Some derivations from the uses of the terms “knowledge” and “information” in F. A. Hayek’s works.

In 1945, Friedrich A. Hayek published under the title “The Use of Knowledge in Society,” in The American Economic Review, one of his most celebrated essays -both at the time of its appearance and today- and probably, together with other studies also later compiled in the volume Individualism and Economic Order (1948), one of those that have earned him the award of the Nobel Prize in Economics, in 1974.

His interpretation generates certain perplexities about the meaning of the term “knowledge”, which the author himself would clear up years later, in the prologue to the third volume of Law, Legislation and Liberty (1979). Being his native language German, Hayek explains there that it would have been more appropriate to have used the term “information”, since such was the prevailing meaning of “knowledge” in the years in which such essays had been written. Incidentally, a similar clarification is also made regarding the confusions raised around the “spontaneous order” turn, which he later replaced by that of “abstract order”, with further subsequent replacements:

Though I still like and occasionally use the term ‘spontaneous order’, I agree that ‘self-generating order’ or ‘self-organizing structures’ are sometimes more precise and unambiguous and therefore frequently use them instead of the former term. Similarly, instead of ‘order’, in conformity with today’s predominant usage, I occasionally now use ‘system’. Also ‘information’ is clearly often preferable to where I usually spoke of ‘knowledge’, since the former clearly refers to the knowledge of particular facts rather than theoretical knowledge to which plain ‘knowledge’ might be thought to prefer” . (Hayek, F.A., “Law, Legislation and Liberty”, Volume 3, Preface to “The Political Order of a Free People”.)

Although it is already impossible to substitute in current use the term “knowledge” for “information” and “spontaneous” for “abstract”;  it is worth always keeping in mind what ultimate meaning should be given to such concepts, at least in order to respect the original intention of the author and perform a consistent interpretation of his texts.

By “the use of knowledge in society”, we will have to refer, then, to the result of the use of information available to each individual who is inserted in a particular situation of time and place and who interacts directly or indirectly with countless of other individuals, whose special circumstances of time and place differ from each other and, therefore, also have fragments of information that are in some respects compatible and in others divergent. 

In the economic field, this is manifested by the variations in the relative scarcity of the different goods that are exchanged in the market, expressed in the variations of their relative prices. An increase in the market price of a good expresses an increase in its relative scarcity, although we do not know if this is due to a drop in supply, an increase in demand, or a combined effect of both phenomena, which vary joint or disparate. The same is true of a fall in the price of a given good. In turn, such variations in relative prices lead to a change in individual expectations and plans, since this may mean a change in the relationship between the prices of substitute or complementary goods, inputs or final products, factors of production, etc. In a feedback process, such changes in plans will in turn generate new variations in relative prices. Such bits of information available to each individual can be synthesized by the price system, which generates incentives at the individual level, but could never be concentrated by a central committee of planners. In the same essay, Hayek emphasizes that such a process of spontaneous coordination is also manifested in other aspects of social interactions, in addition to the exchange of economic goods. They are the spontaneous –or abstract- phenomena, such as language or behavioral norms, which structure the coordination of human interaction without the need for a central direction.

“The Use of Knowledge in Society” appears halfway through the life of Friedrich Hayek and in the middle of the dispute over economic calculation in socialism. His implicit assumptions will be revealed later in his book The Sensory Order (1952) and in the already mentioned Law, Legislation and Liberty (1973, 1976 and 1979). In the first of them, we can find the distinction between relative limits and absolute limits of information / knowledge. The relative ones are those concerning the instruments of measurement and exploration: better microscopes, better techniques or better statistics push forward the frontiers of knowledge, making it more specific. However, if we go up in classification levels, among which are the coordination phenomena between various individual plans, which are explained by increasingly abstract behavior patterns, we will have to find an insurmountable barrier when configuring a coherent and totalizer of the social order resulting from these interactions. This is what Hayek will later call the theory of complex phenomena.

The latter was collected in Law, Legislation and Liberty, in which he will have to apply the same principles enunciated incipiently in “The Use of Knowledge in Society” regarding the phenomena of spontaneous coordination of individual life plans in the plane of the norms of conduct and of the political organization. Whether in the economic, legal and political spheres, the issue of the impossibility of centralized planning and the need to trust the results of free interaction between individuals is found again.

