Lucian M. Ashworth By: Lucian M. Ashworth
Professor
View profile and Diary

21 May 2020 : A Quick Note on Predictions

Today I have been thinking about predictions, or more precisely why we are so bad at them. Coming to terms with how the pandemic may or may not change the world around us requires us to extrapolate and predict, even when events are moving so rapidly that their direction is almost impossible to gauge from our limited point in time and space.

The reason I have been thinking about predictions is mainly because of two works that I have been looking at for another project. One is E. H. Carr's Twenty Years' Crisis (1939) and the other is F. A. Hayek's The Road to Serfdom (1944). Carr and Hayek make predictions, and their predictions flow from, and are central to, the validity of their overal arguments.

Now at one level Carr and Hayek are opposites. Carr the classical realist is brutally critical of the abstract liberalism that Hayek defends, meanwhile Hayek sees Carr's historically rooted realism as a step on the road to a British-style totalitarianism based on the arbitrary use of power. In this sense they are opposites. Carr's classical realism is the ultimate anti-liberalism, and Hayek's classical liberalism the ultimate anti-realism.

Yet, they also have something in common. They both made predictions that proved wildly inaccurate.

For Carr Munich had brought to an end the German-Slav conflict in central Europe, and was an example of the peaceful change of borders in response to power shifts. By the time it was published Carr's prediction had already been overtaken by events six months before, and by its second edition in 1945 his predictions ceased to have any link to reality. No wonder Carr heavily edited those passages for the second edition.

Hayek's prediction was more long-term, but suffice it to say that his dire predictions of a descent into totalitarianism because of the post-war mixed economy never came about. Indeed, if anything the later permissive society generation became obsessed with personal freedom and individuality that exceeded Hayek's horizons.

So both made predictions that were important to their central arguments, and in both cases their predictions were wildly inaccurate. We were not in a new era of peaceful change in 1939, and we were not on the road to serfdom in 1944.

Yet, intellectual history is not without irony. Both Twenty Years' Crisis and Road to Serfdom to this day are texts that are lauded in classical realist and classical liberal circles respectively as profound and seminal texts. Perhaps this is because we already subconsciously know that we are bad at predictions, and consequently we do not blame our intellectual gurus for falling at the first hurdle. On the other hand it is still odd that their modern partisans hail a perspicacity in their work that they clearly (in hindsight) did not possess.

Funnily enough, another guru from the same time, Robert Strausz-Hupe, was later hailed for his accurate predictions in his The Balance of Tomrrow (1945), despite the fact that his book missed pretty much every major geo-strategic trend that happened over the next thirty years.

Oh, and Elizabeth Wiskeman seems to have been a better predictor of the German-Slav conflict than Carr. So maybe it is just men who are bad at predictions.

What are going to be the effects of the pandemic? Honestly, I don't know yet. Perhaps we need to think in terms of the limits of the possible, rather than the likeliness of what we currently see as probable.

© 2020, All rights reserved. Views expressed are those of individual contributors. Privacy Policy