In our last post, Understanding Knowledge, we defined the true meaning of knowledge to include accumulated knowledge which is found embodied in society in the form of culture, habits and in the general orders of its functioning. The efforts of any individual to capture such knowledge in books would account only for a trifle of the total knowledge that enables societal functioning.
With such limitations facing man, what enables societies to function through time? The distributed nature of knowledge that each individual carries with him and through the process of coordination with other members of society, the individual and such other members of the society server each other and achieve their respective ends.
Coordination ensures the limited knowledge of individuals meets and reconciles each other's best interests.
The origins of law
The recognition of man's innate rights to freely engage (and coordinate) as his natural right is an important step in his evolution (further reading: Meaning of Economic Freedom). In this way, society solves the problem of vast knowledge facing off the limited capacity of the intellect.
The limited capacity of the intellect is a concept rejected by individuals who purport to acquire all the knowledge necessary to conduct the affairs of the society. However, such an acquisition is physically impossible due to the vastness of the accumulated knowledge that has grown since human evolution, compared to the limitations of the brain that has to process such vast knowledge.
Therefore, society has always carried faith in the coordination process and recognised the limitation of a group of men in deciding issues. Those issues would be better left to the results arising from such coordination processes - the results of which are acceptable to the society, than a decision that would be superimposed on it by the articulation of a few individuals, who are removed from such issues.
Yet, political processes stand in opposition to these simple facts. The absence of opportunities for intervention would mean a political class who would have fewer opportunities to profit from, either in money or in the form of political capital today, monetisable at a future date.
The counter- argument to leave all decisions and conflict-resolutions to the natural, coordination process of societies is antithetical to the politician who wants to appear to be solving problems. Politicians, mostly, don't eventually solve problems. It is the society that decides to accommodate one set of choices against another. This is the natural order of reconciling conflicting demands among members of society. In such a scenario, the role of a politician - adept at articulating solutions - is found wanting.
The superiority of the coordination process over deliberate action (articulation) is not easily clear to everyone. There is a conscious, consistent messaging to the public that solutions to vexing problems cannot be left to the 'invisible hand' which would magically coordinate to produce the best results. Instead, articulate decision-making is necessary to bring order and sanity to the 'uninformed' public.
The articulators proceed with the belief that certain individuals possess superior intellectual power. With their superior intellect, they could use reason and rationality to solve issues facing society. According to them, the answer to problems lie in pre-validated reasoning techniques, rather than relying on methods that existed over the ages. The validation for their reasoned techniques is provided by fellow articulators.
There is, in fact, an aversion to old beliefs and customs, since according to the articulators, the former must have survived due to lack of application of reason due to the primitive intellectual development in the old ages.
The age of reason
In modern times, 'reason' seemed to have gained traction since the eighteenth century, in large part after the arrival of the book 'The Age of Reason' by Thomas Paine. This is as though, before the idea of reason being captured in the written form, civilizations progressed without the aid of reason. The major changes in thinking that occured as a result of this new age of reason is, it pitted those people who believed in the superiority of reason (and articulation) over experience (and wisdom).
Another way of describing these phenomena is people began to believe in either articulation by the intellectuals who purported to guide society in all manners of economic, social and political issues, versus those who believed in the spontaneous order of things to guide issues. The latter believed in the distributed knowledge among men who interact freely to arrive at trade-offs. This stood in contrast to articulators who believed in 'solutions' rather than 'trade-offs'.
In contrast, in the free markets, the systemic processes result in spontaneous orders of matchmaking using signals such as prices and contracts between willing parties. In matters of tradition, culture, family values, similar systemic processes operating within society ensure that acceptable results are produced.
Articulators compare the achievements in science and point out the similarities to their domain of interests. In science, a few individuals make remarkable inventions that better humanity. And therefore, by extension, a few intellectuals who possess 'cultivated minds' by prolonged study can direct the course of society in matters of non-scientific nature such as socio-economic and political nature.
A corollary benefit of involving intellectuals is that the collective median level of the intellectual quotient of the masses would also be raised, lest those masses would have primitive tastes and thinking. This, in the opinion of intellectuals and articulators, is the ideal process for any society. Without the role of the intellectuals, the ordinary men would simply go about their daily lives without similar levels of introspection about the nature of things. Also, they would hold narrow opinions of things prejudiced by faith in hearsay, folklore and old wisdom - all of which prevent them from making 'cutting-edge' observations in their lives.
