06 February 2007

The Difference

Here is a book that I think is crucially important by Scott Page who teaches in a variety of departments at the University of Michigan. What he offers is a consequentialist - to my mind essentially a pragmatist - defense of diversity. Scott's argument is that under identifiable conditions diversity is as important, oftentimes more important, a factor in successful problem solving than individual ability. What?!?! Roughly, given certain initial conditions, if we take two populations, one in which cognitively "all agents are above average" (to paraphrase Garrison Keillor) and another that is random and so diverse, the latter regularly will out-perform the former in solving problems. Scott doesn't argue that we should wholly disregard ability, but he thinks we should be significantly less reticent about how we endorse and defend diversity: "In sum, rather than being on the defensive about diversity, we should go on the offensive. We should look at difference as something that can improve performance, not as something that we have to be concerned about so that we don't get sued." I couldn't agree more.

What is pragmatist about this argument? First, the tempered consequentialism - the focus on outcomes generated by interactions under specifiable conditions. Second, the focus on problem solving. Third, the commitment to relying on social scientific inquiry to establish the argument. There likely are other ways Scott's case resonates with Pierce and Dewey as well as with contemporary pragmatists like Putnam, Westbrook, Posner, Breyer and Misak - even if he never so much as mentions any of them by name.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

The book sounds great. If you didn't fully sell it to me, it's cover did. What a wonderful and illustrative design for The Difference!

07 February, 2007 00:25  
Blogger Hans said...

Am I missing out on something here, but isn´t this exactly the same point made by Surowiecki in his 2004 book "The Wisdom of Crowds"? If you haven´t read it, check it out.


I read it as an Hayekian defense for liberty, diversity and market economy. I haven't read the book you report in your post; but I can´t imagine you being convinced by Hayekian argument... or? :)

09 February, 2007 08:41  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...

A nice point ... Page does converge with Surowecki (and adnits that) ... the difference (no pun intended) seems to be that Scott works through the models more systematically and is attuned to politics more than just economic affairs. As a political theorist both of those are important. All that is perhaps unfair to Surowiecki, though, since I've not read his book. By the way, one might go back and read Aristotle on the wisdom of the multitudes or Condorcet on voting or Peirce and Dewey on the method of inquiry. So in that sense (assuming Surowiecki's title refleccts his argument) there is nothing new under the sun!

Your point about Hayek is right, but he seemed completely resistant to the notion that other sorts of non-market arrangements also have crucially important knowledge generating and processing features. I (and moy con-conspirator Jack Knight) have a paper coming out any day now in the American Political Science Review (BORING!, I know, but it is how I make a living!) called "The Priority of Democracy" that makes this general point.

09 February, 2007 09:04  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...

PS: So, I AM convinced by Hayek's characterization of markets but do not think it generalizes into a plausisble liberatarian or neo-liberal position because we have to be attuned to the very restrictive conditions necessary for markets to work properly. Those conditions are commonly recognized to not themselves be sustainable by market forces. Moreover the sorts of institutions needed to monitor those conditions are not going to be produced or sustained by market forces either .... I am more persuaded by Tom Schelling who rightly points out that markets are just a special case (albeit very important in their proper domain) of equilibrium generating institutions.

09 February, 2007 09:09  
Blogger Hans said...

Thanks for the answer. I just might look Pages book up.

Since you once introduced Knights book to me, I, of course, I think, agree with your, and I guess Knights/Schellings, issues with Hayek. I look forward to the APSR-piece, and hope it's not boring...

09 February, 2007 09:24  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Jim, I grabbed an earlier version of your article with Knight from the web last year. It is not boring, but delightfully systematic.

There is, as I recall, a good distinction at the beginning between analytic, explanatory and... justificatory (?) tasks. Later the treatment of one economics textbook works well pedagogically. I will be looking out for the final version of the article.

Going even farther off from the topic of the post, a main inspiration for me to read Hayek has come from Knight's 1992 book.

The Difference book looks interesting also.

10 February, 2007 04:22  
Blogger Hans said...


if you´re in to Hayek, and fancy Knights take on him, I recommend this english bloke called Andy Denis. His homepage is quite informing, since his work is online:


or more specifically:

Andy Denis (2002) “Was Hayek a Panglossian evolutionary theorist? A reply to Whitman” Constitutional Political Economy 13 (3), September, 275-285. A rejoinder by Glen Whitman appeared in CPE in December 2003 (http://journals.kluweronline.com/article.asp?PIPS=5146926). Click here to see my response to Whitman’s rejoinder to my reply to his original article.

There is something truly disturbing about this hero among liberals, Hayek, who in fact, to me, seems to be one of the most conservative thinkers around.

While I am at it, a short note on Knights 1992 book. I find it pretty amusing to see how economists such as Acemoglu now are using this way of marxist thinking on social conflicts to explain institutional change (see the paper "Institutions as the Fundamental cause of Long-Run Growth" - without at least mentioning Knight or Terry Moe. Well, it´s the way things work, I guess.

12 February, 2007 05:43  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


Thanks for the links. They are very interesting, and I will delve more into them when I am closer to an internet connection with access to Constitutional Political Economy and a printer - in a month or so.

Btw. another inspiration to read Hayek is James Scott's Seeing Like A State. Scott does seek to distance himself from Hayek, but I am still unsure whether he does not meet Hayek in the sort of conservatism you mention. I may be unfair, but it is interesting to compare the two, to carve out similarities and differences. One difference at least is that Scott is less apocalyptic and more pragmatic (in the loose, everyday meaning of the term, Jim...) than Hayek.

12 February, 2007 06:51  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

In relation to Dysterkvisten's point about lack of references, I should mention that someone (I think it was Russel Hardin) wrote a review of James Scott's book the headline of which was "Seeing Like Hayek".

12 February, 2007 07:35  

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