In this regard, the Marxist philosopher and economist Adolph Löwe argued that Hayek, John Maynard Keynes, and himself, considered that such interaction between individuals generated a feedback process by itself: the data obtained from the environment by the agents generated a readjustment of individual plans, which in turn meant new data that would readjust those plans again. Löwe stressed that both he and Keynes understood that they were facing a positive feedback phenomenon (one deviation led to another amplified deviation, which required state intervention), while Hayek argued that the dynamics of society, structured around values such like respect for property rights, it involved a negative feedback process, in which continuous endogenous readjustments maintained a stable order of events. Hayek’s own express references to such negative feedback processes and to the value of cybernetics confirm Lowe’s assessment.

Today, the dispute over the possibility or impossibility of centralized planning returns to the public debate with the recent developments in the field of Artificial Intelligence, Internet of Things and genetic engineering, in which the previous committee of experts would be replaced by programmers, biologists and other scientists. Surely the notions of spontaneous coordination, abstract orders, complex phenomena and relative and absolute limits for information / knowledge will allow fruitful contributions to be made in such aspects.

It is appropriate to ask then how Hayek would have considered the phenomenon of Artificial Intelligence (A.I.), or rather: how he would have valued the estimates that we make today about its possible consequences. But to adequately answer such a question, we must not only agree on what we understand by Artificial Intelligence, but it is also interesting and essential to discuss, prior to that, how Hayek conceptualized the faculty of understanding.

Friedrich Hayek had been strongly influenced in his youth by the Empirical Criticism of his teacher Ernst Mach. Although in The Sensory Order he considers that his own philosophical version called “pure empiricism” overcomes the difficulties of the former as well as David Hume’s empiricism, it must be recognized that the critique of Cartesian Dualism inherited from his former teacher was maintained by Hayek -even in his older works- in a central role. Hayek characterizes Cartesian Dualism as the radical separation between the subject of knowledge and the object of knowledge, in such a way that the former has the full capabilities to formulate a total and coherent representation of reality external to said subject, but at the same time consists of the whole world. This is because the representational synthesis carried out by the subject acts as a kind of mirror of reality: the res intensa expresses the content of the res extensa, in a kind of transcendent duplication, in parallel.

On the contrary, Hayek considers that the subject is an inseparable part of the experience. The subject of knowledge is also experience, integrating what is given. Hayek, thus, also relates his conception of the impossibility for a given mind to account for the totality of experience, since it itself integrates it, with Gödel’s Theorem, which concludes that it is impossible for a system of knowledge to be complete and consistent in terms of its representation of reality, thus demolishing the Leibznian project of the mechanization of thought.

It is in the essays “Degrees of Explanation” and “The Theory of Complex Phenomena” –later collected in the volume of Studies in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics, 1967- in which Hayek expressly recognizes in that Gödel’s Theorem and also in Ludwig Wittgenstein’s paradoxes about the impossibility of forming a “set of all sets” his foundation about the impossibility for a human mind to know and control the totality of human events at the social, political and legal levels.

In short, what Hayek was doing with this was to re-edit the arguments of his past debate on the impossibility of socialism in order to apply them, in a more sophisticated and refined way, to the problem of the deliberate construction and direction of a social order by part of a political body devoid of rules and endowed with a pure political will.

However, such impossibility of mechanization of thought does not in itself imply chaos, but on the contrary the Kosmos. Hayek rescues the old Greek notion of an uncreated and stable order, which relentlessly punishes the hybris of those who seek to emulate and replace the cosmic order, such as the myth of Oedipus the King, who killed his father and married his mother, as a way of creating himself likewise and whose arrogance caused the plague in Thebes. Like every negative feedback system, the old Greek Kosmos was an order which restored its lost inner equilibrium by itself, whose complexities humiliated human reason and urged to replace calculus with virtue. Nevertheless, what we should understand for that “virtue” would be a subject to be discussed many centuries later from the old Greeks and Romans, in the Northern Italy of the Renaissance.

Francophonie et connerie

Comme c’est souvent le cas le soir, je lézarde devant TV5, la chaîne francophone internationale. C’est l’heure du journal télévisé. L’annonceur, francais selon sa diction, annonce gravement que ce jour est l’anniversaire de la mort des époux Rosenberg, exécutés en 1953 “parce qu’ils étaient Communistes”. Comme, à cette époque, il y avait au moins 100 000 Communistes aux Eats-Unis, ces deux-là n’auraient vraiment pas eu de chance!

