by Roger Koppl
Over at Austrian Addiction, Dan D’Amico responds to my recent post on The Sensory Order. Dan wants to know “what Hayek’s theory of neuorscience is really adding here that a more basic understanding of subjective preferences does not already imply?” Dan is not the only one with this question. I think enthusiasts for The Sensory Order have given pretty good answers to Dan’s question, but it seems clear that we need to do a better job.
I think even Austrian economists who never stray from the confines of literary economics should be enthusiastic for The Sensory Order. If you begin and end in “humanism” without engaging “science,” then any economist who wants to be scientific has no incentive to read about your “humanistic” vision. Zero. None. (I’m using the words “humanism” and “science” loosely. Literary economics can be perfectly scientific.) Hayek starts in “science,” far from any hint of “humanism.” As he builds up his argument, however, he is driven, by science to find a necessary place for “humanism.” Any attempt to be, somehow, purely “scientific” falls apart.
Thus, with Hayek we get something like an even-if argument: Even if we somehow prefer “science” to “humanism,” we cannot avoid a substantial “humanistic” element in our “scientific” economics. Hayek’s way of arguing here might be compared to Mises’ claim that economics is about means and not ends. Mises would accept the political goals of those he disagreed with, but argue that their preferred policies would not achieve their stated goals. (That’s really just the economic way of thinking, but Mises was unusually clear about the logic of such arguments.) Hayek did something similar in methodology. He accepted the scientific worldview, but argued that this worldview does not imply the exclusive use of mathematical and formal methods; it requires instead the use of methods sometimes disparaged as “humanistic” or otherwise less than scientific.
Hayek’s The Sensory Order shows that any attempt to somehow spurn or disparage literary economics as unscientific is itself unscientific. A thoroughgoing pursuit of the scientific worldview obliges us to recognize the limits of the methods we might think of most characteristically “scientific” and the impossibility of dispensing entirely with literary methods. In my bones I don’t understand why more Austrians are not excited by such “neuro-Hayekianism.”