Front Page Titles (by Subject) Hayek contra Constructivism & Social Engineering - Literature of Liberty, Winter 1982, vol. 5, No. 4
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Hayek contra Constructivism & Social Engineering - Leonard P. Liggio, Literature of Liberty, Winter 1982, vol. 5, No. 4 
Literature of Liberty: A Review of Contemporary Liberal Thought was published first by the Cato Institute (1978-1979) and later by the Institute for Humane Studies (1980-1982) under the editorial direction of Leonard P. Liggio.
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Hayek contra Constructivism & Social Engineering
We have seen that, for Hayek, the most we can hope for in understanding social life is that we will recognize recurring patterns. Hayek goes on to observe:
Predictions of a pattern are...both testable and valuable. Since the theory tells us under which general conditions a pattern of this sort will form itself, it will enable us to create such conditions and to observe whether a pattern of the kind predicted will appear. And since the theory tells us that this pattern assures a maximisation of output in a certain sense, it also enables us to create the general conditions which will assure such a maximisation, though we are ignorant of many of the particular circumstances which will determine the pattern that will appear.62
Hayek's view stands in sharp opposition to any idea of a policy science or a political technology aimed at producing specific desired effects. Such a policy science demands the impossible of its practitioners, a detailed knowledge of a changing and complex order in society. Even Popper's conception of “piecemeal social engineering,” Hayek tells us, “suggests to me too much a technological problem of reconstruction on the basis of the total knowledge of the physical facts, while the essential point about the practical improvement is an experimental attempt to improve the functioning of some part without a full comprehension of the structure of the whole.”63 Indeed Hayek's central point is that understanding the primacy of the abstract in human knowledge means that we must altogether renounce the modern ideal of consciously controlling social life: a better ideal is that of cultivating the general conditions in which beneficial results may be expected to emerge.
Hayek's critique of the constructivistic or engineering approach to social life parallels in an intriguing way that of Michael Oakeshott and of the Wittgensteinian philosopher Rush Rhees. Consider Oakeshott's statement: “The assimilation of politics to engineering is, indeed, what may be called the myth of rationalist politics.”64 Or Rhee's observation (made in criticism of Popper): “There is nothing about human societies which makes it reasonable to speak of the application of engineering to them. Even the most important ‘problems of production’ are not problems in engineering.”65 The conception of social life which talk of social engineering expresses is at fault not only because it presupposes an agreement on goals or ends which nowhere exists but also because it promotes the illusion that political life may become subject to a sort of technical or theoretical control.
[62.] Hayek, µB-13Õ, Studies, p. 36. See also Studies, p. 18: “Where our predictions are thus limited to some general and perhaps only negative attributes of what is likely to happen, we evidently also shall have little power to control developments.” And on p. 19: “the wise legislator or statesman will probably attempt to cultivate rather than to control the forces of the social process.”
[63.] Hayek, µB-16Õ, Law, Legislation and Liberty, vol. II, p. 157, footnote 25.
[64.] Michael Oakeshott, Rationalism in Politics, London: Methuen, 1962, p. 4.
[65.] Rush Rhees, Without Answers, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1969, p. 49.