Bonus Quotation of the Day…

by Don Boudreaux on August 26, 2017

in Complexity & Emergence, Hayek, Myths and Fallacies

… is from page 149 of F.A. Hayek’s profound 1952 book The Counter-Revolution of Science, as this book appears as part of volume 13 (Studies on the Abuse & Decline of Reason, Bruce Caldwell, ed. [2010]) of the Collected Works of F.A. Hayek (original emphases):

The universal demand for ‘conscious’ control or direction of social processes is one of the most characteristic features of our generation.  It expresses perhaps more clearly than any of its other clichés the peculiar spirit of the age.  That anything is not consciously directed as a whole is regard as itself a blemish, a proof of its irrationality and of the need completely to replace it by a deliberately designed mechanism.  Yet few of the people who use the term conscious so freely seem to be aware of precisely what it means; most people seem to forget that conscious and deliberate are terms which have meaning only when applied to individuals, and that the demand for conscious control is therefore equivalent to the demand for control by a single mind.

DBx: This point, which at first might appear to be mistaken, is both true and deep.  Most people think of government control of this activity or of that set of affairs necessarily to be conscious.  But strictly speaking such control, unless it is exercised by a dictator, is not conscious, even though it is usually an attempt at conscious control and has the ‘feel’ and appearance of being conscious.  In democratic societies, government actions are determined by processes of interactions of many people: voters vote for representatives; representatives enact legislation and appoint bureaucrats; and a bevy of government officials collect taxes, inspect nail salons, restaurants, and other places of business, police city blocks, conduct drug raids, and do the countless other on-the-ground tasks that government officials do.  And all of these interactions are done according to rules, some formal and most informal.  No one conscious mind plans or chooses the details of the resulting patterns of actions.  Yet the pretense – or, better, illusion – is that with democratic decision-making “the People” are consciously controlling their collective destiny.

While the substitution of state directions for private actions does increase the degree to which society is monocentric relative to the degree to which society is polycentric, in any society not ruled by a completely unconstrained dictator, many of the activities and outcomes in that society remain unplanned and unintended – that is, not truly the result of conscious control.

So the choice between markets and government is not a choice between unplanned, spontaneous outcomes and planned, designed outcomes.  Both systems (barring totally unconstrained dictatorship) will necessarily produce unplanned, spontaneous outcomes.  The choice, therefore, is between different unplanned, spontaneous patterns and outcomes: on the one hand, those patterns and outcomes produced mainly by many individuals each acting consciously with respect only towards his or her private property and personal space, or, on the other hand, those patterns and outcomes produced mainly by many individuals each acting consciously within the rules for making collective choices.


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