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Engineers and Planners

The Engineer

The ideal of conscious control of social phenomena has made its greatest influence felt in the economic field. The present popularity of “economic planning” is directly traceable to the prevalence of the scientistic ideas we have been discussing. As in this field the scientistic ideals manifest themselves in the particular forms which they take in the hands of the applied scientist and especially the engineer, it will be convenient to combine the discussion of this influence with some examination of the characteristic ideals of the engineers.

We shall see that the influence on current views about problems of social organization of his technological approach, or the engineering point of view, is much greater than is generally realized. Most of the schemes for a complete remodeling of society, from the earlier utopias to modern socialism, bear indeed the distinct mark of this influence.

In recent years this desire to apply engineering technique to the solution of social problems has become very explicit;1 “political engineering” and “social engineering” have become fashionable catchwords which are quite as characteristic of the outlook of the present generation as its predilection for “conscious” control; in Russia even the artists appear to pride themselves on the name of “engineers of the soul,” bestowed upon them by Stalin. These phrases suggest a confusion about the fundamental differences between the task of the engineer and that of social organizations on a larger scale which make it desirable to consider their character somewhat more fully.

We must confine ourselves here to a few salient features of the specific problems which the professional experience of the engineer constantly bring up and which determine his outlook. The first is that his characteristic tasks are usually in themselves complete: he will be concerned with a single end, control all the efforts directed towards this end, and dispose for this purpose over a definitely given supply of resources. It is as a result of this that the most characteristic feature of his procedure becomes possible, namely that, at least in principle, all the parts of the complex of operations are preformed in the engineer’s mind before they start, that all the “data” on which the work is based have explicitly entered his preliminary calculations and been condensed into the “blueprint” that governs the execution of the whole scheme.23

The engineer, in other words, has complete control of the particular little world with which he is concerned, surveys it in all its relevant aspects and has to deal only with “known quantities.” So far as the solution of his engineering problem is concerned, he is not taking part in a social process in which others may take independent decisions, but lives in a separate world of his own. The application of the technique which he has mastered, of the generic rules he has been taught, indeed presupposes such complete knowledge of the objective facts; those rules refer to objective properties of the things and can be applied only after all the particular circumstances of time and place have been assembled and brought under the control of a single brain.

His technique, in other words, refers to typical situations defined in terms of objective facts, not to the problem of how to find out what resources are available or what is the relative importance of different needs. He has been trained in objective possibilities, irrespective of the particular conditions of time and place, in the knowledge of those properties of things which remain the same everywhere and at all times and which they possess irrespective of a particular human situation.

It is important, however, to observe that the engineer’s view of his job as complete in itself is, in some measure, a delusion. He is in a position in a competitive society to treat it as such because he can regard that assistance from society at large on which he counts as one of his data, as given to him without having to bother about it. That he can buy at given prices the materials and the services of the men he needs, that if he pays his men they will be able to procure their food and other necessities, he will usually take for granted. It is through basing his plans on the data offered to him by the market that they are fitted into the larger complex of social activities; and it is because he need not concern himself how the market provides him with what he needs that he can treat his job as self-contained. So long as market prices do not change unexpectedly he uses them as a guide in his calculations without much reflection about their significance.

But, though he is compelled to take them into account, they are not properties of things of the same kind as those which he understands. They are not objective attributes of things but reflections of a particular human situation at a given time and place. And as his knowledge does not explain why those changes in prices occur which often interfere with his plans, any such interference appears to him due to irrational (i.e., not consciously directed) forces, and he resents the necessity of paying attention to magnitudes which appear meaningless to him. Hence the characteristic and ever-recurrent demand for the substitution of in natura4 calculation for the “artificial” calculation in terms of price or value, i.e., of a calculation which takes explicit account of the objective properties of things.

