Social science dialogue with Bockman and Boettke

Earlier today I watched a presentation on the crisis in the social sciences, with Johanna Bockman representing sociology and Pete Boettke representing economics. Boettke brought his usual social science ecumenicism to the table—anybody familiar with his work on the Ostroms?*—and Bockman gave what I presume to be the less enthusiastic but similar answer from a sociological perspective. I don’t have enough background to know what somebody representing the discipline as a whole would say. There was an odd amount of talk about doing sociology on social media, but I digress.

I don’t want to recap the whole thing, but there are a few points I thought were interesting.

1. Critics of Hayek have a very different perception of his influence than fans of Hayek. He was at one point an incredibly influential economist, no doubt, and even long after this influence waned he was still respected for his work even if this respect was more formal than heartfelt. The Thatcher and Reagan governments paid lip service to his ideas, which is where I think the confusion comes from, but as a fan of Hayek I don’t see much beyond talking points to indicate any deeper understanding or commitment. The collapse of the Soviet bloc made Hayek popular again outside of the small group of people who kept the flame during the Samuelsonian domination.

From Ebenstein’s biography of Hayek:

Hayek’s following was strongest at LSE and, by the later 1930s, almost all of those who had been Hayekians a few years before had shifted to Keynes. Ludwig Lachmann, an Austrian-oriented economist who studied with Hayek during this period, recalled that when he arrived at LSE in the early ’30s, “everybody was a Hayekian; at the end of the decade there were only two of us: Hayek and myself.” Hicks wrote that Hayek’s “audience dispersed.”

Bockman mentioned more than once that despite his interest in spontaneous order he was on the boards of “hundreds” of organizations, think tanks, etc., implying that he was a hypocrite. Boettke was too polite to really give this charge the refutation it deserved, but in short when almost all of the powerful forces in society are trying to plan things centrally it might take constant effort to promote the ideas that would lead to institutional settings whereby order beyond the most basic could emerge. (It’s my personal opinion that most people who criticize the idea of spontaneous order, or emergent order as I prefer to call it, don’t really understand it.) Add to this the fact that being on the board of an organization does not mean the organization dances to your tune. Sometimes people like to get big names associated with their organization even if they don’t do much of the work. Hayek’s day still had 24 hours in it just like ours. What Boettke did point out rightly was that you need to compare this to others in the field. When you do that you find Hayek’s influence being very minimal next to Keynes, Samuelson, and Stanley Fischer, the last two being Boettke’s examples. In his words, Hayek was “peeing in the ocean.”

Hayek’s critics also don’t understand the vast influence of Hayek’s opponents on policy worldwide, nor the fact that failures in Keynesian-Samuelsonian policy and in Soviet central planning were what led, respectively, to Western economists and then to economists the world over being receptive to Hayek’s ideas again. His books where still on the shelves, people simply weren’t reading them.

2. I don’t know why I never connected these dots before, but people who know about Hayek and don’t like him are the only people I can think of that consistently refer to him as “von Hayek” in speech. I see the tactic: emphasize the noble title to paint him as a defender of the Ancien Regime. This despite the fact that noble titles were banned in Austria in 1919 and that he doesn’t seem to have used it himself after that. (His signature read “F.A. Hayek”.) And despite the fact that he was not a defender of the Ancien Regime. If this seems like a nitpick on my part, it seems deliberate on theirs.

3. Boettke was probably more confusing to the other side of the audience than he realized. In addition to talking about social science broadly and representing the rational choice side, he was also talking about debates within economics, the mainline vs. mainstream stuff he covered at length in Living Economics, in his History of Economic Thought course, and elsewhere. I think they may have gotten some of his point but not all of it. Not that this is a complaint. I can’t think of a way to do it better and still stay on topic, and he didn’t get to pick the topic.

4. One of the audience members who seemed to be on the sociology side of the audience asked what hash tag should be used for live tweets. Somehow the consensus answer from those who spoke up was #firestorm, which I thought was silly and which I haven’t looked up yet but might later. I think they thought it was going to get a lot more heated than it did. I guess they hadn’t seen Boettke speak before and didn’t know how open he is in social science discussions.

There were plenty of other points covered but these were the things I left thinking about. I had to cut out slightly early so I missed a lot of the Q&A, so maybe I’ll hear about a real bombshell when I look up #firestorm later.


* This clause originally read “anybody heard him talk about Ostrom before?” but he took issue with that admittedly informal characterization.

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