Un autre jour, je regarde un documentaire français: “Gharjuwa, épouse de la vallée.”  C’est sur une ethnie népalaise qui pratique la polyandrie: une femme, plusieurs maris. Le sujet est intrinsèquement intéressant, Et puis, le fait que la femme polygame ait le gros sourire aux lèvres tout le long de l’interview confirme pas mal de mes à-priori sur ce qui rend les femmes heureuses, en fin de compte! (Ce n’est pas sorcier.) Et puis, le tout se passe dans un environnement montagneux magnifique. Comme c’est le cas pour la plupart des documentaires français que je connais, la photo est excellente.

L’une des tâches de la femme polygame est de préparer la bière. Une voix masculine dit le commentaire en Français. Soyons francs: je ne sais pas si c’est le commentateur qui a rédigé le texte. En tous cas, il nous avise de ce qu’au Népal, la bière ménagère se prépare en faisant “cuire ensemble” une céréale (ou plusieurs; maïs ou blé noir, ou les deux, je ne suis pas sûr) et de la levure. Je fais un retour en arrière mental. C’est bien ce qu’il a dit. Mais, la levure, c’est ce qui transforme les sucres des céréales en alcool et en CO2. Mais la levure se compose d’organisme vivants qui trépassent vite à la chaleur. Pas question de la faire cuire avant qu’elle ait fait son travail. Ou alors, on a de la bouillie plutôt que de la bière. La description qu’on nous donne  est donc aussi fausse qu’absurde.

A priori, selon son accent et sa diction, le commentateur est français ou belge. Il vient donc d’un pays célébré dans le monde entier pour ses vins et aussi pour ses bières, ou alors, massivement, seulement pour ses bières. Des pays respectés aussi pour la supériorite de leur boulangerie et de leurs pâtisseries levées. Vins, bières, pains, pâtisseries exigent la maîtrise des levures. Comment peut-on être aussi ignorant d’une partie aussi importante de sa culture materiélle pourtant séculaire? Et puis, je sais bien qu’en principe, l’ignorance et la connerie sont des choses différentes. Pourtant, il y a des cas où on a du mal a distinguer l’une de l’autre. Je me demande comment on peut avoir été élevé dans la culture française ou la culture belge et être si profondément mal informé, à moins d’être également stupide.

Mais j’éprouve aussi de l’indignation comme ainsi dire au second degré: Comment les public francais et autres francophones peuvent-ils laisser passer de telles manifestations d’ignardise grossière sans se plaindre, sans réagir? Le fait est courant, répandu selon mon usage de l’éventail, il est vrai limité, de media francophones à ma disposition. J’ai d’ailleurs inventé la formule suivante, (en Anglais) : “Si vous voulez apprendre rapidement quelquechose de faux, suivez simplement les cinq premières minutes d’un documentaire en Français!”

J’ai du mal à souscrire à l’idee que la langue francaiss, la langue de Diderot, serait intrinsèquement porteuse d’insouciance vis-à-vis de la vérité toute simple bien que cela ne soit pas complètement impossible.

Je m’interroge donc sur les possible causes sociologique de ce qui me paraît plus qu’un accident. Je veux parler de l’apparente indifférence aux faits associée à l’usage de la langue française contemporaine. Je ne sais pas s’il s’agit vraiment d’ un phénomène culturel en profondeur: Les faussetés ne dérangent simplement pas beaucoup les Francais. (Il me semble, subjectivement, que les autres francophones, Canadiens, et Belges, par exemple, sont moins coupables.) Je me demande si les causes des ces frequentes débâcles factuelles sont plus tortueuses et donc, moins directement culturelles:

“France 2 fait un documentaires sur les Népalaise à plusieurs maris. C’est chouette. Je vais téléphoner à Robert pour lui demander s’il peut prendre mon neveu Charlot pour le narrer. Justement, en ce moment, il ne fait pas grandchose.”

De vraies questions. Toutes les réponse m’intéressent, celles provenant de France autant que celle émanant d’autres pays francophones. Ecrire à

Le beau et ignare documentaire en question sort de chez Atmosphère  Production  avec le concours du Centre national du cinéma. (“Evidemment”, j’ai envie de d’ajouter.)


  1. The surprising lexical history of infectious disease Charles McNamara, Commonweal
  2. Immigration and virologic hysteria Michael Agovino, Not Even Past
  3. Against scarcity Marilynne Robinson, NYRB
  4. Can we escape from information overload? Tom Lamont, 1843

All News is Biased

I generally avoid the news because those things are outside my control. But then the pandemic happened and I picked up this bad habit.