The engineer’s ideal which he feels the “irrational” economic forces prevent him from achieving, based on his study of the objective properties of the things, is usually some purely technical optimum of universal validity. He rarely sees that his preference for these particular methods is merely a result of the type of problem he has most frequently to solve, and justified only in particular social positions. Since the most common problem the builder of machines meets is to extract from given resources the maximum of power, with the machinery to be used as the variable under his control, this maximum utilization of power is set up as an absolute ideal, a value in itself.5

But there is, of course, no special merit economizing one of the many factors which limit the possible achievement, at the expense of others. The engineer’s “technical optimum” proves frequently to be simply that method which it would be desirable to adopt if the supply of capital were unlimited, or the rate of interest were zero, which would indeed be a position in which we would aim at the highest possible rate of transformation of current input into current output. But to treat this as an immediate goal is to forget that such a state can be reached only by diverting for a long time resources which are wanted to serve current needs to the production of equipment. In other words, the engineer’s ideal is based on the disregard of the most fundamental economic fact which determines our position here and now: the scarcity of capital.

The rate of interest is, of course, only one, though the least understood and therefore the most disliked, of those prices which act as impersonal guides to which the engineer must submit if his plans are to fit into the pattern of activity of society as a whole, and against the restraint of which he chafes because they represent forces whose rationale he does not understand. It is one of those symbols in which the whole complex of human knowledge and wants is automatically (though by no means faultlessly) recorded, and to which the individual must pay attention if he wants to keep in step with the rest of the system. If, instead of using this information in the abridged form in which it is conveyed to him through the price system, he were to try in every instance to go back to the objective facts and take them consciously into consideration, this would be to dispense with the method which makes it possible for him to confine himself to the immediate circumstances and to substitute for it a method which requires that all this knowledge be collected in one center and explicitly and consciously embodied in a unitary plan. The application of engineering technique to the whole of society requires indeed that the director possess the same complete knowledge of the whole society that the engineer possesses of his limited world. Central economic planning is nothing but such an application of engineering principles to the whole of society based on the assumption that such a complete concentration of all relevant knowledge is possible.6

The Merchant

Before we proceed to consider the significance of this conception of a rational organization of society, it will be useful to supplement the sketch of the typical outlook of the engineer by an even briefer sketch of the functions of the merchant or trader. This will not only further elucidate the nature of the problem of the utilization of knowledge dispersed among many people, but also help to explain the dislike which not only the engineer but our whole generation shows for all commercial activities, and the general preference that is now accorded to “production” compared to the activities which, somewhat misleadingly, are referred to as “distribution.”

Compared with the work of the engineer, that of the merchant is, in a sense, much more “social,” i.e., interwoven with the free activities of other people. He contributes a step towards the achievement now of one end, now of another, and hardly ever is concerned with the complete process that serves a final need. What concerns him is not the achievement of a particular final result of the complete process in which he takes part, but the best use of the particular means of which he knows.

His special knowledge is almost entirely knowledge of particular circumstances of time or place, or, perhaps, a technique of ascertaining those circumstances in a given field. But though this knowledge is not of a kind which can be formulated in generic propositions, or acquired once and for all, and though, in an age of science, it is for that reason regarded as knowledge of an inferior kind, it is for all practical purposes no less important than scientific knowledge.

And while it is perhaps conceivable that all theoretical knowledge might be combined in the heads of a few experts and thus made available to a single central authority, it is this knowledge of the particular, of the fleeting circumstances of the moment and of local conditions, which will never exist otherwise than dispersed among many people. The knowledge of when a particular material or machine can be used most effectively or where they can be obtained most quickly or cheaply is quite as important for the solution of a particular task as the knowledge of what is the best material or machine for the purpose. The former kind of knowledge has little to do with the permanent properties of classes of things which the engineer studies, but is knowledge of a particular human situation. And it is as the person whose task is to take account of these facts that the merchant will constantly come into conflict with the ideals of the engineer, with whose plans he interferes and whose dislike he thereby contracts.7

The problem of securing an efficient use of our resources is thus very largely one of how that knowledge of the particular circumstances of the moment can be most effectively utilized; and the task which faces the designer of a rational order of society is to find a method whereby this widely dispersed knowledge may best be drawn upon. It is begging the question to describe this task, as is usually done, as one of effectively using the “available” resources to satisfy “existing” needs. Neither the “available” resources nor the “existing” needs are objective facts in the sense of those with which the engineer deals in his limited field: they can never be directly known in all relevant detail to a single planning body. Resources and needs exist for practical purposes only through somebody knowing about them, and there will always be infinitely more known to all the people together than can be known to the most competent authority.8

