… is from page 168 of my late colleague Jim Buchanan‘s 1991 Interdisciplinary Science Reviews article, “The Potential and the Limits of Socially Organised Humankind“:
Many modern scientists, secure in their own achievements involving the genuine discovery of new laws relating to the workings of the physical universe, and observing at first hand the extension of humankind’s mastery as these laws are applied, exhibit a natural proclivity to attribute what seem to be flaws in the structure of social interaction to ‘scientific backwardness’, and to expect improvements from inappropriate extensions of science’s domain into the realm of social control.
DBx: Yes. Yes. Yes.
Neither society in general nor ‘the economy’ in particular is a ‘mechanism’ to be engineered. Most of what are diagnosed to be “social problems” or “economic problems” are, even when such diagnoses are accurate and useful, are not at root problems that can be solved scientifically. In a free, open, prosperous society, human activity is an on-going process of creativity, exchange, compromise, bargaining, trial and error, and, with some luck, growth that is spontaneous. There is no “optimal” allocation of resources in reality that any scientist can discover even with the most assiduous and objective research. Ditto for the “distribution of income” (or of wealth). Ditto for the structure of the steel industry and of the hospitality industry. Ditto for the rate of homeownership, the rate of post-secondary-school enrollment, and the rate of traffic fatalities.
The best that the best and wisest scholars can do is to describe only the outlines of the general properties of such ‘optimal’ conditions. This knowledge is useful, but it is a gross error to suppose that research into reality should aim at finding information about real-world details that would enable the state to engineer society to ‘fit’ those optimal conditions. No such finding of information is possible, even in theory – and attempts to find it can only be a prelude to tyranny.