I mentioned below that I had come across a piece referencing an old post of mine at Samizdata on why architects might lean left. I had intended to comment on the post but it seems as if registration is required so I began to compose an email, which turned into something reasonably post-worthy and considering this blog has been starved of content for quite a while now I thought I’d put it up:
Jason (having incorrectly labelled me as a “libertarian conservative” and tendentiously described Samizdata as “right wing web site”) in response to my conclusion - “Architects are planners. […]there is little that the architect imagines cannot be planned. If you can design a house, you can design furniture for that house or the city in which that house is located, so goes the thinking. If a chair, a house, a city, why not an economy?” - writes:
Of course, design is fundamentally about problem solving and problem solving is not a traditional concern of those of a conservative bent. In the last century at least, the main political battle was over the issue of preserving continuity with the past versus constructing a better future.
I think he has misinterpreted my point and I fear that the conflations of “right wing”, “conservative” and “Libertarian” on one hand and “liberal” and “left wing” on the other hand are leading him astray.
The first thing is that while conservatism is indeed about preserving continuity, that isn’t really the case for libertarians/liberals (using the latter term correctly). One of the most influential liberal thinkers Hayek addressed this very issue as early as 1960 in his essay “Why I am not a conservative”
Let me now state what seems to me the decisive objection to any conservatism which deserves to be called such. It is that by its very nature it cannot offer an alternative to the direction in which we are moving. It may succeed by its resistance to current tendencies in slowing down undesirable developments, but, since it does not indicate another direction, it cannot prevent their continuance. It has, for this reason, invariably been the fate of conservatism to be dragged along a path not of its own choosing. The tug of war between conservatives and progressives can only affect the speed, not the direction, of contemporary developments. But, though there is a need for a “brake on the vehicle of progress,” I personally cannot be content with simply helping to apply the brake. What the liberal must ask, first of all, is not how fast or how far we should move, but where we should move. In fact, he differs much more from the collectivist radical of today than does the conservative. While the last generally holds merely a mild and moderate version of the prejudices of his time, the liberal today must more positively oppose some of the basic conceptions which most conservatives share with the socialists.
The second thing is that liberalism and left wing are not the same and that a commitment to freedom of speech/expression, tolerance for diverse others, strident individualism etc. does not require an equivalent commitment to, say, a planned economy or extensive government intervention in all sorts of interactions between people. Indeed the traditional liberal argument is that a commitment to the former is incompatible with a commitment to the latter. The reason is that it simply isn’t possible to implement the type of programs required by the left wing, social democrat without interfering with, and preventing many of the voluntary interactions entailed by freedom of expression, strident individualism etc. The standard response to this is to try and carve a distinction between social and economic interactions. The problem is that these distinctions evaporate on close inspection. Take, for example a series of voluntary interactions:
1. Paying a prostitute/escort for sex
2. Buying drugs
3. Paying someone in cash for a nixer
4. Smoking in a bar by consent of the owner and all patrons
5. Arranging for risk-based health insurance
6. Agreeing to work for nothing - voluntary work
7. Agreeing to work for a rate below the minimum wage
8. Engaging in sex acts proscribed by the state.
9. Hiring/working for someone born in a different jurisdiction
Assume that in each case, no coercion or fraud is involved and that each party is fully consenting and happy with the interaction. The simple liberal argument is that so long as there are no “externalities”, and no third parties harmed by such interactions, the government has no business interfering in such voluntary interactions. Now, it may well be the case that for many of these, there are externalities, and third parties harmed by such exchanges. But if so, a soi-disant liberal is compelled to make the case for such externalities. In my experience, most soi-disant “liberals” do not make that case but instead argue that the greater good is served by such interference. That is, that there is no externality, but rather, the common good requires government intervention. This is a position incompatible with liberalism and provides a justification for all the type of reactionary conservative restrictions rightly abhorred by liberals and “liberals”, such as sodomy laws and restrictions on freedom of expression.
As to his interpretation of my point. The idea is not that there is anything wrong with “problem solving” but the instead the insight is that “planning” and “problem solving” are not the same thing and as it happens, central “planning” is a pretty poor way of solving problems. The “problem” of designing almost anything is best left to individuals in the market. There is no Department of Computing which specifies and designs computers to be used by everyone. It oughtn’t be too difficult to imagine how such computers would compare with the ones we actually use today.
The point I was trying to make is that designers like to plan everything they are involved with and casually, unthinkingly, assume that this can be scaled up to an entire economy. The problem is that a given economy is unimaginably complex and there is no central body which could possibly process the vast amount of information embodied in the price system. This, again, was another insight of Hayek’s explained in his essay “The use of knowledge in society” in 1945
We must look at the price system as such a mechanism for communicating information if we want to understand its real function—a function which, of course, it fulfils less perfectly as prices grow more rigid. (Even when quoted prices have become quite rigid, however, the forces which would operate through changes in price still operate to a considerable extent through changes in the other terms of the contract.) The most significant fact about this system is the economy of knowledge with which it operates, or how little the individual participants need to know in order to be able to take the right action. In abbreviated form, by a kind of symbol, only the most essential information is passed on and passed on only to those concerned. It is more than a metaphor to describe the price system as a kind of machinery for registering change, or a system of telecommunications which enables individual producers to watch merely the movement of a few pointers, as an engineer might watch the hands of a few dials, in order to adjust their activities to changes of which they may never know more than is reflected in the price movement.
This is why central planning has never worked in practice and why, I think, designers oughtn’t to scale up their instinct to plan above that which they are actually designing.