David Brin's BS on Hayek

Hayeksplosives, from The Fight of the
Century I enjoy reading Wired; I subscribe to the dead-trees version, and read a lot of their online stuff. I came across this interview with well-known science fiction author David Brin entitled "Why David Brin Hates Yoda, Loves Radical Transparency." Catchy! So even though I've never managed to wade through a David Brin novel, I read on.

Apparently Brin fancies himself a social commentator as well. The "radical transparency" bit is a continuing theme from his 1999 book The Transparent Society. Which, unless my memory is very faulty, I have also not read. In any case, this caught my eye:

One of the gods of the right, Friedrich Hayek, founder of the Austrian School of Economics, who the conservatives claim to consider to be the greatest economist of all time, said that the absolute necessity of capitalism is for all the players to know all of what’s going on all the time, so they can make good capitalist decisions. Even a laborer in a factory, even a peasant, if that peasant knows everything that’s going on, then that peasant can make the best deal for the fish he just caught or the yam he just grew. The greatest hypocrisy on the planet right now is for those who defend capitalism to not be in favor of radical transparency, for all of us to know who owns everything. And that is my militant, radical, moderate, pro-capitalist, pro-Enlightenment, ferocious stand.

I found myself both irritated and confused. Irritated by the implied condescension—look at those silly conservative god-worshippers claiming things! But confused because… did Hayek ever say anything like that? Didn't he kinda believe something 180° opposite from what Brin claims?

Yes. Although I haven't read Brin, I have read a decent subset of Hayek, including one of his better-known essays, "The Use of Knowledge in Society", which (as luck would have it) is online here. Key quote:

The most significant fact about this [price] system is the economy of knowledge with which it operates, or how little the individual participants need to know in order to be able to take the right action.

Emphasis added. Was I missing something, though? Best kick it upstairs to an expert: I e-mailed Professor Don Boudreaux, on the George Mason University's Econ faculty and proprietor of the Cafe Hayek blog. Professor Boudreaux was game enough to reply to Brin on his own, with a more detailed refutation. (And he gratifyingly hat-tipped me; I feel brushed by greatness.)

For Hayek, market prices make economic order and growth possible despite each of us being ignorant of all but a minuscule fraction of the specific facts that must be taken account of for the economy to work well. The price system enables each person to act as if he possesses knowledge that, in fact, he does not possess – to act as if he knows what is known, in this case, only to a small number of strangers over here and, in that case, only to a small number of different strangers over there.

Interestingly, Brin responded to Professor Boudreaux in the post's comments. Lots of invective and bluster, but nothing to actually back up his claim about Hayek. Check for yourself if interested.

And one of the other commenters pointed out something I'd forgotten: David Friedman had a similar go-round with Brin last year; in that case, the economist that Brin claimed to understand better than "today's conservatives" was Adam Smith. Brin was (politely) asked to back up his claim, and, as here, failed to do so.

It's interesting—and a little encouraging—that Brin (apparently) finds it necessary to invoke conservative/libertarian icons to buttress his possibly-interesting ideas on economics, society, and politics. On the other hand, when that invocation is bullshit-laden as above, it makes it difficult to wash away the muck to see if there are any pearls of wisdom left over. Worth my time? Doubtful.


Last Modified 2012-09-21 10:01 AM EST