- Editorial Staff
- Readers’ Forum: Order Defined In the Process of Its Emergence. a Note Stimulated By Reading Norman Barry, “the Tradition of Spontaneous Order”
- Bibliographical Essay: John Gray, F. A. Hayek and the Rebirth of Classical Liberalism
- Introduction: the Revival of Interest In Hayek—a Unified Research Program In Hayek's Writings?
- The Unity and Coherence of Hayek's Writings: Conception of Mind & Unity of Knowledge
- Overview of Topics Covered In This Essay
- Hayek's General Philosophy—the Kantian Heritage
- Hayek As a Skeptical Kantian
- Three Influences On Hayek's Skeptical Kantianism: Mach, Popper, and Wittgenstein
- 1. Ernst Mach and Metaphysical Neutrality
- 2. Karl Popper: the Growth of Knowledge
- 3. Wittgenstein & Hayek
- Hayek On Knowledge and Mind: Implications For Social Theory
- Hayek's Kantian Philosophy of Mind
- Hayek's Philosophy of Mind & His Social Theory: Beyond Kantianism
- The Idea of a Spontaneous Social Order
- The Application of Spontaneous Order In Economic Life: the Catallaxy
- The Catallactic Order, Practical Knowledge, and the Calculation Debate
- Hayek's Refinements of the Misesian Calculation Debate
- Theory and Method In Economic Science
- Prediction Vs. ‘complex Phenomena’
- Hayek's Opposition to Apriori Science
- Popperian ‘conjectures & Refutations’
- Some Applications of Hayek's Methodological Views: Keynes, Friedman, and Shackle On Economic Policy
- Hayek Contra Constructivism & Social Engineering
- Hayek Contra Keynes
- Hayek Contra Friedman
- Hayek and Shackle
- Hayek's Constitution of Liberty: Ethical Basis of the Juridical Framework of Individual Liberty
- Clarifying Hayek's Moral Theory
- Hume's Influence On Hayek's Social Philosophy
- Hayek's Utilitarianism & Liberty
- Justice, Liberty, and the Rule of Law In Hayek's Constitution of Liberty
- Criticisms of Hayek's Universalizable ‘rule of Law’
- Meeting Objections to the Universalizability Test
- Kantian Universalizability & Liberal Justice
- Some Criticism of Hayek's System of Ideas: Buchanan and Oakeshott
- James Buchanan On Hayek
- Michael Oakeshott On Hayek
- Hayek's Variant of Classical Liberalism: a Fusing of Libertarian & Traditionalistic Ideals?
- Hayek's Voluntaristic Traditionalism: a Market In Traditions
- Conclusion: Hayek's Research Program & Classical Liberalism
- Bibliography of Friedrich A. Hayek
- Books Edited Or Introduced
- Articles In Journals, Newspapers, Or Collections of Essays
- Works About Or Relevant to Friedrich A. Hayek
The Catallactic Order, Practical Knowledge,
and the Calculation Debate
The relevance of these considerations to Hayek's contributions to the question of the allocation of resources in a socialist economic order is central, but often neglected. It is, of course, widely recognized45 that one of Hayek's principal contributions in economic theory is the refinement of the thesis of his teacher, Ludwig von Mises (1881–1973), that the attempt to supplant market relations by public planning cannot avoid yielding calculational chaos. Hayek's account of the mechanism whereby this occurs has, however, some entirely distinctive and original features. For Hayek is at great pains to point out that the dispersed knowledge which brings about a tendency to equilibrium in economic life and so facilitates an integration of different plans of life, is precisely not theoretical or technical knowledge, but practical knowledge of concrete situations—“knowledge of people, of local conditions, and of special circumstances.” As Hayek puts it: “The skipper who earns his living from using otherwise empty or half-filled journeys of tramp-steamers, or the estate agent whose whole knowledge is almost exclusively one of temporary opportunities, or the arbitrageur who gains from local differences of commodity prices—are all performing eminently useful functions based on special knowledge of circumstances of the fleeting moment not known to others.” Hayek goes on the comment: “It is a curious fact that this sort of knowledge should today be regarded with a kind of contempt and that anyone who by such knowledge gains an advantage over somebody better equipped with theoretical or technical knowledge is thought to have acted almost disreputably.”46 The “problem of the division of knowledge,” which Hayek describes as “the really central problem of economics as a social science,”47 is therefore not just a problem of specific data, articulable in explicit terms, being dispersed in millions of heads: it is the far more fundamental problem of the practical knowledge on which economic life depends being embodied in skills and habits, which change as society changes and which are rarely expressible in theoretical or technical terms.
