How Hayek Can Transform Our Ingratitude into Gratitude

  • November 25, 2021
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“Some Americans,” Thomas Sowell wrote, “will never appreciate America, until after they have helped destroy it, and have then begun to suffer the consequences.”

“Ingratitude,” psychology professor Robert Emmons observes, in his book Thanks: How Practicing Gratitude Can Make You Happier, “leads inevitably to a confining, restricting and ‘shrinking’ sense of self. Emotions such as anger, resentment, envy and bitterness tend to undermine social relations.” Is the epidemic anger we observe, even before Covid, linked to ingratitude?

Ungrateful thinking may seem justified given what a thinker sees as reality. Without a historical context and literacy in economics, a person can be caught up in an ill-informed thought storm yet be sure they understand the world clearly and objectively.  

In their book The Knowledge Illusion, cognitive scientists Steven Sloman and Phillip Fernbach observed that “In general we don’t appreciate how little we know; the tiniest bit of knowledge makes us feel like experts. Once we feel like an expert we start talking like an expert.”

If your progressive colleague or neighbor irritates you with a talk track from NPR, the NY Times, or CNN, learn from them. Don’t be compelled to adopt their views, but notice canned opinions of any kind are rarely persuasive. Reciting soundbites is just not effective. 

To ground your thinking more firmly in economics, reading Hayek will help. Admittedly, at least initially, Hayek can be difficult to read. By persevering to understand Hayek’s meaning you demonstrate commitment to being a champion of liberty. Ingratitude you harbor, in your thinking, may be replaced with gratitude as you learn lessons from Hayek.

Gratitude Lesson 1: Allow “Different Strokes for Different Folks” to Power Your World

“The Use of Knowledge in Society” is arguably the most important journal article written by a social scientist in the 20th century. Hayek’s insight was deceptively simple: “The economic problem … is a problem of the utilization of knowledge which is not given to anyone in its totality.” Put another way, knowledge is dispersed: “The knowledge of the circumstances of which we must make use never exists in concentrated or integrated forms but solely as the dispersed bits of incomplete and frequently contradictory knowledge which all the separate individuals possess.”

Government planners turn a blind eye to Hayek’s insight. It is not just fervent planners who resist Hayek’s insight. Anyone who wants to rely on “experts” to make the world a better place will struggle with Hayek’s ideas, even while contentiously debating which “experts” to follow. 

Some are sure if only everyone did what they or their favorite “experts” thought was correct, then the world would be a better place. Hayek shows us that the life we take for granted would not be possible if everyone followed the dictates of experts. Hayek writes in “The Market Order or Catallaxy,” contained in Law Legislation and Liberty, Volume 2 that “Most of the knowledge on which we rely in pursuit of our ends is the unintended by-product of others exploring the world in different directions from those we pursue ourselves.” In truth, it is good that others “are impelled by different aims.” Knowledge is generated as different people pursue different purposes. The knowledge we make use of “would never have become available to us if only those ends were pursued which we regarded as desirable.”

As Sly and the Family Stone sang in their song Everyday People, “Sometimes I’m right and I can be wrong… different strokes for different folks.” Taking the absurd position that anyone knows how others should use their energy makes the advancement of society impossible. When planners force others to operate along a narrow set of ends, the rate of discovery grinds down. In Hayek’s words, “The forces for intellectual progress would be much confined.”

The modern world is built on specialization and interdependence; each person does what he does best and relies on the efforts of others. Most of us would perish without the efforts of others. Psychologist David Reynolds has written extensively on gratitude. In  A Handbook for Constructive Living, he observes,

I am wearing clothes others made for me, eating food others grew and prepared for me, using tools others designed and fabricated and taught me how to use, speaking words others defined and explained. The list goes on and on. Any verb I can think of—sleep, play tennis, drive, lecture, watch, bathe—can be followed by a phrase attributing the action to some supporting role by others. There is nothing I do that is thanks to my own efforts alone.

Gratitude Lesson 2: You Can’t Control What You Can Never Understand

Human beings seek order in their lives. Yet a sense of chaos creeps in as the societal and organizational problems we face grow ever more complex. Does this complexity require us to exert more control or less? Hayek’s answer to this question may seem initially counterintuitive.

Hayek observes that when we see order, “the first answer to which our anthropomorphic habits of thought almost inevitably lead us is that it must be due to the design of some thinking mind.”  

In “Cosmos and Taxis,” contained in Law Legislation and Liberty, Volume 1, Hayek brings to light two types of order. A cosmos is a grown order, a “self-generating or endogenous order… described as a spontaneous order” and has no specific purpose. A taxis is a made, exogenous, constructed, artificial order and usually has a stated purpose. 

