Friedrich A. Hayek’s Lecture “The Pretense of Knowledge”

Somehow Hayek wrote his multitudinous works wearing a suit.
This was reprinted in the Wall Street Journal over the weekend. I’ve chopped it into parts for commenting.

To act on the belief that we possess the knowledge and the power which enable us to shape the processes of society entirely to our liking, knowledge which in fact we do not possess, is likely to make us do much harm. In the physical sciences there may be little objection to trying to do the impossible; one might even feel that one ought not to discourage the over-confident because their experiments may after all produce some new insights. But in the social field the erroneous belief that the exercise of some power would have beneficial consequences is likely to lead to a new power to coerce other men being conferred on some authority.

If a physics experiment goes south, all that happens is some money is wasted but with the reasonable chance something is learned. Not always, of course. Think of the “cold” fusion hiccup twenty years ago. But when an, as Mill put it, “experiment in living” sours people suffer. And nothing is learned.

The love of theory is far too strong in economics, sociology, education and the like for observation to wound belief. In physics, what has gone wrong is usually identifiable, but in the “nudging” sciences the evidence is always somewhat ambiguous. There is aways wiggle room in whatever happens that the theory which drove the experiment might be true. And this is enough.

Human society is so unfathomably complex that all experiments should be approached with trepidation and fear and with an “out,” a way to revert, if at all possible, to the old ways. The essence of at least one definition of conservatism it that “change we can believe in” just for the sake of change is more likely to lead to grief than to happiness. There is a vast amount of wisdom packed into tradition which should not be overthrown lightly.

Even if such power is not in itself bad, its exercise is likely to impede the functioning of those spontaneous ordering forces by which, without understanding them, man is in fact so largely assisted in the pursuit of his aims. We are only beginning to understand on how subtle a communication system the functioning of an advanced industrial society is based — a communications system which we call the market and which turns out to be a more efficient mechanism for digesting dispersed information than any that man has deliberately designed.

The (highly degreed, well-placed) bureaucrat looks at the market and says to himself, “There’s no way to understand this, therefore it is not understandable. Therefore I must direct it, then I will understand it.” The conclusion has elements of truth—it is easier to claim to understand what one directs—but it does not follow from the premise. And anyway, we’re right back at the beginning. The directions (regulations, laws, taxes) cause changes nobody could have foreseen. The urge to perfection is never humiliated by history.

If man is not to do more harm than good in his efforts to improve the social order, he will have to learn that in this, as in all other fields where essential complexity of an organized kind prevails, he cannot acquire the full knowledge which would make mastery of the events possible. He will therefore have to use what knowledge he can achieve, not to shape the results as the craftsman shapes his handiwork, but rather to cultivate a growth by providing the appropriate environment, in the manner in which the gardener does this for his plants.

Hayek follows Burke and says change should be small, incremental, with the acknowledgement, like in gardening, that despite our best efforts, a poor harvest is more likely to result from enthusiasm than from conservatism.

There is danger in the exuberant feeling of ever growing power which the advance of the physical sciences has engendered and which tempts man to try, “dizzy with success,” to use a characteristic phrase of early communism, to subject not only our natural but also our human environment to the control of a human will. The recognition of the insuperable limits to his knowledge ought indeed to teach the student of society a lesson of humility which should guard him against becoming an accomplice in men’s fatal striving to control society — a striving which makes him not only a tyrant over his fellows, but which may well make him the destroyer of a civilization which no brain has designed but which has grown from the free efforts of millions of individuals.

That cannot be said better, but just as a for instance, note that the Expertism embraced by all modern liberal democratic societies has gone so far that government social services feels it can judge the mental health of tourists, as in Britain, where an Italian woman having a panic attack was forcibly sedated and cut open, her baby removed from her womb, taken away, and not given back. The experts feel they would do a better job raising this non-citizen’s baby than its mother. Link.


  1. I’ve read this before, but I hadn’t noticed how amoral the argument is. I don’t mean this in a pejorative way, only that it makes no moral appeal to what OUGHT to be done. It only argues that there are limitations to what CAN be done, an empirically obvious conclusion that is nevertheless strenuously resisted.

  2. Don’t forget the excellent Hayek vs Keynes rap videos produced a few years ago –
    Fight of the Century: Keynes vs. Hayek Round Two
    “The lesson I’ve learned? It’s how little we know,
    the world is complex, not some circular flow
    the economy’s not a class you can master in college
    to think otherwise is the pretense of knowledge!”
    Well said Hayek! 🙂

  3. Brady,

    Though we must all admit Keynes had the superior ‘stache. And look at those suits! Sharp! (Painful music, especially the first video.)

  4. Finally something that we can agree on. Hayek is one of my favorite authors and I recommend both “The Road to Serfdom” and “The Fatal Conceit”. The video tributes are great as well, especially “Fear the Boom and Bust” which is probably the only good rap song ever written.

    How do you know he wore a suit when writing? Is this a pretence to knowledge? Maybe he did his best writing in boxers?

  5. John,

    Hayek is stating the “is,” not the “ought.” Science should be wertfrei — the German term, used nonperjuratively, for value free.

    So the scientist can say, “If you hold your hand to the flame it will burn.” But the scientist,qua>/em> scientist, should not make a moral judgement on that proposed action.

