Happy birthday Hayek!

Lynne Kiesling

Today’s Hayek’s birthday, a worthwhile landmark for reflection on his work and why it’s important to read. I assign “The Use of Knowledge in Society” in every class I teach, and I recommend it if you haven’t yet read it. Here Hayek argues that the fundamental economic problem societies face is not the allocation of a given set of resources based on a given set of preferences and technical capabilities; instead, the coordination of decisions and actions among interacting individual agents with diffuse private knowledge and plans forms the basis of economic activity. The diffuse and private nature of knowledge hampers such plan coordination, but out of human interaction, institutions emerge that enable decentralized coordination. Prices and market processes compose an institution for coordination in the face of the knowledge problem. Moreover, Hayek argued, knowledge transcends “scientific” information, there is no given and uniform set or distribution of data, and such information fails to capture all knowledge relevant to both static and dynamic decision-making and coordination.

Hayek’s substantial insight in this work, one that has become largely incorporated into mainstream economics, is that the price system operating through market processes is an effective, parsimonious (but not perfect) means of generating, signaling, and aggregating such knowledge. Prices cannot convey all individual knowledge pertinent to a particular economic decision, but they do serve as knowledge surrogates by communicating some private knowledge (Horwitz 2004). Coordination of individual actions and plans emerges as a beneficial consequence of the price system; thus the price system and market processes enable emergent, or unplanned, order.

Hayek characterized the fundamental economic problem not as the static allocation of scarce resources among uses by omniscient agents, but rather as the coordination of actions and plans among dispersed agents with diffuse private knowledge. In his statement that “… the knowledge of the circumstances of which we must make use never exists in concentrated or integrated form, but solely as the dispersed bits of incomplete and frequently contradictory knowledge which all the separate individuals possess” (p. 519), Hayek draws on the earlier arguments of the socialist calculation debate and of his (1937) work. The “man on the spot” (p. 524) has subjective, private knowledge of “the particular circumstances of time and place” (p. 522), and that knowledge is among the decision-relevant data that cannot be aggregated except through a decentralized system of prices and a market process of exchange to determine those prices. Prices economize on the communication and interpretation of knowledge among dispersed agents.

How do individuals learn the plans of others? How do we learn when we are wrong and take action accordingly? Prices and market processes provide feedback channels. Feedback loops, learning, adaptation to a changing environment and changing actions and plans of others, interdependence of agents and their actions in a complex system, and how prices and markets serve as feedback loops making a complex system adaptive – all are important implications of Hayek’s argument. Prices provide profit opportunities and realized profits, and those realized profits serve as feedback that can spur the discovery of new products, services, business models, or other ways to create value through economic activity. Alert entrepreneurs see these opportunities, learn from observed and realized feedback, and adapt their plans accordingly. Prices enable “error detection and correction within the market” (Boettke 1998, p. 135). Markets are processes for social learning and provide feedback channels for entrepreneurial alertness.

This post is drawn from my article, “Knowledge Problem” (SSRN link), which is included in the forthcoming Oxford Handbook of Austrian Economics (Peter Boettke and Chris Coyne, eds.).

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