Liberty Matters

Communication and Enrichment in the Sciences of Man (and the Sciences of Complexity)


Mises was a methodological dualist. Hayek was more or less a methodological dualist by degree.  Whereas Mises believed the method of the social sciences was completely distinct from the method of the natural sciences, Hayek thought they differed by degree and the degree turned on the existence of knowledge from within. (We are what we study.)  This is not necessarily a point of extreme disagreement between them once we account for the implications as laid out in say Hayek's 1940 essay "The Facts of the Social Sciences" or his 1952 book The Counter-Revolution of Science.  Both Mises and Hayek also argued that the sciences of man were sciences of essential complexity.
It is important to highlight these methodological positions because they have profound implications for the question regarding communication and enrichment and the promise and perils of viewing enrichment through communication. 
Adam Martin forces us to consider the tension-laden trade-offs we face in both our approach and our substance.  He is making an important point.  Richard Langlois (1986) wrote an important paper years ago, "Coherence and Flexibility: Social Institutions in a World of Radical Uncertainty," that has been underutilized in the literature to address the institutional trade-offs in Hayek's writings that Martin identifies.  So perhaps we can pursue that in the follow-ups.
But in this comment I want to pick a bit at the trade-off Martin sees between communicating and enriching Hayek's ideas with regard to epistemic institutionalism, something I think Roger Koppl too easily brushes aside.  For one, I think Martin is nudging both Horwitz and Koppl with the point that reaching outside economics proper to evolutionary psychology, philosophy, computer science, etc., while perhaps interesting and maybe even enhancing, does raise the communication costs with other economists, especially the work-a-day applied economists who dominate the profession.  Easier communication with other scientists and scholars may mean  more difficult communication with applied economists.  If we are to talk to other economists, our conceptualizations and our approach might actually cut against the enrichment of Hayek's ideas.
In short, I think Martin is identifying a serious problem that the modern Hayekian economist faces within economics.  Now we have to admit that while the range of views in the economics profession runs, as Deirdre McCloskey might put it, from A to Z, the elite of economics is preoccupied only with M to N.  This is what Martin is talking about. If you aren't part of the conversation in the AER, JPE, QJE, and Econometrica or at Harvard, MIT, Stanford, Princeton, and Chicago, well, you aren't part of the conversation.  You might face the fate of being known as the slightly out-of-sync guy or gal in the corner who is read but never sought after for prestigious positions or granted decision-making power in the top journals or top awards.  Think of the careers of Gordon Tullock or Israel Kirzner.  They had radically different career trajectories from say Fritz Machlup, who was editor of the American Economic Review, president of the American Economic Association, and a professor at Johns Hopkins and then Princeton.  Isn't it strange that Machlup is the last individual in the Mises-Hayek tradition to hold such a position within the economics profession?  And how misunderstood was he in both methodology and method of economic analysis?  Roger Koppl knows that story as well as anyone in the world.  Communication and enrichment are, and have been, in tension with each other ever since the formalist, aggregationist, and empiricist intellectual revolutions in economics.  Again, note Hayek's 1952 title – The Counter-Revolution of Science.
So Martin is throwing us a very important challenge, and I want to compound it further.  The Mises-Hayek approach to the sciences of man (and the sciences of complexity) became a theoretical and empirical project not easily adapted to the contemporary tools and methods of economics without a major loss for the project.  The Mises-Hayek approach puts a premium on the meanings that purposive human actors place on their situations and the objects of their activity.  In other words, the practitioners of that approach do not seek to render activity sensible in physical terms, but in terms of actors' purposes and plans, intentions and interpretations. The second conceptual task is to trace out the unintended consequences – both desirable and undesirable – of those actions.
We who have inherited this Mises-Hayek position must continually enrich the ideas and continually communicate the ideas. But we also have to recognize when our enriching raises our communication costs. Then we must live with those consequences, as we must live with the consequences when our communication efforts results in a distortion of the ideas rather than an enriching of them.  To deny the trade-off is to be scientifically naïve at a fundamental level.    But to embrace the isolation of the out-of-sync eccentric in science is not only unacceptable, it is a quick path to a dead-end in scientific and scholarly progress.  We must enrich through communication, as Koppl says, but that turns on whom our communication partners are.  Analytically and, dare I say ideologically, our natural communication partners are other economists, but we often lose completely our methodological uniqueness.  On the other hand, the more humanistic social sciences and the humanities are our natural methodological communication partners, but they are often allergic to basic economic reasoning and the arguments for liberal political and economic institutional arrangements.  So whom to talk to?   And whom are we to listen to and learn from? 
Well, if we are true to the methodological teachings of Mises-Hayek, we must place a priority on human intentionality and the meanings embedded in social institutions.  The Mises-Hayek approach compels the theorist to account for both agency and structure, and applied work must never lose sight of the complex web of relationships and interconnectedness that emerges in that play between agency and structure.   If we fail to account for human purposes and plans, and the meanings attributed, we end up committing the first error on a long path of errors that results in scientism and the charade of acting as if something is scientific because it looks like chemistry or physics, even though the science being pursued cannot in principle be practiced that way without losing its very object of study – man in his ordinary conduct of life.  We must insist to our conversation partners that economics is a human science and a social science, and any approach which diminishes the human subject and the social aspects does not enrich, but impoverishes, our science.