hayek's subjectivism: critique

#./subject.tex# Hayek's radically subjectivist view of the social sciences is open to the objection that its constitutive category, the rational subject, is by no means obviously given. As Lawson (1992) has argued, a wealth of psychological and sociological research has revealed that human behaviour is highly routinized, and coordinated in the main by unconscious brain functions. Indeed, as Dennett (1991) relates, experiments in neuropsychology indicate that people act first and become concious of their intention to act later.

For the more limited domain of economics, there is the problem that the `subjects' in question are more likely to be juridical than personal. In the main, the economic actors in industrial production are firms, not human individuals. Nor can the actions of a firm be reduced to the inner subjective life of its managing director. In any large firm, the courses of action taken result from a complex set of practices, reviews, and decision-making procedures involving many people, and in which the procedures can be as important as who fills which particular positions. We would argue that the economic subject that Hayek takes as his starting point is not empirically given at all, but is rather a reification of economic theory. The rational economic subject makes sense only in terms of formalised calculating procedures, which, if they are realised in practice, are more likely to be materialised in the accounting and management practices of firms than in the brains of individuals. Economic theory then projects back these practices, rational for the enterprise as a juridical subject, onto a supposedly constitutive human subject.

The historical conditions for this projection are clear enough. In the early stages of capitalism the distinction between personal and juridical subjects was as yet ill defined. The agent of economic practice thus appeared to be the person of the capitalist or entrepreneur rather than the firm. But from the standpoint of the current state of economic development, it can be seen that the rational calculating subject is the property-maximising juridical subject. To the extent that in a property system some of the juridical subjects are individual human animals, the reified subject of economic theory provides an account of what would be rational action on their part. But the assertion that these animals do engage in such rational action is more an act of faith than an empirical result of science. By starting out with this act of faith Hayek aimed to mark off economics as essentially a branch of moral philosophy rather than science.

But once the category of subject is recognised for what it is, not an empirically existing property of the human animal, but something ascribed to it both by the structures of language and of juridical discourse (Althusser, 1971), then this exclusion of science from the study of society becomes untenable. It becomes just one more of the special pleas by morality to hold the encroachments of science at bay.

Hayek's subjectivist philosophical standpoint has an important bearing on his arguments against socialist planning, since these arguments hinge on the notion of subjective information. Despite the fact that <#245#>The Counter-Revolution of Science<#245#> was published after the establishment of a scientific information theory by Shannon and Weaver (1949), Hayek's notion of information remains resolutely pre-scientific. Admittedly, it takes time for the discoveries of one discipline to percolate through to others. In the mid-1950s the idea of the objectivity of information had not yet spread far beyond the study of telecommunications. But now, when it has revolutionised biology, become the foundation of our major industries, and begun to transform our understanding of social ideologies (Dawkins, 1982), its absence vitiates Hayek's entire argument.

For Hayek information is essentially subjective; it is knowledge in people's minds. Thus we have the problem of how information that is dispersed in the minds of many can, through the operations of the market, be combined for the common good. By taking this subjectivist standpoint, attention is diverted away from the very practical and important question of the technical supports for information. It becomes impossible to see the production and manipulation of information as both a technology and a labour process in its own right, whose development acts as a constraint upon the possibility of economic relations.

In any but the most primitive of economies, economic relations have depended upon the development of techniques for objectifying information. Consider the relationship between landlord and tenant, and thus rent. This can only stabilise once society has a means for recording ownership and tenancy contracts, whether as written documents or the mortgage marker stones so hated by the peasantry of Attica.

The development of price relies upon the technology of counting and calculation, which can never in a commercial society be a purely mental operation. Calculation demands a material support, whether it be the calculi or small stones of the early Romans, or the coins and reckoning tables of late Antiquity and the middle ages. Economic rationality is an algorithmic process supported by a machinery for computation and information storage. The fact that until recently the machinery was simple and hand-operated---the abacus, the coin box, or the ledger---allowed it to be ignored in economic theory. But the means of rationality are as essential to economic relations as the means of production. Trade without a technology of calculation and record is as impractical as agriculture without instruments to turn the soil. Once these aspects of information theory and information technology are considered, quite different answers can be given to Hayek's problem of economic information. #./subject.tex#