The Market

A successful solution can therefore not be based on the authority dealing directly with the objective facts, but must be based on a method of utilizing the knowledge dispersed among all members of society, knowledge of which in any particular instance the central authority will usually know neither who possesses it nor whether it exists at all. It can therefore not be utilized by consciously integrating it into a coherent whole, but only through some mechanism which will delegate the particular decisions to those who possess it, and for that purpose supply them with such information about the general situation as will enable them to make the best use of the particular circumstances of which only they know.

This is precisely the function which the various “markets” perform. Though every party in them will know only a small sector of all the possible sources of supply, or of the uses of, a commodity, yet, directly or indirectly, the parties are so interconnected that the prices register the relevant net results of all changes affecting demand or supply.9 It is as such an instrument for communicating to all those interested in a particular commodity the relevant information in an abridged and condensed form that markets and prices must be seen if we are to understand their function. They help to utilize the knowledge of many people without the need of first collecting it in a single body, and thereby make possible that combination of decentralization of decisions and mutual adjustment of these decisions which we find in a competitive system.

In aiming at a result which must be based, not on a single body of integrated knowledge or of connected reasoning which the designer possesses, but on the separate knowledge of many people, the task of social organization differs fundamentally from that of organizing given material resources. The fact that no single mind can know more than a fraction of what is known to all individual minds sets limits to the extent to which conscious direction can improve upon the results of unconscious social processes. Man has not deliberately designed this process and has begun to understand it only long after it had grown up. But that something which not only does not rely on deliberate control for its working, but which has not even been deliberately designed, should bring about desirable results, which we might not be able to bring about otherwise, is a conclusion the natural scientist seems to find difficult to accept.

It is because the moral sciences tend to show us such limits to our conscious control, while the progress of the natural sciences constantly extends the range of conscious control, that the natural scientist finds himself so frequently in revolt against the teaching of the moral sciences. Economics, in particular, after being condemned for employing methods different from those of the natural scientist, stands doubly condemned because it claims to show limits to the technique by which the natural scientists continuously extend our conquest and mastery of nature.

The Planner

It is this conflict with a strong human instinct, greatly strengthened in the person of the scientist and engineer, that makes the teaching of the moral sciences so very unwelcome. As Bertrand Russell has well described the position,

the pleasure of planned construction is one of the most powerful motives in men who combine intelligence with energy; whatever can be constructed according to a plan, such man will endeavor to construct … the desire to create is not in itself idealistic since it is a form of the love of power, and while the power to create exists there will be men desirous of using this power even if unaided nature would produce a better result than any that can be brought about by deliberate intention.10

This statement occurs, however, at the beginning of a chapter, significantly headed “Artificially Created Societies,” in which Russell himself seems to support these tendencies by arguing that “no society can be regarded as fully scientific unless it has been created deliberately with a certain structure to fulfill certain purposes.”11 As this statement will be understood by most readers, it expresses concisely that scientistic philosophy which through its popularizers has done more to create the present trend towards socialism than all the conflicts between economic interests which, though they raise a problem, do not necessarily indicate a particular solution. Of the majority of the intellectual leaders of the socialist movement, at least, it is probably true to say that they are socialists because socialism appears to them, as A. Bebel, the leader of the German Social Democratic movement defined it sixty years ago, as “science applied in clear awareness and with full insight to all fields of human activity.”12

The proof that the program of socialism actually derives from this kind of scientistic philosophy must be reserved for the detailed historical studies. At present our concern is mainly to show to what extent sheer intellectual error in this field may profoundly affect all prospects of humanity.