  6. Briggs,

    The term “conservative” has multiple meanings. If this was meant to imply the standard definition of conservative, it is important to note that Hayek did not consider himself a conservative (read his essay, Why I am not a conservative, FA Hayek)).

  7. The above referred to this quote, “…a poor harvest is more likely to result from enthusiasm than from conservatism.” (emphasis mine)

  8. Nonsense. And very dangerous nonsense at that.

    There is no need to do things cautiously. The liberals certainly don’t believe in caution; if the conservatives resist, but only cautiously, they only slow the liberals down. In fact, if ObamaCare had been implemented more cautiously there would no doubt be less opposition to it – boiling the frog slowly, so to speak.

    What conservatives need is a much bigger hammer. Make it a claw hammer, to claw back the powers that the federal government has usurped from the states. For example, does anyone actually believe that ObamaCare promotes interstate commerce? If that was the goal, it should have opened up the health insurance market across state lines.

    Some worry that the states would then have too much power. But I have more influence over my state government than the federal government. Failing that, I can move to another state that better respects my freedoms. While painful, it’s a lot less painful than moving out of the country.

    No, there’s no need to do things cautiously. The only requirement is that decisions be intimately connected to consequences, for good or ill. This can only happen when decisions are made at the lowest level possible, all the way down to the individual.

    The federal government is incapable of making good decisions on the first try. And there never really is a second try; the ‘winners’ from the first try become vested in it, warts and all. Is there a better way? We’ll never know, since the federal government has decreed the solution, and the most harmful aspects of the solution are often not readily visible. And society decays.

    At least when the solutions are implemented at the state level, we get 50 tries at it. This is the true source of American Exceptionalism, I believe. Unfortunately, the federal government has grabbed so much power from the states in the last 75 years, it may be too late. As brilliant as the founders were, as worried as they were about a tyrannical central government, as much as they tried to build mechanisms into the Constitution to protect us, I fear even they underestimated the capacity of political leaders usurp their best efforts to protect us.

    You can’t begin to solve a problem if you can’t see it’s true nature. We don’t need smarter people making decisions for us, more thoughtfully and with more respect for the past. We need to take away their power to make those decisions in the first place.

  9. OMITTED from the above essay (& all comments so far) is the ongoing, never-stopping (unstoppable?) characteristic of the intervening do-gooder manipulators & proponents to never admit making any mistake, or, admit a mistake was made. They are adept at ignoring & disbelieving any & all evidence, & indicators, of adverse effects they induce — in their distorted world view, unintended consequences do not and cannot occur.

    Case in point: look up stats on single parent trends in the USA. Pretty easy. Then find’m subdivided by race…pretty darn hard; here’s a couple of links that seem credible: and . Try & find such stats by race over time….

    Consider some recent single parent figures: About 27% of White children, 35% of Hispanic children, and 66% of Black children do not live with their biological father.

    A few decades ago, before the “Great Society” welfare programs (and a number of hedonistic behavior/reward programs that undercut self-responsibility) kicked in, about 3% of white children were in a single parent home and maybe 20% [if that] of black kids. The overall proportion of white children living in single-parent households increased from 9% in 1960 to 27% in 2002; and, from 32% to 53% for blacks over 1970-2002.*

    * The situation in black families is particularly severe in noteworthy as it illustrates a sub-population having very unique family dynamics associated with a taken-for-granted expectation that the father will be out of the picture. This was observed as early as 1987 (ref: ) where studies of the emotional impacts of a father’s death on the daughter, usually having profound grieving issues [sometimes with life-long implications], revealed it simply wasn’t a factor in the majority of black families–the father simply wasn’t expected to be there or be a significant factor if he was.

    Studies such as “The Liberal Mind” (see include data showing such family dynamics (or lack thereof) didn’t exist to any significant degree, or reflected a small minority of a subgroup’s population’s characteristics, prior to the “Great Society” program’s.

    Being a child-thru-adult in a single parent household is a powerful indicator of substandard economic success (or increased inclination for ongoing welfare dependency & life in poverty). There are many much-studied inter-related reasons for this, research studies of such are easily found.

    Over the same period the proportion of the population having diagnosable personality disorders (PDs) has similarly skyrocketed (in the overall population, about 6% will have Borderline PD, about 6% will have Narcissistic PD, and some proportion will have both — so roughly about 10% of the population in the USA has one or both of these very disruptive disorders [disruptive in close family relationships and on-the-job arrangements). Their prevalence in the overall population is continuing to rise — and is observed in observed & increasing trends in high-conflict divorce (& post-divorce) cases, and [curiously] in conflicts observed by providers of dating services (among others).

    Development of PDs [a type of toxic psychological defense mechanism — also notoriously difficult to treat, usually non-treatable] are traceable to many of the stresses associated with single parenting.

    Thus, one “do-gooder” program — the so-called “Great Society” in the USA — is associated with being a major & direct contributor to the breakdown in the family unit, and, an indirect contributor to the measurable increases in the prevalence of those with severe mental health issues. Similar trends are observed in other countries where comparable welfare programs have been implemented & sustained.

    Yet, despite the avalanche of evidence of harm (including but not limited to outcome indicators noted above), liberal proponents adamantly refuse to acknowledge the harms they cause.

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