Quotation of the Day…

by Don Boudreaux on August 14, 2017

in Complexity & Emergence, Hubris and humility

… is from page 291 of the late Vincent Ostrom’s 1997 book, The Meaning of Democracy and the Vulnerabilities of Democracies:

Great Societies are not organized by some single center of Supreme Authority exercising tutelage over Society.  Knowledgeable, skillful, and intelligible persons build great societies by working with one another and mediating conflicts to achieve conflict resolution in forming coherent patterns of relationships with one another.

DBx: Yes.  But to understand the reality here identified by Ostrom (and identified elsewhere by scholars such as Adam Smith, Carl Menger, Ludwig von Mises, F.A. Hayek, Bruno Leoni, and Vincent Ostrom’s Nobel-laureate wife, the late Elinor Ostrom) requires adult thought.  To grasp this understanding requires (1) a willingness to overcome the temptation to see conscious design or intent in all observed patterns, (2) relatedly, the maturity to reject interpretations of all social interactions as a child might – namely, as battles between good guys and bad guys, and (3) the civility to judge other people’s actions (and the outcomes of those actions) by criteria other than your own personal preferences and suppositions.

None of the above is to say that human intent is irrelevant, that there aren’t sometimes battles between good guys and bad guys, or that your own personal preferences are insignificant and your own suppositions always mistaken.  It is, however, to insist that, when observing and assessing the economy or society, you exercise more thought and maturity, and less arrogance and hubris, than are too often exercised by those who observe and assess social reality.  That reality is vastly more complex than you know.  For example, in market-oriented economies income isn’t “distributed” by anyone or by any cabal; nor is income or wealth “distributed” in accordance with a consciously chosen plan or with a simple formula such as r>g.  Prices and wages aren’t “set” by conscious design or to satisfy the wills of evil plutocrats or of angelic politicians.  Patterns of specialization and trade aren’t determined by government or CEO design.  At the levels on which people focus most discussions of policy – “the” economy, this industry, that group of workers, etc. – the patterns that exist are all emergent.  They are the results of human action but not of human design.


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