What the people who are so unwilling to renounce any of the powers of conscious control seem to be unable to comprehend is that this renunciation of conscious power, power which must always be power by men over other men, is for society as a whole only an apparent resignation, a self-denial individuals are called upon to exercise in order to increase the powers of the race, to release the knowledge and energies of the countless individuals that could never be utilized in a society consciously directed from the top. The great misfortune of our generation is that the direction which by the amazing progress of the natural sciences has been given to its interests is not one which assists us in comprehending the larger process of which as individuals we form merely a part or in appreciating how we constantly contribute to a common effort without either directing it or submitting to orders of others. To see this requires a kind of intellectual effort different in character from that necessary for the control of material things, an effort in which the traditional education in the “humanities” gave at least some practice, but for which the now predominant types of education seem less and less to prepare.

The more our technical civilization advances and the more, therefore, the study of things as distinct from the study of men and their ideas qualifies for the more important and influential positions, the more significant becomes the gulf that separates two different types of mind: the one represented by the man whose supreme ambition is to turn the world round him into an enormous machine, every part of which, on his pressing a button, moves according to his design; and the other represented by the man whose main interest is the growth of the human mind in all its aspects, who in the study of history or literature, the arts or the law, has learned to see the individuals as part of a process in which his contribution is not directed but spontaneous, and where he assists in the creation of something greater than he or any other single mind can ever plan for.

It is this awareness of being part of a social process, and of the manner in which individual efforts interact, which the education solely in the sciences or in technology seems so lamentably to fail to convey. It is not surprising 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.


In conclusion it is, perhaps, desirable to remind the reader once more that all we have said here is directed solely against a misuse of science, not against the scientist in the special field where he is competent, but against the application of his mental habits in fields where he is not competent. There is no conflict between our conclusions and those of legitimate science.

The main lesson at which we have arrived is indeed the same as that which one of the acutest students of scientific method has drawn from a survey of all fields of knowledge: it is that “the great lesson of humility which science teaches us, that we can never be omnipotent or omniscient, is the same as that of all great religions: man is not and never will be the god before whom he must bow down.”13

This article is excerpted from The Counter-revolution of Science, pp. 94–102.