The articulators point out that intellectual improvement of the society, in general, can take place only when such articulators and intellectuals take charge of society. In their view, greater prosperity and advancement of society requires its total intellectual score to improve - which task the intellectuals feel obliged to perform.
The articulators reason that they are the bearers of all knowledge whereas society consists of 'masses' who are generally ignorant and people are mainly concerned with survival and not great mental accomplishments.
In the articulated version anyone with a differing view, say a proponent of spontaneous order, would simply be framed as a competing intellectual - only, with views varying in degree of arguments. The arguments put forth by those who believe in spontaneous order will not be judged by its own merits which are superior nevertheless, but instead would be judged within the framework of articulation theory itself. That is, arguments will be pitted against each other and the degree of precision in the articulation would be measured. Precision in prescriptions is never a strong suit of the advocates of spontaneous order.
The argumentative articulator
By simply deferring to systemic processes the believers in spontaneous order loses debates to an articulator who is cleverer in framing problem-solutions in written and spoken words. That those solutions are sub-optimal or not acceptable to society, doesn't matter at the time of articulation. At a later time, it can always be reasoned as to why a certain prescription failed and how a new prescription with ever more precision in the language employed would help solve problems.
In all this, the believer in spontaneous order is left standing by because even when things get worse, his devices don't alter: he would revert simply with the age-old response of relying on the free-markets, individual choice, private contracts etc.
Thus, articulated rationality prevails over arguments that point to the collective experience of the society, systemic processes embedded in institutions, the wisdom of the ages etc.
The basic difference lies in who holds knowledge. Articulators believe that there are special human beings among us, whom we must opportunistically take advantage of to further our civilization. These men have superior intellect - and this is a fact - within the framework of measurement of intellect. Their comparison is with other men in society - one at a time. The concept of unarticulated knowledge manifesting through the mores of the collective society and adding to the common fund of knowledge as time passes by is simply not visible and comprehend-able to the articulators. The articulators are just comparing men with varying degrees of articulation and choosing among them. The chosen ones are 'gifts' to mankind that the masses should rise to the occasion and take 'advantage' of their presence.
Voltaire, for instance, believed that the whole class of philosophers as being so disinterested that they speak only for the causes of public interest - that is, reason being their sole motivation. Similarly, Rousseau felt that the form of governance should be set up in such a way that wise philosophers govern the rest.
Not only where these thinkers enamoured by the 'brilliance' of their fellow philosophers, but they also held equal degree of contempt for the common man who they thought was preoccupied with the emergencies of his daily life and solely guided by passion, narrow beliefs and other heuristics.
Science and the intellectuals
In all this, pure scientific knowledge stands in a special place. The field of science can become a focused endeavour of a group of men would marshal other experts towards succeeding at a particular scientific goal. Articulators, by analogy, extend the case with scientific pursuits, to other domains of knowledge - including the kind which are only available in widely dispersed forms and need a mechanism of coordination to achieve ends.
Adam Smith took a special dislike for intellectuals who he said were conceited enough to imagine they could arrange the members of a society as though it were a chessboard. The moral superiority of those with the vision of intellectuals is driven - perhaps - influenced by their specialisation in finer senses (like art) or taste (like wine) or learning from the works of other philosophers and as a result, profess this sense of superiority over the masses.
Despite those superior faculties, their knowledge would not yield the same effective result that arises when those masses coordinate among themselves and achieve ends that are acceptable to them.
With all the forms of knowledge - except the sciences - understood to be an accumulation of our civilization and embodied in our institutions, and coming into practice through systemic coordination, the superiority of few individuals takes a secondary place.
The systemic coordination itself was not an invention conceived by any intellectual. It evolved naturally through the ages. The 18th-century physiocrats were the first to recognize it and coined the term laissez-faire, which means to leave things to its course without interference. Later, Adam Smith became its foremost proponent. The following passage captured his principled stand on the issue of the superiority of a select few.
The statesman who should attempt to direct people in what manner they ought to employ their capitals, would not only load himself with a most unnecessary attention, but assume an authority which could safely be trusted not only to no single person, but to no council or senate whatever, and which nowhere be so dangerous as in the hands of a man who had folly and presumption enough to fancy himself fit to exercise it.
Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations
The best decisions for the marketplace are achieved when left to its systemic processes. Similarly, the best social decisions are to be made - not by those who claim to possess superior intellect - but by the institutions of society.
Economic schools of thought
Among the various schools of economics, the classical and the Austrian schools embody the principles and belief in the spontaneous order as against individual articulation. In an unhampered market, prices of material, labour and money, adjusts itself through systemic processes in response to changes in demand, labour attitude, innovation and other influences of the market.
