Hayek and the White House

Ah, let us long for the days of yesteryear, when Bush campaigned for a more “humble” foreign policy. The days of humility long gone, we are now asked to believe that the White House is not only omnipotent but omniscient as well.

Comes the news that the White House (working with the CIA, Justice, and Pentagon) has prepared a classified list of 2,000 high-level individuals in Iraq. These people are broken down into three categories: irredeemable war criminals loyal to Saddam Hussein (and this before the war!), those whose loyalties are in question and can probably be bought off, and those who secretly oppose the regime and whose technical expertise is essential to running a post-Saddam Iraq. It is the most ambitious attempt to classify people in a foreign government in the history of US foreign policy.

A comment: there’s a screw loose at the White House. The very idea that anyone in DC can make such judgments with anything but arbitrary supposition is nuts. George W. Bush and his inner circle can’t even assess the intensity of loyalties among people who have access to the Oval Office. They are unsure if Alan Greenspan is friend or foe. They have doubts about all sorts of agency heads and their underlings. Paranoia is the partner of power. Who is loyal to the president is a question that consumes them every day.

False arrests take place every day right here at home. In fact, just recently the FBI arrested a retired British man living in South Africa, and put him in jail for three weeks before it turned out they had the wrong guy. What’s more, in domestic politics, we are rightly concerned about arbitrariness and brutality even when people are guilty. Why should these concerns be tossed out just because something is called “war” instead of “public policy”?

These people in government are presuming to make definitive judgments about the entire Iraqi ruling class, even going so far as to say that they know the secret hostility of a huge range of people toward Saddam, which thus qualifies them (those who just happen to have essential technical knowledge) to help administer a US puppet regime. The White House can’t possibly know this. That they believe they can, or they believe we will believe their claims to know, is incredible and frightening.

The alarming reality brings to mind the title of F.A. Hayek’s Nobel Prize lecture in 1974: “The Pretense of Knowledge.” With great courage, Hayek spoke of the tendency of economists to presume that they know things about human behavior that they do not and cannot know. They do so because they try to apply the models of the physical sciences to explain human action, always with an aim toward controlling the outcomes of human choice.

In truth, human action is too complex and subjective to be accessed by social scientists, and the attempt will always lead to abysmal failure. Hayek went on to explain how his critique of positivist economic modeling applies more broadly to anyone who would attempt to imitate the form while missing the substance of scientific procedure.

“But it is by no means only in the field of economics that far-reaching claims are made on behalf of a more scientific direction of all human activities and the desirability of replacing spontaneous processes by ‘conscious human control’.” He mentions that the point applies to sociology, psychiatry, and the philosophy of history.

Let’s be clear here that Hayek was raising an objection to the idea not of omniscience but of the possibility of accessing even mundane knowledge, the kind we have of ourselves and maybe of those to whom we are very close. We can approximate some sense of what our own motivations are, and we can often be successful in predicting the behavior of those we know very well, based on close observation of behavior.

Beyond that, we are pretty much at a loss. A list of 2,000 people in some foreign country, broken down by loyalties and motivations and aspirations, is a fiction. The idea that the feds can know who ought to be running a country and what they ought to do, calls to mind the most maniacal claims of the central planners of old. No small group in government, much less a single person, can accumulate and sort through the kinds of information necessary to administer society, much less destroy and reconstruct one.

The attempt to assemble such a list is an act of power, not intelligence. After the war, of course, there will be trials, interrogations, purges, jailings, and killing. Who will be responsible for errors, provided they are discovered? No one, of course. We are being asked to make an enormous leap of faith that the Bush administration has somehow solved the great problem that afflicts us all: the limits of human comprehension. Because of those limits, we are right to try to limit the ability of men to exercise power over their fellows, at home or abroad.

Thus does Hayek’s point apply to politics, especially to politics, even more especially to the politics of the military machine. The social scientist who believes he has the master plan to run the world is enough of a menace. But the politician who believes this, and is contemplating war, can bring about massive amounts of destruction and death. In these nuclear days — and let us say what we don’t like to contemplate but which is nonetheless true — he can bring about the end of the world as we know it. As Hayek notes, a tyrant who carries the pretense of knowledge too far can become “a destroyer of civilization.”

Someone should sit Bush’s inner circle down and read them the following words of Hayek:

If man is not to do more harm than good in his efforts to improve the social order, he will have to learn that in this, as in all other fields where essential complexity of an organized kind prevails, he cannot acquire the full knowledge which would make mastery of the events possible. He will therefore have to use what knowledge he can achieve, not to shape the results as the craftsman shapes his handiwork, but rather to cultivate a growth by providing the appropriate environment, in the manner in which the gardener does this for his plants.

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 of humility which should guard him against becoming an accomplice in men’s fatal striving to control society — a striving which makes him not only a tyrant over his fellows, 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.

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