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What Social Animals Owe to Each Other

Friday, May 26, 2023

TGIF: The Knowledge that Only Free Markets Disclose

As a follow-up to my recent article about F. A. Hayek's classic article "The Use of Knowledge in Society" (1945), I thought it worth extending Hayek's exploration of this area of social theory. In 1968 the Nobel laureate-economist delivered a lecture in German known in English as "Competition as a Discovery Procedure." It's an alluring title, and anyone concerned with what makes for a good and prosperous society should be familiar with Hayek's basic point.

Hayek gets right to it. He notes that standard macroeconomists are guilty of having "investigated competition primarily under assumptions which, if they were actually true, would make competition completely useless and uninteresting." By that, he meant, "If anyone actually knew everything that economic theory designated as 'data,' competition would indeed be a highly wasteful method of securing adjustment to these facts."

In other words, if all the "data" were actually accessible data, solving society's scarcity problem would be a piece of cake, at least if the government's computer was powerful enough. (I'm led to understand that, fortunately, many economists have advanced since he gave this lecture, probably in part because of his challenge.)

"Hence," Hayek went on,

it is also not surprising that some authors have concluded that we can either completely renounce the market, or that its outcomes are to be considered at most a first step toward creating a social product that we can then manipulate, correct, or redistribute in any way we please.

Unfortunately, lots of such people are still around today.

Hayek (like his teacher Ludwig von Mises) knew that he needed to show that Adam Smith's "system of natural liberty" performed a critical service to mankind that could not be otherwise performed: the production of knowledge that is needed in a changing world of scarcity in which each individual must make plans but also be ready to adjust his or her plans in light of what other free individuals are doing. And that's what Hayek did, building on Mises and others. Hayek made contributions to the economic, or "practical," case for freedom that have been woefully unappreciated. The Austrian school of economics that Hayek was part of needs to be discussed more than ever.

Just as any sort of contest would be pointless if we infallibly knew the outcome in advance, Hayek wrote, so would marketplace competition. He considered "competition systematically as a procedure for discovering facts which, if the procedure did not exist, would remain unknown or at least would not be used." (Emphasis added.)

(Although, Hayek's German title, Der Wettbewerb als Entdeckungsverfahrenh, has been translated as "competition as a discovery procedure." I regard the word process as more appropriate because, unlike procedure, it suggests improvisation, spontaneity, and serendipity. Hayek's work overflows with an understanding of what he called spontaneous, or unplanned, order.)

Hayek reiterated his theme from "The Use of Knowledge in Society" even as he extended it. He wanted to know how can we even identify goods apart from what the market discloses over time through free producer and consumer action.

Which goods are scarce, however, or which things are goods, or how scarce or valuable they are, is precisely one of the conditions that competition should discover: in each case it is the preliminary outcomes of the market process that inform individuals where it is worthwhile to search. Utilizing the widely diffused knowledge in a society with an advanced division of labor cannot be based on the condition that individuals know all the concrete uses that can be made of the objects in their environment. Their attention will be directed by the prices the market offers for various goods and services.

Bottom line: government administrators may be able to give orders, but they cannot benefit the population. The Soviet Union no doubt used up resources making things that few people wanted. Hayek went on:

This means, among other things, that each individual’s particular combination of skills and abilities—which in many regards is always unique—will not only (and not even primarily) be skills that the person in question can recite in detail or report to a government agency. Rather, the knowledge of which I am speaking consists to a great extent of the ability to detect certain conditions—an ability that individuals can use effectively only when the market tells them what kinds of goods and services are demanded, and how urgently.

It's not magic that produces the knowledge that makes abundance possible for everyone. It's freedom of action, contract, and private property in a legal-political environment in which people peacefully and cooperatively pursue their happiness. The discoveries Hayek was talking about can take place only when people can 1) freely produce and offer products and services to others and 2) freely buy or not buy according to their own judgment. This includes labor services. Without that freedom, which is limited if not precluded by central planning and less-comprehensive regulation, an economy cannot be expected to benefit a large population.

The full case for a free society obviously has a rights-based, or justice-based, component, We are reasoning social beings who seek happiness. And the also has an important epistemic component, which Mises, Hayek, and others have laid out. We want justice for all individuals, and we want them to flourish. In a world of scarcity and dispersed and tacit knowledge, the free market is required. The moral is also practical.

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