It is helpful to understand that Hayek is not saying that a taxis is a bad thing. After all, an organization is a taxis; it is an order constructed for a specific purpose. Since some believe order cannot be spontaneous and must come from control, conceiving of spontaneous order is difficult for them. Yet, opening our eyes to the concept of cosmos leads to startling changes in how we view markets and even business management. We begin to understand a seemingly paradoxical conclusion: The more control we exert, the less order we experience.

Dee Hock, the legendary founder of Visa and its former longtime CEO, tells us that simple rules lead to complex orders, while complex rules lead to simple orders. Hock writes: “Simple, clear purpose and principles give rise to complex, intelligent behavior. Complex rules and regulations give rise to simple, stupid behavior.” Of course, there is no one-size-fits-all rule here; individuals and organizations must undertake a process of discovery to change old habits of mind.

To understand the limits of control-oriented habits of thought, let us look at some characteristics of spontaneous orders. Hayek wrote:

(The) degree of complexity [of spontaneous order] is not limited to what the human mind can master; (its) existence need not manifest itself to our senses but may be based on purely abstract relations which we can only mentally reconstruct; and not having been made it cannot legitimately be said to have a particular purpose, although our awareness of its existence may be extremely important for our successful pursuit of a great variety of different purposes. 

It is the first characteristic of spontaneous order that gives us the most trouble: Our minds cannot master the complexity of spontaneous order.

Many people have trouble understanding the spontaneous nature of markets. Hayek pointed out that critics “pour uncomprehending ridicule on Adam Smith’s expression of the ‘invisible hand’ by which, in the language of his time, he described how man is led ‘to promote an end which was no part of his intentions’.”

Hayek explains how spontaneous orders use dispersed knowledge “without this knowledge ever being concentrated in a single mind, or being subject to those processes of deliberate coordination and adaptation which a mind performs.”

When the urge to control arises, we can stand down; the world doesn’t depend on our limited understanding. And although it is beyond the scope of this essay, we can apply Hayek to our daily lives. We all have an inner central planner; understanding Hayek can help us downsize the destructive part of our ego. The more you try to control your life, the more your mental capacity is occupied with trying to do the impossible, the more you lower the quality of your life

There is not one person who can even control his own thinking; uninvited thoughts stream through our minds constantly. It is laughable to believe anyone should control markets. 

In his classic book on architecture, The Timeless Way of Building, Christopher Alexander writes, “When a place is lifeless or unreal, there is almost always a mastermind behind it. It is so filled with the will of its maker that there is no room for its own nature.” Alexander offers this advice to those architects who have trouble giving up control and taking their ego out of a building design: “You are able to do this only when you no longer fear that nothing will happen.” 

Although Alexander’s work is meant to help architects design buildings having “the quality without a name,” his ideas have universal applicability. The quality without a name, Alexander tells us, “cannot be made, but only generated, indirectly, by the ordinary actions of people, just as a flower cannot be made but only generated from the seed.” Continuing his gardening metaphor, Alexander instructs, “If you want to make a living flower, you don’t build it physically, with tweezers, cell by cell. You grow it from the seed… No process of construction can ever create this kind of complexity directly.” Applied to human affairs, no amount of effort can replace the generative potential of simply giving up control and being open to the creative powers unleashed in human beings.

Those posing as masterminds can never embrace Alexander or Hayek. In architecture, they produce lifeless buildings. When masterminds attempt to control the economy, they squelch the activity of ordinary people and human flourishing.

Gratitude Lesson 3: Appreciate Grace

We receive grace when we receive “unmerited favor.” Reynolds points out, “It takes energy and struggle to ignore how much we receive and how little we return to the world. But we grow used to the investment in deceit as we grow older. Ignoring and lying helps us feel better about ourselves.”

Reynolds writes, “Gratitude is a natural response to taking a realistic look at the world, including our place in it. We aren’t realistic enough to gain the benefits of gratitude often.”

Hayek leads us to take a realistic look at the modern economy we otherwise take for granted. We take our place in it when we use our talents and interests for our own aims, which naturally help serve others. We build on the efforts of those who innovated before us. Our purpose is supported because others are free to pursue their purposes without interference from masterminds. Clearly, without the efforts of others, past and present, we would perish. Feeling grateful is a function of our state of mind. Mutual interdependence is a fundamental truth of life. Understanding Hayek transforms our thinking into a rich appreciation of how individuals cooperate and bring forth the miracles of the modern economy. With the opening of eyes long closed, our ingratitude becomes gratitude.

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