Thursday, June 11, 2009

Hayek, Fukuyama, and Shop Craft as Soul Craft

Francis Fukuyama reviewing Matthew Crawford's Shop Craft as Soul Craft:
Highly educated people with high-status jobs - investment bankers, professors, lawyers - often believe that they could do anything their less-educated brethren can, if only they put their minds to it, because cognitive ability is the only ability that counts. The truth is that some would not have the physical and cognitive ability to do skilled blue-collar work, and that others could do it only if they invested 20 years of their life in learning a trade.

“Shop Class as Soulcraft” makes this quite vivid by explaining in detail what is actually involved in rebuilding a Volkswagen engine: grinding down the gasket joining the intake ports to the cylinder heads, with a file, tracing the custom-fit gasket with an X-Acto knife, removing metal on the manifolds with a pneumatic die grinder so the passageways will mate perfectly. Small signs of galling and discoloration mean excessive heat buildup, caused by a previous owner’s failure to lubricate; the slight bulging of a valve stem points to a root cause of wear that a novice mechanic would completely fail to perceive.
This is so true. I spent years working as an engineer in the power industry, many of those years spent working directly in the field and shops with many of our technicians and mechanics. They were far more skilled and knowledgeable when it came to metalworking, repairing turbines, electrical work, and using tools and machinery than I could ever possibly be. I mostly ran interference between them, our customers, and the rest of our company to help bring them work and enable them to do it without interference. Our shop workers and field personnel's level of knowledge was far more than anything you'd ever be able to learn in school.

Russ Roberts writes:

This insight that a successful economy must continually use knowledge that is dispersed, unimaginably detailed, and often unable to be articulated fueled F.A. Hayek's skepticism of government intervention. Here's Hayek, from his 1945 article "The Use of Knowledge in Society":

Today it is almost heresy to suggest that scientific knowledge is not the sum of all knowledge. But a little reflection will show that there is beyond question a body of very important but unorganized knowledge which cannot possibly be called scientific in the sense of knowledge of general rules: the knowledge of the particular circumstances of time and place. It is with respect to this that practically every individual has some advantage over all others because he possesses unique information of which beneficial use might be made, but of which use can be made only if the decisions depending on it are left to him or are made with his active cooperation.

We need to remember only how much we have to learn in any occupation after we have completed our theoretical training, how big a part of our working life we spend learning particular jobs, and how valuable an asset in all walks of life is knowledge of people, of local conditions, and of special circumstances. To know of and put to use a machine not fully employed, or somebody's skill which could be better utilized, or to be aware of a surplus stock which can be drawn upon during an interruption of supplies, is socially quite as useful as the knowledge of better alternative techniques. And the shipper who earns his living from using otherwise empty or half-filled journeys of tramp-steamers, or the estate agent whose whole knowledge is almost exclusively one of temporary opportunities, or the arbitrageur who gains from local differences of commodity prices, are all performing eminently useful functions based on special knowledge of circumstances of the fleeting moment not known to others.

No fact about an advanced economy is more vital to understand than this one - and very, very few are as vital.


1 comment:

Bill Moneypenny said...

This book, ShopCraft as SoulCraft, is an amazing read. Not only does it make the case for the value of using your hands and your brain, but it warns about the potential career land mines being set up by today's "knowledge economy". If a person is not cautious, he/she could end up with a four year degree working in "clerkdom".