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On Science, Scientism, and Classical Liberal Individualism

Here’s an e-mail to Russ Roberts:


Immersing myself finally into listening to podcasts, including your EconTalk, is rewarding – unsurprisingly.

I just enjoyed your late 2017 discussion with James Lindsay and Helen Pluckrose on their essay “A Manifesto Against the Enemies of Modernity.” The discussion is superb. Like you, I deeply agree with most of what Lindsay and Pluckrose say, and I share their fear that modernity is being battered with barbarisms from the left and the right.

But there are two points that must be made yet weren’t, although I suspect that had time allowed you’d have made each.

First, both Lindsay and Pluckrose mistake Hayek’s rejection of scientism for skepticism of expertise. Hayek wasn’t in the least skeptical of expertise or of science. Instead, Hayek argued that rote application to the social sciences of the methods appropriate to the natural sciences thwarts rather than furthers our quest for a better, scientific understanding of society. A true, scientific understanding of society informs us that anyone who claims to have expertise at engineering society in general, or the economy specifically, is in fact a quack. It was jarring to hear especially Pluckrose repeatedly complain that Hayek (and his followers) don’t sufficiently value expertise. What Hayek and his followers don’t value – what we positively reject – is the social engineer’s false expertise, “expertise” that, when imposed, actually prevents the exercise of genuine expertise by individuals on the ground.

Second, it was frustrating to hear these two intelligent scholars repeat the myth that classical-liberal individualism pays too little heed to human beings’ natural sociability.

No one is more a classical-liberal individualist than Adam Smith, and his first book is about how each of us is filled with moral sentiments – sentiments derived from our sociability and honed to further enhance that sociability. And as did Smith in his second book, we liberals have ever since emphasized that among the greatest virtues of the free market is that it, and it alone, weaves ever-larger numbers of strangers together into what Hayek called “the Great Society” – which is a peaceful and productive process of social cooperation in which each person is led to serve countless strangers and, in turn, be served by countless strangers.

I came away from the podcast convinced that if Lindsay and Pluckrose were to read, for example, Mises’s Liberalism, or the first two volumes of Hayek’s Law, Legislation, and Liberty, or Henry Hazlitt’s The Foundations of Morality, or Deirdre McCloskey’s Bourgeois trilogy, or your own The Invisible Heart and The Price of Everything – or even just watch your wonderful video “It’s a Wonderful Loaf” – they’d realize that individualism is not a philosophy that defends personal venality or denies human sociability but, rather, is a recognition that only by keeping the initiation of coercion within reasonable limits will individuals have the gumption, knowledge, and ability necessary to come together to form a vast system of social cooperation.


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