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.