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During one of Ricochet’s big Same Sex Marriage debates during the run-up to Obergefell, @jamesofengland said this:
I think I’ve been clear that I don’t share Augustine’s confidence in specific bad outcomes […] I tend to think of Burke and Hayek as telling basically the same story, a story that I’ve been boringly obsessive about for decades now (before law, I took theology up to a Master’s degree, spending quite a lot of that time dealing with Derrida and Pseudodionysus, who I also believe to be in the same epistemically humble tradition). […] It’d be good to shift the conversation in that direction, because if the subject isn’t [Same Sex Marriage], but Hayek, I’ll have [another Ricochet gentleman] on my side, along with [a Ricochet lady] and [a third Ricochet gentleman]. I don’t know how much Augustine really backs that side, but I think [another Ricochet lady] has a higher epistemology (a sense that we can know more about the world than Hayek thought), meaning that we could pretty completely reshuffle the teams.
Ever since then, I’ve wanted to start a conversation on the subject. Initially, I wanted to write a long essay explaining and defending my own views, but, frankly, I don’t want to put much time into it. Maybe it’ll be a better conversation anyway if I keep it short! So short it is.
Roughly, my view is that it’s easier to know things about family and the structure of human society than it is to know about economic productivity and the structure of the economy.
In other words, it makes sense to be a Hayekian on macroeconomics, but something else (a Thomist or Augustinian, perhaps) on family and community and friendship. And perhaps a third thing (say, a Calvinist or a Pseudodionysian) on theology, and an as-yet-unnamed thing on something else.
One Reason It Matters
This is one of the reasons I (and, no doubt, others) are SoCons and FiCons but not exactly libertarians: We fear action taken on the inevitable human ignorance of economic matters even as we also fear inaction on social matters where knowledge is possible.
I’m not giving a proper argument and haven’t properly thought this through, so I’ll offer just this brief explanation in hopes of starting a conversation from which proper arguments may emerge.
Let’s contrast the production of a human and of a pencil. (Any old widget would do, but let’s stick with the classics!) No individual knows how to make a pencil. But most people know how to make a baby. (And many who don’t . . . find out before the second trimester.)
Now expand this a bit. Pencils are one thing. The healthcare system of a -hundred-million-person country is another. At that level, the knowledge of how to achieve economic productivity moves even deeper into the realm of impossibility for the individual.
What about human relationships? Well, some relationships have an aspect that becomes more complex in the aggregate. (National networks of churches or of chess clubs, for example.) But some things don’t change a bit. For any particular pairing of citizens, how to make a baby is the same, no matter how big the economy gets. For any particular romantic pairing of citizens, things are pretty much the same, again, no matter how big the economy gets. The basics of parenthood aren’t changed by the size of the economy, though though how birthday presents are procured for the kids gets more complex, along with some other details. Friendship is basically the same in a big country, and the same things make it work, things like humility, respect, honesty, and forgiveness. (Internet friendships, if they are friendships at all, might be an exception here.)
I also tend to think individual knowledge in one sphere tends to get easier over time, the other harder. Long ago, the Torah told us “Thou shalt not commit adultery,” and Aristotle noted that there is no right way to commit adultery. Even now, I suspect (I admit I haven’t done the homework), careful social science would only confirm that adultery causes a lot of harm. Not to mention fatherlessness and other social ills.
But the process by which a widget is made gets more complex every day. It’s getting harder all the time to know how to efficiently make one and accurately price it.
A Disclaimer or Two
I mentioned above that this has something to do with being a SoCon rather than a libertarian. And so it does. But there are a lot of other details to consider and I’m only addressing one of the fundamental ideas that many SoCon-FiCon types probably have lurking in their brains.
Some SoCon-FiCon types probably don’t have it lurking there at all. And, after you work out what social situations are worthy of governmental interest, you might still be a libertarian!
And after you work out whether things that do merit governmental interest merit at from the states or the feds, and whether they’re Constitutional or not, there’s a lot of room to be be a libertarian of one sort or another — or something similar — if you think that kind of economic knowledge is a delusion for the individual but other kinds of knowledge aren’t.
So, I’m talking about knowledge here: not attacking libertarianism or saying anything about same-sex marriage.
So I’ll stop the opening post now. Hope to hear from you in comments!Published in