25 October 2012

You know Paul Krugman fantasizes about being Hari Seldon

Bng Bng | Cory Doctorow | Paul Krugman's introduction to the Folio Society's beautiful edition of the Foundation trilogy

The Folio Society has released a beautiful, illustrated slipcased edition of Asimov's Foundation trilogy, illustrated by Alex Wells, with a special introduction by Nobel-winning economist Paul Krugman. The introduction (PDF) is a great and insightful piece into one of the ways that science fiction inspires and shapes the lives of its readers
Why am I not surprised that the most technocratic, dirigist novels I've ever read are being intro'ed by Krugman?

I have only skimmed The Krug's intro (pdf available here), but this sentence jumped out at me:
Now that I’m a social scientist myself, or at least as close to being one as we manage to get in these early days of human civilization, what do I think of Asimov’s belief that we can, indeed, conquer that final frontier—that we can develop a social science that gives its acolytes a unique ability to understand and perhaps shape human destiny?
Wow. Krugman answers his question with several paragraphs that boil down to "yeah, maybe, if those sociologists and anthropologists ever become as awesome as us economists."

No other words should follow this than "no, we can not do this nor will we ever be able to." Anything else is monumentally, irresponsibly arrogant.

Indeed, irresponsible. The Foundation should be packaged with Friedrich Hayek's Nobel lecture "The Pretence of Knowledge."
The conflict between what in its present mood the public expects science to achieve in satisfaction of popular hopes and what is really in its power is a serious matter because, even if the true scientists should all recognize the limitations of what they can do in the field of human affairs, so long as the public expects more there will always be some who will pretend, and perhaps honestly believe, that they can do more to meet popular demands than is really in their power. It is often difficult enough for the expert, and certainly in many instances impossible for the layman, to distinguish between legitimate and illegitimate claims advanced in the name of science. [...]

To act on the belief that we possess the knowledge and the power which enable us to shape the processes of society entirely to our liking, knowledge which in fact we do not possess, is likely to make us do much harm. [...]

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.
This Hayek quote ought to have been front-and-center in Krugman's mind when answering his question about "understanding and perhaps shaping human destiny."
The curious task of economics is to demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design. To the naive mind that can conceive of order only as the product of deliberate arrangement, it may seem absurd that in complex conditions order, and adaptation to the unknown, can be achieved more effectively by decentralizing decisions and that a division of authority will actually extend the possibility of overall order. Yet that decentralization actually leads to more information being taken into account.
— F.A. Hayek, The Fatal Conceit: The Errors of Socialism (1988), p. 76
Or if you prefer a more lyrical formulation:
the lesson I’ve learned? It’s how little we know,
the world is complex, not some circular flow
the economy’s not a class you can master in college
to think otherwise is the pretense of knowledge



PS Well's illustrations do look pretty awesome. I'd love to see him working in comics.

PPS From Krug's intro:
Now, there isn’t, to my knowledge, a secret cabal of economists with a thousand-year plan to save our current civilization (but then I wouldn’t tell you if there was, would I?).
Note the implicit assumption: if there was such a
cabal of experts, Krugman would be on the inside.

1 comment:

  1. What I still wonder about, though, is how folks in Von Mises' camp imagine that power will not inevitably become centralized, because then the problem becomes much harder (and more lifelike).

    No Hari Seldons, but no Atlases shrugging, either.

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