Quotation of the Day…

by Don Boudreaux on October 14, 2017

in Adam Smith, Complexity & Emergence, Economics, Man of System, Myths and Fallacies, Virginia Political Economy

… is from page 43 of my late Nobel-laureate colleague Jim Buchanan‘s 1982 article “The Related but Distinct ‘Sciences’ of Economics and of Political Economy,” as this article is reprinted in Moral Science and Moral Order, Vol. 17 of The Collected Works of James M. Buchanan (original emphasis):

The problem that Crusoe and Friday confront in living together is not scientific in the standard sense, and no matter how rapid the advances in scientific knowledge by one or both persons, the problem will remain one of mutual adjustment to each other.

DBx: Figuring out how best to live together is the single most important task that humans confront.  Yet there is no scientific, objective “solution” to this problem.  We can, of course, state in broad terms the properties of a desirable social order – for example, peace, widespread prosperity, and human happiness or fulfillment – and we can say worthwhile things about the conditions (both individual and social) that generally promote, and that generally hinder the attainment of, such outcomes.  But there is no objective, correct pattern of outcomes ‘out there,’ able in principle to be determined scientifically (or in any other way).  There is, for example, no “distribution” of income that can be determined by scientists, independently of the actual myriad choices of human beings that give rise to today’s “distribution,” to be “optimal” or “best” or “fair.”  There is no objectively discoverable ‘optimal’ level of carbon emissions, no ‘correct’ level or levels of workplace safety, no ‘optimal’  dollar amount of exports or of imports for any country or for the global economy, no ‘objective’ “livable” minimum wage.

Neither society generally, nor the economy specifically, is an engineering project.  Each is an unfathomably complex and ever-changing spontaneous order the patterns of which can be imperfectly described but that is not aiming at identifiable outcomes.  Society isn’t a chess board, and people are not chess pieces.


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