YouTube: Robert Bork & Hayek on The Intellectuals


BORK: Doctor Hayek, I think that if there’s one area in which I disagree with you slightly, it is about — We were discussing the intellectuals, and I guess it is that I see something a little more sinister about them [laughter] than you do. Isn’t it significant that, as you watch the intellectual classes, they tend to move the society always in one direction? That is, towards more regulation, towards more intervention, towards more politicization of the economy. And that you notice on campuses, at least the campuses I’m familiar with, an enormous resistance by very bright people to what are really fairly basic and simple ideas in economics, which suggests — may suggest — that something more than intellectual error is at work.

HAYEK: Is it really? You know, the resistance against being guided by something which is unintelligible to them is, I think, quite understandable in an intellectual. Go back to the origin of it all. Descartes, of course, explicitly argued only that we should not believe anything which we did not understand, but he immediately applied it that we should not accept any rules which we did not understand. And the intellectual has very strongly this feeling that what is not comprehensible must be nonsense. And to him the rules he’s required to obey are unintelligible and therefore nonsense. He defines rational almost as intelligible, and anything which is not intelligible to him is automatically irrational, and he is opposed to it.

BORK : Well, I’ll give you an example. Among academic economists and among academic lawyers who deal with economics, antitrust, for example, there has been an enormous acceptance of certain theories about oligopoly, about concentrated industries: that where you have three, four, five, six firms in a market, they wi ll–without colluding, necessarily, as a monopolist would behave–learn to act together, as if they were a monopolist. There seems almost no evidence for that theory, but it’s enormously popular; and it seems that without a predisposition on the part of intellectuals to dislike the private sector and to dislike freedom in the economic sphere, that that theory could hardly become as popular as it has become.

HAYEK: Yes, but that dislike, I think, is due to it being unintelligible to them. They want to make it intelligible — translucent — to them. They think nothing can be good unless it is demonstrated to you that in the particular case it achieves a good object. And that, of course, is impossible. You can only understand the structure as the principle of it, but you couldn’t possibly demonstrate that in the particular event the particular change has a purpose, because it always is connected with the whole system which is the rule. We can only understand in principle, but not in detail.

So I think I would give [the intellectuals] the benefit of the doubt, at least. I think in most instances it’s a deeply ingrained intellectual attitude which forces them to disapprove of something which seems to them unintelligible, and to prefer something which is visibly directed to a good purpose.

BORK: Do you think it has to do with the nature of intellectual work?

HAYEK: Yes. The whole training of the scientists — Of course, scientists are pretty bad, but they’re not as bad as what I call the intellectual, a certain dealer in ideas, you know. They are really the worst part. But I think the man who’s learned a little science, the little general problems, lacks the humility the real scientist gradually acquires. The typical intellectual believes everything must be explainable, while the scientist knows that a great many things are not, in our present state of knowledge. The good scientist is essentially a humble person. But you already have the great difference in that respect between, say, the scientist and the engineer. The engineer is the typical rationalist, and he dislikes any- thing which he cannot explain and which he can’t see how it works. What I now call constructivism I used to call the engineering attitude of mind, because the word is very frequently used. They want to direct the economy as an engineer directs an enterprise. The whole idea of planning is essentially an engineering approach to the economic world.

BORK : I suppose if we include in intellectual classes not merely people who have intellectual competence but people whose work is with ideas, whether or not they’re very good at ideas, that includes journalists, professionals, government staffs, and so forth. They, not having the full intellectual understanding of the difficulties, would tend to be more arrogant in their assumptions about what planning can do. Perhaps it is the explosion of those classes in modern times that has led to the accelerating–

HAYEK : It’s partly the specialization. You see, the modern specialist is very frequently not an educated person. He knows only his particular field, and there he thinks, particularly if he is in any of the mechanical subjects, that he ought to be able to explain everything, and that he can master the detail of it. I find, for instance, that on the whole, physical scientists are much more inclined to a dirigist attitude than the biological scientist. The biological scientists are aware of the impenetrable complexity; they know that you sometimes can only explain the principle on which something works, not being able to specify in detail how it ought to work. The physicist believes that you must be able to reproduce every intellectual model in detail, that you really master everything. That’s why I’ve come to the conclusion that the physical sciences are really the sciences of the simple phenomena.

As you move from the physical sciences to the biological and the social sciences, you get into more and more complex phenomena. The essence of complex phenomena is that you can explain the principle on which they work, but you never can master all the data which enter into this complex phenomena. Therefore, even a perfect theory does not yet enable you to predict what’s going to happen, because you have a perfect theory but you never know all the data you have to insert into the scheme of the theory.

BORK : Well, if the biologists are led to modesty by the fact that they deal with complex systems, why isn’t the same thing true of sociologists, who are not noted for their modesty, or for a number of other desirable attributes they’re not noted for?

HAYEK: Because the whole science of sociology is based on the idea that you can explain society by a very simple model. I don’t see any justification for the existence of the theoretical science of sociology, just as there is [no justification for the] existence of the theoretical science of naturology. I mean, the separate problems of society are difficult enough. To assume that you can have a simple theoretical model which explains the functioning of society is just unfounded. Sociologists have done admirable empirical work on detailed questions, but I don’t think there is such a thing as a science of sociology.

BORK : Do you think the reason they haven’t been led to a modesty which would be more becoming to them is that they started with a theory about the possibility of under- standing the entire society, which has prevented them from seeing the impossibility of it?

HAYEK: Yes. It’s very typical thinking that was invented by Auguste Comte, who is the prototype of my scientistic approach.

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6 Responses to YouTube: Robert Bork & Hayek on The Intellectuals

  1. Bruce says:

    Unfortunately I have a very difficult time understanding what Mr. Hayack says. Not on an intellectual basis, but purely as a matter of speech patterns. What I am able to gather from this video is the simple fact that Judge Bork is an enormously intelligent man who is obviously overqualified to have been a Supreme Court Justice. His intellect would have placed him head and shoulders above the rest of that mob. Instead he was dismissed as a lightweight by a series of Dumbocrats who aren’t smart enough to carry his CV.

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  3. Roger McKinney says:

    Interesting interview. The obsession with physics and the attempt to re-create every field in its image is still with us and causing much damage.

  4. Troy Camplin says:

    I keep telling people over and over that physics is a simple science compared to biology, economics, and the study of the humanities. Not surprised Hayek beat me to the punch. 🙂

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  6. I wonder if it would be possible for people to follow Hayek in his generosity towards other people’s views?

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