I generally get my news from NPR because I trust that they’ll observe the rules of good journalism and it’s easy to adjust for the inevitable leftward bias. Just to be safe, I’ll occasionally check Fox News to mix up the sorts of spin I’m seeing. (Aside: a recent Wisecrack video on biased news has me feeling more optimistic about the existence of a wide range of biased news, even if I’m still pessimistic about most people’s ability to take advantage.)

At first I didn’t see a huge difference. When something happened, both sources report what happens. Both sources do the same basic task of reporting the news. The editorials are certainly different, but I’m not that interested in most opinions. When they’re reporting, the spin is fairly subtle because it’s hard to spin a mostly raw fact.

But after a few weeks, I’ve been finding that the news worsens my mood and offers me little useful information. My time is scarce and my old methods (getting news indirectly from friends, family, and the local paper) worked better. I’m updating my information diet. Besides cutting back on Fox News and NPR, I’m taking a cue from Trump and shifting to a new, prior-confirming, and basically made up news source: OPR. Their stories aren’t literally true, but the act of interpreting them is similar to de-biasing actual news. And for all the effort, I feel as informed as I did last week.

A Reflection on Information and Complex Social Orders

In the year 2020, occidental democracies face a time of lock-downs, social distancing, and a sort of central planning based on epidemiological models fueled by testing methodologies. An almost uniform consensus on the policy of “flattening the curve and raising the line” spread worldwide, both in the realms of politics and science. Since the said public policy is not for free, but nevertheless it is out of discussion, the majority of the efforts are focused on gathering data concerning the rate of infection and fatalities and on achieving accurate and fast methods of early detection of the disease (COVID-19). The more the data is collected, the more efficient the policy of “flattening the curve” will be, i.e.: minimizing the economical costs. Technology -in a broad sense- seems to be the key ingredient of every successful policy.

Nevertheless, since the countries that undertook the said task are democracies -and they were urged to do so because they are democracies-, there is a lot more than data provided by technology to take into account. Science and technology could reach a conclusive study about infection and fatality rates, but the outcomes of the societal discussions about the value of life and the right of every individual to decide upon the way of conducting their own plans of life will always remain inconclusive. Those discussions are not only philosophical and, fundamentally, are not only to be conducted in the terms of an academic research, since the values at stake entitle every human being to have their own say and, at the same time, are so deeply rooted in the upbringing of the individuals that seldom they might be successfully articulated -and surely that is why such questions are of philosophical interest.

In the race to determine the political agenda, technology plays with a significant advantage over philosophy: in times of emergency, conclusive assertions -despite proving right or wrong afterwards- enable political leaders with a sense of determination that any philosophy can hardly achieve. It is true that philosophical considerations mark the legitimate limits of science and its uses, but the predictable models and plausible scenarios depicted by the technology might lift the barriers of what had been considered at the time as politically illegitimate, i.e.: to describe a given situation as a state of exception.

However, there is still a dominion in which philosophical considerations might have high expectations of winning the competition against technology: the making of the abstract criteria to judge the fulfillment of the due procedures to be followed by the authorities given the account of the data gathered by the technology. Such philosophical considerations on which base authorities should personally account for their decisions, despite having been discussed by academics and writers, have being treated for centuries in particular legal procedures that crystallized the standards of conduct of the Civil Law (the diligence of a good father of a family, or of a good businessman, etc) or Common Law concepts (the reasonable person, the ordinary prudent man of business) or more recent -in terms of the evolution of the law- formulae, such as the Hand’s rule.

Such legal standards, concepts or formulae do not oblige the political authorities in their public sphere, but they perform as an incentive to be taken into account by the agent who is invested with the public authority; since he, eventually, will be personally accountable for his decisions. Moreover, those legal parameters to judge the personal responsibility of the agent in charge of the political authority are a true guarantee for the public servants, more reliable than the changing public opinion measurements to be provided by the technology.

Notwithstanding the Realist assertion about the division between law and politics might earn certain relevance in times of turmoil, individual rights and legal procedures should endure in the long run, in order to work as a benchmark to judge the personal performance of the political agents.