One way of putting Hayek's point, a way we owe to Israel Kirzner rather than to Hayek himself but which is wholly compatible with all that Hayek has said on these questions, is to remark as follows: if men's economic activities really do show a tendency to coordinate with one another, this is due in large part to the activity of entrepreneurship. The neglect of the entrepreneur in much standard economic theorizing, the inability to grasp his functions in the market process, may be accounted for in part by reference to Hayek's description above of the sort of knowledge used by the entrepreneur. As Kirzner puts it, “Ultimately, then, the kind of ‘knowledge’ required for entrepreneurship is ‘knowing’ where to look for ‘knowledge’ rather than knowledge of substantive market information.”48 It is hard to avoid the impression that the entrepreneurial knowledge of which Kirzner speaks here is precisely that practical or dispositional knowledge which Hayek describes.
It is the neglect of how all economic life depends on this practical knowledge which allowed the brilliant but, in this respect, fatally misguided Joseph Schumpeter (1883–1950) to put a whole generation of economists on the wrong track, when he stated in his Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy (1942) that the problem of calculation under socialism was essentially solved.49 It is the neglect of the same truth that Hayek expounded which explains the inevitable failure in Soviet-style economies of attempts to simulate market processes in computer modeling. All such efforts are bound to fail, if only because the practical knowledge of which Hayek speaks cannot be programmed into a mechanical device. They are bound to fail, also, because they neglect the knowledge-gathering role of market pricing. Here we must recall that, according to Hayek, knowledge is dispersed throughout society and, further, it is embodied in habits and dispositions of countless men and women. The knowledge yielded by market pricing is knowledge which all men can use, but which none of them would possess in the absence of the market process; in a sense, the knowledge embodied or expressed in the market price is systemic or holistic knowledge, knowledge unknown and unknowable to any of the elements of the market system, but given to them all by the operation of the system itself. No sort of market simulation or shadow pricing can rival the operation of the market order itself in producing this knowledge, because only the actual operation of the market itself can draw on the fund of practical knowledge which market participants exploit in the their activities.
Hayek's Refinements of the Misesian Calculation Debate
Three further points may be worth noting in respect of Hayek's refinements of the Misesian calculation debate. First, when Hayek speaks of economic calculations under socialism as a practical impossibility, he is not identifying specific obstacles in the way of the socialist enterprise which might someday be removed. Socialist planning could supplant market processes only if practical knowledge could be replaced by theoretical or technical knowledge at the level of society as a whole—and that is a supposition which is barely conceivable. The kind of omniscience demanded of a socialist planner could be possessed only by a single mind, entirely self-aware, existing in an unchanging environment—a supposition so bizarre that we realize we have moved from any imaginable social world to a metaphysical fantasy in which men and women have disappeared altogether, and all that remain are Leibnizian monads, featureless and unhistorical ciphers.
Fortunately, such a transformation is possible, if at all, only as a thought-experiment. In practice, all supposedly socialist economies depend upon precisely that practical knowledge of which Hayek speaks, and which though dispersed through society is transmitted via the price mechanism. It is widely acknowledged that socialist economies depend crucially in their planning policies on price data gleaned from historic and world markets. Less often recognized, and dealt with in detail only, so far as I know, in Paul Craig Roberts’ important Alienation in the Soviet Economy,50 is that planning policies in socialist economies are only shadows cast by market processes distorted by episodes of authoritarian intervention. The consequence of the Hayekian and Polanyian critiques of socialist planning is not inefficiency of such planning but rather its impossibility: we cannot analyze the “socialist” economies of the world properly, unless we penetrate the ideological veil they secrete themselves behind, and examine the mixture of market processes with command structures which is all that can ever exist in such a complex society.
The third and final implication of Hayek's contribution to the calculation question is his clear statement of the truth that the impossibility of socialism is an epistemological impossibility. It is not a question of motivation or volition, of the egoism or limited sympathies of men and women, but of the inability of any social order in which the market is suppressed or distorted to utilize effectively the practical knowledge possessed by its citizens. Calculational chaos would ensue, and a barbarization of social life result, from the attempt to socialize production, even if men possessed only altruistic and conformist motives. For, in the absence of the signals transmitted via the price mechanism, they would be at a loss how to direct their activities for the social good, and the common stock of practical knowledge would begin to decay. Only the inventiveness of human beings as expressed in the emergence of black and gray markets could then prevent a speedy regression to the subsistence economy. The impossibility of socialism, then, derives from its neglect of the epistemological functions of market institutions and processes. Hayek's argument here is the most important application of his fundamental insight into the epistemological role of social institutions—an insight I will need to take up again in the context of certain similarities between Hayek's conception of liberty under law and Robert Nozick's meta-utopian framework.