The Engineering Mindset
By Arnold Kling
Friedrich von Hayek, in 1952, made a strong case for the peculiarity of the engineering mentality, which in his view is the result of an education which does not train them to understand individuals and their world as the outcome of a social process in which spontaneous behaviours and interactions play a significant part. Rather, it fosters on them a script in which a strict ‘rational’ control of processes plays the key role (1952: 94- 102): this would make them on the one hand less adept at dealing with the confusing causality of the social and political realms and the compromise and circumspection that these entail, and on the other hand inclined to think that societies should operate orderly akin to well-functioning machines…“It is not surprising”, Hayek concluded, “that many of the more active minds among those so trained sooner or later react violently against the deficiencies of their education and develop a passion for imposing on society the order which they are unable to detect by the means with which they are familiar”
The reference is to Hayek’s The Counter-revolution in Science. The paper is “Engineers of Jihad,” which documents and tries to explain the high proportion of engineers among prominent Islamic radicals.
At a less highly-charged level, Hayek’s hypothesis is consistent with what I call MIT economics, which tends to be much more comfortable with top-down, “engineered” economic policy. On Friday, when I spoke at a small session on health care in Philadelphia, one of my panelists commented that I had reverted to the “humanism of Swarthmore” rather than the engineering mindset of MIT.
Thanks to Tyler Cowen for the pointer.
Just as an aside, I think we are too easily fascinated with attempts to link beliefs to personality. It’s sort of like our fascination with causal links between diet and health. A lot of the latter turn out to be bogus on further study. I suspect that a lot of the former do as well.