Hayek on Knowledge and Society

quotes classical liberalism hayek knowledge society

24 Oct 2014

F.A. Hayek on knowledge and society:

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 in humility which should guard him against becoming an accomplice in men’s final striving to control society – a striving which makes him not only a tyrant over his fellow, 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.

Although this quote resonates with me, the reader who is unfamiliar with Hayek may receive the wrong impression based on reading this quote alone. Here are a few points that should be further emphasized:

  • Society is in fact subject to the control of human will, on the aggregate. This control emerges from the decentralized actions of many independant actors as they each advance their own idiosyncratic wills. To reuse Hayek’s words above, our human environment is subject to the aggregation of human will, but not to the will of any single individual or select group of individuals.
  • Emergent knowledge is less limited than individual knowledge. We should exercise humility not in the power of emergent knowledge, but in the desire to rely on centralized individual knowledge.
  • No SINGLE brain has designed society, but individual brains have indeed designed society, on the aggregate.

Read more here.