The systemic processes could be studied in terms of its general patterns, characteristics, but cannot be distilled into concrete, quantifiable values that render accurate prediction of the values of those separate elements constituting those patterns - or worse, render control of some sub-group to guide its actual behaviour to suit the articulator's specific vision.
The focus of these schools of thought is on systemic behaviour. The systemic behaviour is the rational process that is the focus of study. The rationality of the individual man isn't the focus. The emergent-order that results from spontaneous order has study-able elements with a broad level of consistency.
The subjective behaviour of the individual man appears chaotic in the eyes of the articulator since he starts with the presumption of rational behaviour upon which the articulator's whole theory stands. When he finds his experimental subject deviating from rational behaviour he lays down guidance to arrange the affairs of such 'irrational' man to the latter's best interest. Therefore, starting with a wrong assumption is turned into an opportunity for a full-time job of endless articulation.
Law: The interplay with articulation
In Understanding Knowledge, we had described that Constitution and laws are the codified general orders of society. In the Meaning of Economic Freedom we described the fundamental rights of man such as personality, liberty and property, as pre-dating any written law, that is, it is a form of natural right.
The prohibition against abridging any of those rights is achieved through collective action. Such collective action derives its power only from individual rights and nothing else adds to collective action. These fundamental tenets form the basis of law. It is a codification of some parts of systemic processes of society that aid man in his interactions with other members of the society.
This is not the view of the believers in articulated rationalism. They view law like any other matter concerning society and as a subject matter for the intellectuals and clever minds. They desire to bring forth, alter, interpret differently, extend and annul laws as they deem fit by applying their framework of articulated rationality.
They refer to the life of 'inferior' laws, viz., early religious commandments. Superior laws replaced inferior ones only through the stroke of the pen by a few "wise men" rather than through the process of gradual internal change, is one such argument to defend amendments to laws.
In contrast, those who view stroke-of-the-pen changes with trepidation, insist on relying on experience, intuition, systemic processes over logic, analysis and insight of the judges and lawyers. The latter view believes laws can be frequently changed to suit new forms of 'consciousness' and 'sensitivity'. They read 'rights' out of the written law where none was originally intended or coin slogans such as 'social justice' when all forms of justice necessary are available in the written laws.
The belief that laws should be changed to accommodate these articulated demands, arises fundamentally from the belief that actual resource allocation and modification of the orders of society are indeed possible.
When democratic majority is not in its hands, the articulators resort to 'judicial activism' - a form of force to interpret laws differently, removed from its original construct, involving judges, lawyers, non-governmental organisations who think they have superior intellectual and moral authority to re-arrange society. Such behaviour not only depicts scant respect for democracy but also carry a dismissive attitude towards the accumulated knowledge of human civilization. They purport to fit ideals on society even when such ideals have never been desired by the collective society.
The categorisation of viewpoints into those who believe in the power of articulation and those who believe in spontaneous order of society has much bearing on the economic and social life of the citizens. Articulation has convincing armoury in its favor such as the choice of forceful words, wise counters and the ability to influence contemporary thinking by using prescient phraseology that attract the youth.
An angry intellectual would quickly launch into a tirade by using the pen or his sharp tongue. Those articulators are adept at debating; they know how to apply malleable words to lead the direction of the debate. However, they lack the sincerity in accepting results arising from implementing their recommendations. Worse, further articulation of new solutions to old problems never ceases to emerge from those same people.
The believers in spontaneous order, firstly, believe that knowledge is fragmented and no single person can possess the totality of knowledge. Except in the field of science, an intellectual has little advantage over the common man.
Thomas Hobbes, Adam Smith, Freidrich Hayek, all found little natural differences among men. According to Hobbes, the common man has no use of the meaningless words found in the vocabulary of the intellectuals. Systemic processes produced better results owing to the collective application of knowledge than the results of articulation of society's mean-ends by intellectuals.
The articulators naturally take a fancy to young, emerging intellectuals, particularly those coming out of leading universities. They prefer to take counsel of these 'rising stars' who are 'unblemished' by the 'prejudices' of the society. There is a halo of wisdom that has magically dawned early on such individuals without the requisite experience as a living, interacting members of society. In reality, the practical experience of the common man trumps the concocted advice of the intellectuals.
The big question is, in what direction does society move? Does the economic, social and judicial policy defer to the results generated by the institutional processes that embody the long history of accumulated knowledge held in fragmented form by society, or, does it presuppose the articulated decisions of a few to rearrange the order of society?