Such times of political and social upheaval are useful to test political theories and doctrines as well. Certain strains of Political Liberalism -particularly Classical Liberalism- have been largely criticized for -supposedly- trying to replace the political with the law. However, the law is there to remind the political agents that the state is an abstraction run by individuals who are expected to be personally accountable for their decisions. In this case, the true function of the law, although conceding that it should remain outside of the political sphere, is to provide the correct incentives for the political agents, who are not mere abstractions -and so, maximize their own plans- to take their own decisions. If technological devices might be the key instruments for public policy, the rule of law is its inescapable framework -or at least so it is, of course, for every democracy.

Be Our Guest: “How to make Brexit Really Worthwhile – Example: Regulation dealing with Information Asymmetries”

Here is the latest installment of NOL‘s new “Be Our Guest” series, this one by the pseudonymous Freeconomist. An excerpt:

Third-party certification provides assurance to consumers that a product or a supplier of professional services meets certain quality standards.

Private suppliers of third-party certification include organisations such as Consumer Reports, the American Automobile Association (AAA), which rates motels, or A.M. Best, rating insurance companies. Examples of third-party certification provided by the government are product safety regulation, food standards regulation or occupational licensure.

Private suppliers of third-party certification can only exist because the product they offer is valued enough by market participants to justify the cost of providing it. And their profits are determined by their credibility.

The same cannot be said for third-party certification provided by the government.

Please, read the rest and do keep submitting your thoughts to us.

Deep Learning and Abstract Orders

It is well known that Friedrich Hayek once rejoiced at Noam Chomsky’s evolutionary theory of language, which stated that the faculty of speaking depends upon a biological device which human beings are enabled with. There is no blank slate and our experience of the world relies on structures that come from the experience in itself.

Hayek would be now delighted if he were told about the recent discoveries on the importance of background knowledge in the arms race between human beings and Artificial Intelligence. When decisions are to be taken by trial and error at the inside of a feedback system, humans are still ahead because they apply a framework of abstract patterns to interpret the connections among the different elements of the system. These patterns are acquired from previous experiences in other closed systems and provide with a semantic meaning to the new one. Thus, humans outperform machines, which work as blank slates, since they take information only from the closed system.

The report of the cited study finishes with the common place of asking what would happen if some day machines learn to handle with abstract patterns of a higher degree of complexity and, then, keep up with that human relative advantage.

As we stated in another place, those abstract machines already exist and they are the legal codes and law systems that enable their users with a set of patterns to interpret controversies concerning human behaviour.

What is worth being asked is not whether Artificial Intelligence eventually will surpass human beings, but what group of individuals will overcome the other: the one which uses technology or the one which refuses to do so.

The answer seems quite obvious when the term “technology” is related to concrete machines, but it is not so clear when we apply it to abstract devices. I tried to ponder the latter problem when I outlined an imaginary arms race between policy wonks and lawyers.

Now, we can extend these concepts to whole populations. Which of these nations will prevail over the other ones: the countries whose citizens are enabled with a set of abstract rules to based their decisions on (the rule of law) or the despotic countries, ruled by the whim of men?

The conclusion to be drawn is quite obvious when we are confronted with a so polarised question. Nevertheless, the problem becomes more subtle when the disjunction concerns on rule of law vs deliberate central planning.

The rule of law is the supplementary set of abstract patterns of conduct that gives sense to the events of the social reality in order to interpret human social action, including the political authority.

In the case of central planning, those abstract patterns are replaced by a concrete model of society whose elements are defined by the authority (after all, that is the main function of Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan).

Superficially considered, the former – the rule of law as an abstract machine – is irrational while the latter – the Leviathan’s central planning – seems to respond to a rational construction of the society. Our approach states that, paradoxically, the more abstract is the order of a society, the more rational are the decisions and plans that the individuals undertake, since they are based on the supplementary and general patterns provided by the law, whereas central planning offers to the individuals a poorer set of concrete information, which limits the scope of the decisions to those to be based on expediency.

That is why we like to state that law is spontaneous. Not because nobody had created it -in fact, someone did – but because law stands by itself the test of time as the result of an evolutionary process in which populations following the rule of law outperform the rival ones.

Lunchtime Links

  1. My country, your colony | why the Holocaust in Europe?
  2. compliance and defiance to national integration in Africa [pdf] | on doing economic history
  3. ethnonationalism and nation-building in Siberia [pdf] | cosmopolitanism and nationalism
  4. political centralization and government accountability [pdf] | decentralization in military command
  5. unified China and divided Europe [pdf] | unilateralism is not isolationism