Friday, 18 January 2013

Abstraction, Evolution, & Rationality

The late Hayek –the Hayek of the third volume of “Law, Legislation, and Liberty”, not the Hayek of the Fatal Conceit, that would be the apocryphal one- was concerned with terminological matters related to his own works. He lamented that he had employed “knowledge” instead of “information” at the beginning of his career and blamed the confusion on a semantic shift experienced in English language from the 1930’s to the 1970’s. He claimed that he never attempted to use “knowledge” as “theoretical knowledge”, but as, more precisely, “information”, as it was understood forty years before.

 But even a terminological shift occurs from the first volume of “Law, Legislation, and Liberty” (1973) to the third one (1979). In the latter, Hayek claimed that the term “abstract order” was more accurate than “spontaneous order” to convey the meaning of what he wanted to state.  Given some sort of environment –biological, legal, geographical-, the social orders which will survive and develop will be those in which the conduct of the individuals follows some sort of patterns (other orders, with different patterns of social conduct, will disappear or never emerge). For example, if the end of the world will be in a year’s time, a society of defaulters will be more adapted to the environment than a society whose members accomplish their long term duties.  Those patterns are spontaneous because nobody mandates to obey them, but also are abstract because its acknowledgement depends on an intellectual operation. Their recognition does not rely on the senses but on the identification of regularities.

This concept of “abstract order” is the place where Hayek’s legal studies (Law, Legislation and Liberty) connect with his work on theoretical psychology (The Sensory Order). The rationality of the individuals does not make a rational order, but it is the abstract order which delivers rationality to the individuals in it, since the given order is made of the norms that allowed it to survive and develop. The subjective rationality of the agents is bounded by a set of norms of conduct grown from the evolutionary process –and at this point Hayek meets Max Weber.

The question is whether we can determine any criteria to assert that some type of normative order is better than other one. Perhaps the answer is the Hayekian version of the invisible hand process: the better orders are those which allow the individuals to coordinate the bits of information they possess and employ to fulfil their own plans of life and, as an unintended consequence of this, the whole system, spontaneously, adapts itself to the changes in the environment.

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