It’s Nobel Week!

Lynne Kiesling

Got any bets in any Nobel pools? Calling up any of your chemist friends and putting on a fake Swedish accent? Yes, it’s that time again, when the 2012 Nobel prizes are announced. I have no predictions or inclinations for this year’s economics prize, but I’d be interested in yours if you’ve got ’em.

Today marks the day in 1974 that the economist whose work inspires the name of this blog, Friedrich Hayek, was awarded the Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel. To commemorate this anniversary, I encourage you to read Hayek’s Nobel lecture, The Pretence of Knowledge, particularly if you’ve never done so before. Hayek’s Use of Knowledge in Society is one of the most important publications in social science in the 20th century, and among other things his Nobel lecture expands on some of its most important themes and integrates it with some of his later work on legal institutions. But my favorite passage in the lecture is his conclusion:

If man is not to do more harm than good in his efforts to improve the social order, he will have to learn that in this, as in all other fields where essential complexity of an organized kind prevails, he cannot acquire the full knowledge which would make mastery of the events possible. He will therefore have to use what knowledge he can achieve, not to shape the results as the craftsman shapes his handiwork, but rather to cultivate a growth by providing the appropriate environment, in the manner in which the gardener does this for his plants. There is danger in the exuberant feeling of ever growing power which the advance of the physical sciences has engendered and which tempts man to try, “dizzy with success”, to use a characteristic phrase of early communism, to subject not only our natural but also our human environment to the control of a human will. 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.


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