Science in Context 2009, 22(4):567–585
F.A. von Hayek is mainly known for his defense of free-market economics and liberalism. His views on science – more specifically on the methodological differences between the physical sciences on the one hand, and evolutionary biology and the social sciences on the other – are less well known. Yet in order to understand, and properly evaluate Hayek’s political position, we must look at the theory of scientific method that underpins it. Hayek believed that a basic misunderstanding of the discipline of economics and the complex phenomena with which it deals produced misconceptions concerning its method and goals, which led in turn to the adoption of dangerous policies. The objective of this article is to trace the development of Hayek’s views on the nature of economics as a scientific discipline and to examine his conclusions concerning the scope of economic prediction. In doing so, I first show that Hayek’s interest in the natural sciences (especially biology), as well as his interest in epistemology, were central to his thought, dating back to his formative years. I then emphasize the important place of historical analysis in Hayek’s reflections on methodology and examine the reasons for his strong criticism of positivism and socialism. Finally, in the third and fourth sections that constitute the bulk of the article, I show how Hayek’s understanding of the data and goal of the social sciences (which he distinguished from those of the physical sciences), culminated in an analogy that sought to establish economics and evolutionary biology as exemplary complex sciences. I challenge Hayek’s interpretation of this analogy through a comparison with Darwin’s views in The Origin of Species, and thus open a door to re-evaluating the theoretical foundations of Hayek’s political claims.