… is from pages 439-440 of the 2014 collection – The Market and Other Orders (Bruce Caldwell, ed.) – of some of F.A. Hayek’s most influential essays; specifically, it’s from Hayek’s 1963 lecture, delivered at the University of Chicago, “Economists and Philosophers”:
Let me recall what the characteristic problem of the social sciences is. It consists in the explanation of the formation of an order which not only none of the participants intends to produce or needs to know but which also depends on a far larger number of circumstances than is known to any one among them.
Society is indescribably complex, and therefore to treat it as a simple mechanism is folly.
Yet politics is overwhelmingly an exercise in proposing and imposing simplistic solutions. Want workers to be paid more? Simple! Use force to compel employers to pay employed workers higher wages. Want housing to be more affordable? Simple! Use force to prevent landlords from charging rents higher than state officials deem appropriate. Want to protect workers from losing their existing jobs? Simple! Use force to prevent consumers from changing the ways in which they spend their money. Want to reduce gun violence? Simple! Increase the difficulty of buying and selling guns. Want to reduce drug addiction? Simple! Intensify the enforcement of prohibitions on the use of addictive drugs. Want to have a more equal ‘distribution’ of incomes? Simple! Soak the rich with high taxes.
These “solutions,” of course, not only do not achieve the goals that they are sold as tools for achieving, they make matters worse. But precisely because of society’s enormous complexity, the ill-consequences are too-seldom traced back to their true source. Indeed, these ill-consequences – the sources of which are mistakenly identified – often only supply further opportunities for demagogues to petition for more power.