Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Socratic wisdom and political thinking

An idea that occurred to me only recently in this form, but is certainly represented in the work of Hayek, is that, in considering public policy, it is as important to firmly establish ones ignorance as well as ones knowledge. I believe much of what underlies classical liberal and libertarian thinking is the recognition of how one acquires knowledge, and how this knowledge can and can't be broadly applied. Thus it is important to consider what knowledge central governments don't and never can posses, such as the important time and place knowledge that allows individuals in the market to make intelligent decisions. These individuals also have limited knowledge of the market as a whole, and this is why the price system is so vital; it provides an easily understandable gauge of various complex market conditions.

Any person can also recognize that there is no simple, universal formula for the good life, and thus, if we care about fostering well being, there is a strong case to be made that the role of any central authority shouldn't be to establish and enforce such a formula, but rather to remove obstacles in the way of the creation for varying lifestyles. This, I think, is the central argument in favor of freedom as the chief virtue to be promoted by governments, and it rests largely on the recognition of limited knowledge.

Socrates' great wisdom lay in the knowledge of his own ignorance. This lesson, while widely recognized, has not taken hold among many intellectuals. Part of the reason why so many intellectuals oppose capitalism lies in their tendency to look for universal ideas. In this they follow Plato more than Socrates. Socrates was not a universal skeptic. He understood that knowledge was first and foremost a process, one which required constant dialogue with others. The case for liberalism (as always here, of the classical, non-American sort) lies in this principle. The principles it does hold as universal are the prerequisites for the open pursuit of knowledge and happiness. It recongizes the limits of knowledge, but also what makes it possible to make this a practical concept.

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