today’s Washington Post is especially good (save for his slipping into the mistake of apparently assuming that America competes economically with other nations).

Especially noteworthy is this wonderful — and wonderfully Smithian and Hayekian — line:

Modernity means the multiplication of dependencies on things utterly mysterious to those who are dependent — things such as semiconductors, which control the functioning of almost everything from cellphones to computers to cars.

I would add only that our dependence is not only on things utterly mysterious to each of us, but also on millions of strangers — as Adam Smith noted in Book I, Chapter 2 of The Wealth of Nations:

But man has almost constant occasion for the help of his brethren, and it is in vain for him to expect it from their benevolence only. He will be more likely to prevail if he can interest their self-love in his favour, and show them that it is for their own advantage to do for him what he requires of them. Whoever offers to another a bargain of any kind, proposes to do this. Give me that which I want, and you shall have this which you want, is the meaning of every such offer; and it is in this manner that we obtain from one another the far greater part of those good offices which we stand in need of. It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.  We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages. Nobody but a beggar chuses to depend chiefly upon the benevolence of his fellow-citizens. Even a beggar does not depend upon it entirely.

Also relevant here is the final paragraph of Hayeks’ 1945 essay “Individualism: True and False”:

What [true] individualism teaches us is that society is greater than the individual only in so far as it is free. In so far as it is controlled or directed, it is limited to the powers of the individual minds which control or direct it. If the presumption of the modern mind, which will not respect anything that is not consciously controlled by individual reason, does not learn in time where to stop, we may, as Edmund Burke warned us, “be well assured that everything about us will dwindle by degrees, until at length our concerns are shrunk to the dimensions of our minds.”

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{ 6 comments }

Sam Grove June 26, 2008 at 2:49 pm

Hence the appeal of Marxism; to reduce the complexity of society to the comprehension of thoughtless idiots.

Methinks June 26, 2008 at 10:19 pm

As usual, Sam, you use 17 words to speak volumes.

Sam Grove June 27, 2008 at 12:33 pm

I think I might be blushing slightly.

FreedomLover June 27, 2008 at 6:17 pm

There is no true "Freedom" that comes from individuality in society. However if you look at the true "rugged individualist" who lives off the grid, by the sweat of his own brow building his own cabin, etc… What kind of freedom does he have without modern medical care, dentistry, etc… The bottom line is that we all depend on mutual cooperation to make civilization work. It just works better when it seems voluntary unlike Communism which inefficiently directs the collective.

vidyohs June 27, 2008 at 9:03 pm

I'd love to see your explanation as to how you come to this thought.

"There is no true "Freedom" that comes from individuality in society.
Posted by: FreedomLover | Jun 27, 2008 6:17:21 PM"

Sam Grove June 28, 2008 at 2:04 am

The bottom line is that we all depend on mutual cooperation to make civilization work. It just works better when it seems voluntary..

That's the market for you, though the part about 'mutual cooperation' might be better thought of as free-form coordination.

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