The Pretense of Nation-Building

In 1974, when Friedrich Hayek won the Nobel Prize in Economics, he used his acceptance speech to deliver a warning to the world. Do not again fall for “the pretense of knowledge,” he counseled.

Hayek was singling out economic policymakers who presume to possess the knowledge needed to confidently predict and design market outcomes, much as engineers precisely predict and design mechanical outcomes.

Yet, as Hayek surely recognized, such epistemic arrogance is rampant throughout all social thought, and not just economics. It particularly plagues the realm of foreign policy.

Consider how impossible it is to know exactly what is going on in anyone else’s mind. Nobody can predict with certainty an individual’s future choices, and the preferences those choices reveal. The mind of even a single person is to a great degree opaque. Now take that opacity and multiply it by the millions of minds that make up an economy or a country. That is a hell of a lot of ignorance and unpredictability.

Add to this the manifold nature of the material world in which we live. Then contemplate the fluctuating and elaborate interplay of all those minds and materials. Only then do you begin to realize how unfathomably complex the social world is, and the absurdity of anyone thinking they can engineer society.

Foreign policy planners are particularly prone to this kind of hubris. They are infatuated with the belief that they can whip a country, a region, even the whole world, into shape through the judicious application of extreme violence. This faith is impervious to mounting evidence to the contrary. Consider, for example, recent U.S. foreign policy.

The Bush administration neocons guaranteed that regime change in Afghanistan and Iraq would be the first steps toward remaking the Greater Middle East with the blessings of freedom and democracy.

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