Why the Pursuit of Truth Matters
One of the most disquieting and perhaps prophetic chapters in Friedrich Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom (University of Chicago Press, 1944) is the one on “the end of truth.” The future Nobel economics prize winner argued that a totalitarian government or one getting there must necessarily make war on truth.
But does truth really matter? I take truth to mean the concordance between beliefs on the one hand and, on the other hand, logic and observation. Preferences are not a matter of truth: there is nothing true or false in preferring dark to white chocolate, although persuasion can lead an individual to discover things that he actually prefers. Art, faith perhaps, and Gödelian interstices between the true and the provable, not to speak of the unexplained usefulness of evolved rules of conduct (see Hayek on that), suggest that there is not a total overlap between reason and truth.
Hayek probably did not imagine how, three-fourths of a century after The Road for Serfdom, many university departments and administrations would forget that the pursuit of truth and thus free inquiry and free speech are central to their missions.
Recent political events in America show the extent of the problem. The Democrats have endorsed and often propagated flimsy economic theories as well as irrational if not laughable woke ideas. It looks as if they have outsourced censorship to Facebook and Twitter. The Republicans have been even worse enemies of truth. Before, during, and after his presidency, Donald Trump has shown an open and buffoonish disregard for the truth, not only by misrepresenting facts when he could do so at low political cost as virtually all politicians do, but also by unashamedly repeating implausible and debunked falsehoods often without even a semblance of an argument. He has required his officials and political minions to go along as a badge of loyalty. Facebook and Twitter have counteracted by trying laughingly to become arbiters of truth, further aggravating the damage.
The obligation to believe what is true because it is true, rather than to believe anything else or for any other reason, is the universal and supreme imperative for the critical consciousness.
The typical politician is not after “critical consciousness.” But how can one who claims to think and teach not be pursuing this ideal? It would not be surprising, in this age of non-enlightenment, to find somebody arguing that the concern for truth is just virtue signaling.
Truth and the pursuit of truth are important for at least three reasons. First, false statements, if they are believed and acted upon, will yield contradictory and absurd results, and not only in science and structural engineering. If it is believed that A and non-A are both true, the mottos of Big Brother in 1984 make sense: “War is Peace” and “Freedom is Slavery.” If it is believed that economic scarcity does not exist, everybody can have everything but, in fact, the rulers and their supporters will grab everything they can.
Second, one who does not pursue the truth will end up lying each time he can benefit from it and will be trusted only by the gullible.
Third, a generalized disregard for truth undermines the minimum social capital of trust necessary for prosperity and liberty. This last point is related to the economic literature on efficient institutions.