Epistemological modesty and unintended consequences

What has attracted me most to libertarianism – next to the Non-Aggression Principle – is its attitude towards our knowledge which can be described as epistemologically modest. Epistemology is a branch of philosophy that is concerned with our knowledge: how do we know what we know, what is the nature of our knowledge, what is its scope, and what is justified belief? Libertarianism is modest in the sense that it promotes an awareness of how little we know about the social forces in our society, and what the particular consequences are when certain social forces are at play.

In ‘The Pretense of Knowledge’ (1974), Friedrich Hayek had given an excellent account on the libertarian epistemological modesty. He writes that when policy makers are epistemologically immodest – meaning that they unjustly believe that they truly understand the social world to the extent that they can plan or direct certain social forces to achieve certain ends – they will do more harm than good in their efforts to improve the social order. Hayek argues that each individual knows just a fraction of what is collectively known. Since knowledge is decentralized and each individual has unique information with regards to his or her particular circumstances, it is best to leave those with local knowledge to take decisions on how to plan their lives. Unfortunately, many do-gooders ignore Hayek’s advice and attempt to plan and control society. The dangers of epistemological immodesty are visible all around us. Take for example the NATO-led war campaign against Gaddafi in Libya in 2011. The meddling with Libya’s internal affairs has led to many unintended consequences that were totally unforeseen by most politicians: in a country that was previously relatively peaceful, manifold precious lives have perished, many have been wounded, many children have become orphaned, millions of people are trying to flee the civil war and to find refuge in other countries, ISIS has taken control of several parts in Libya, and terrorism has now become more widespread. Politicians who believed that they knew enough about the social forces in Libya, and how they could overthrow Gaddafi and turn it into a peaceful democracy have been dead wrong.

The epistemologically modest libertarian knows that military, economic, and political interventionism, always leads to unintended consequences. It is therefore best to refrain ourselves from such interventions as much as possible. This anti-planning sentiment had been graciously expressed by the American physicist Robert Oppenheimer when he discussed world affairs:

It is perfectly obvious that the whole world is going to hell. The only possible chance that it might not is that we do not attempt to prevent it from doing so.[1]

[1] I cannot verify the authenticity of this quote. It was attributed to Robert Oppenheimer by Alan Watts.

From the Comments: Climate Change Advocates and Religion

Jacques Delacroix has a thoughtful response to an equally thoughtful comment by a climate scientist (full disclosure: the climate scientist is also a childhood friend of mine and a fairly decent man; I say “fairly decent” because he sometimes associated with people like me!) in his post on the peer review process. I thought I’d reproduce the whole thing here: Continue reading

Bad Idea of the Year: Raise the Minimum Wage

Who can live on $8 per hour these days? Surely, in a country as rich as ours, no one who is willing and able to work should suffer the indignity of such paltry wages. The solution is simple and obvious: pass a law. If you work, you get at least $10 per hour, period.  Anything less is downright indecent. And so we have a ballot initiative to make this happen in San Jose, California.

It’s anything but simple and obvious if we stop and look and think about what’s happening in the real world. Today I went to a small family-owned sandwich shop near my house. They are very popular and so four young workers, probably students from the nearby college, were jammed in the tiny shop with the two owners. The sandwiches are great but I also enjoy watching them hustle at lunch time. I’m quite certain the helpers were all earning minimum wage but had other sources of income or support. Far more important than their wages, which will quickly be spent, is the work experience that will last them a lifetime – and the confidence that comes from knowing they are earning their money by doing a job in the very best way they can.

The McDonald’s near me employs a few senior citizens, likely at or near minimum wage. They almost certainly have other income. Just being active and involved in productive activity gives their lives meaning and may well enhance their health and longevity.

The sandwich shop operates on thin margins which are being squeezed by rising food prices. If they had to pay their young helpers $2 more per hour they would probably close. But the nearby Safeway store, which has a sandwich bar, would very likely absorb part of the wage increase and pass the rest on to customers, which would be easier to do with their family-owned competitor knocked out. Continue reading