1. Once again, one of the best illustrations of this tendency is provided by K. Mannheim, Man and Society in an Age of Reconstruction, 1940, particularly pp. 240–244, where he explains that functionalism made its first appearance in the field of the natural sciences, and could be described as the technical point of view. It has only recently been transferred to the social sphere … Once this technical approach was transferred from natural sciences to human affairs, it was bound to bring about a profound change in man himself. The functional approach no longer regards ideas and moral standards as absolute values, but as products of the social process which can, if necessary, be changed by scientific guidance combined with political practice … The extension of the doctrine of technical supremacy which I have advocated in this book is in my opinion inevitable … Progress in the technique of organization is nothing but the application of technical conceptions to the forms of co-operation. A human being, regarded as part of the social machine, is to a certain extent stabilized in his reactions by training and education, and all his recently acquired activities are coordinated according to a definite principle of efficiency within an organized framework.
2. The best description of this feature of the engineering approach by an engineer which I have been able to find occurs in a speech of the great German optical engineer Ernst Abbe: “Wie der Architekt ein Bauwerk, bevor eine Hand zur Ausführung sich rührt, schon im Geist vollendet hat, nur unter Beihilfe von Zeichenstift und Feder zur Fixierung seiner Idee, so muß auch das komplizierte Gebilde von Glas und Metal sich aufbauen lassen rein verstandesmassig, in allen Elementen bis ins letzte vorausbestimmt, in rein geistiger Arbeit, durch theoretische Ermittlung der Wirkung aller Teile, bevor diese Teile noch körperlich ausgeführt sind. Der arbeitenden Hand darf dabei keine andere Funktion mehr verbleiben als die genaue Verwirklichung der durch die Rechnungen bestimmten Formen und Abmessungen aller Konstruktionselemente, und der praktischen Erfahrung keine andere Aufgabe als die Beherrschung der Methoden und Hilfsmittel, die für letzteres, die körperliche Verwirklichung, geeignet sind” (quoted by Franz Schnabel, Deutsche Geschichte im neunzehnten Jahrhundert, vol. Ill, 1934, p. 222 — a work which is a mine of information on this as on all other matters of the intellectual history of Germany in the nineteenth century).
3. It would take too long here to explain in any detail why, whatever delegation or division of labor is possible in preparing an engineering “blueprint,” it is very limited and differs in essential respects from the division of knowledge on which the impersonal social processes rest. It must suffice to point out that not only must the precise nature of the result be fixed which anyone who has to draw up part of an engineering plan must achieve, but also that, in order to make such delegation possible, it must be known that the result can be achieved at no more than a certain maximum cost.
4. The most persistent advocate of such in natura calculation is, significantly, Dr. Otto Neurath, the protagonist of modern “physicalism” and “objectivism.”
5. Cf. the characteristic passage in B. Bavinck, The Anatomy of Modern Science (trans, from the 4th German edition by H.S. Hatfield), 1932, p. 564: “When our technology is still at work on the problem of transforming heat into work in a manner better than that possible with our present-day steam and other heat engines…, this is not directly done to cheapen production of energy, but first of all because it is an end in itself to increase the thermal efficiency of a heat engine as much as possible. If the problem set is to transform heat into work, then this must be done in such a way that the greatest possible fraction of the heat is so transformed…. The ideal of the designer of such machines is therefore the efficiency of the Carnot cycle, the ideal process which delivers the greatest theoretical efficiency.” It is easy to see why this approach, together with the desire to achieve a calculation in natura, leads engineers so frequently to the construction of systems of “energetics” that it has been said, with much justice, that “das Charakteristikum der Weltanschauung des Ingenieurs ist die energetische Weltanschauung” (L. Brinkmann, Der Ingenieur, Frankfurt, 1908, p. 16). We have already referred (above p. 41) to this characteristic manifestation of scientistic “objectivism,” and there is no space here to return to it in greater detail. But it deserves to be recorded how widespread and typical this view is and how great the influence it has exercised. E. Solvay, G. Ratzenhofer, W. Ostwaldt, P. Geddes, F. Soddy, H. G. Wells, the “Technocrats” and L. Hogben are only a few of the influential authors in whose works “energetics” play a more or less prominent role. There are several studies of this movement in French and German (Nyssens, L’énergétique, Brussels, 1908; G. Barnich, Principes de politique positive basee sur l’énergétique sociale de Solvay, Brussels, 1918; Schnehen, Energetische Weltanschauung, 1907; A. Dochmann, F. W. Ostwald’s Energetik, Bern, 1908; and the best, Max Weber, “Energetische Kulturtheorien,” 1909, reprinted in Gesammelte Aufsätze zur Wissenschaftslehre, 1922), but none of them adequate and none, to my knowledge, in English. The section from the work of Bavinck from which a passage has been quoted above condenses the gist of the enormous literature, mostly German, on the “philosophy of technology” which has had a wide circulation and of which the best known is E. Zschimmer, Philosophie der Technik, 3rd ed., Stuttgart, 1933. (Similar ideas pervade the well-known American works of Lewis Mumford.) This German literature is very instructive as a psychological study, though otherwise about the dreariest mixture of pretentious platitudes and revolting nonsense which it has ever been the ill fortune of the present author to peruse. Its common feature is the enmity towards all economic considerations, the attempted vindication of purely technological ideals, and the glorification of the organization of the whole of society on the principle on which a single factory is run. (On the last point see particularly F. Dessauer, Philosophie der Technik, Bonn, 1927, p. 129.)
6. That this is fully recognized by its advocates is shown by the popularity among all socialists from Saint-Simon to Marx and Lenin, of the phrase that the whole of society should be run in precisely the same manner as a single factory is now being run. Cf. V.I. Lenin, The State and Revolution (1917), “Little Lenin Library,” 1933, p. 78. “The whole of society will have become a single office and a single factory with equality of work and equality of pay”; and for Saint-Simon and Marx, p. 121 above and note 72 to Part II.
7. Cf. now on these problems my essay on “The Use of Knowledge in Society,” American Economic Review, XXXV, No. 4 (September, 1945), reprinted in Individualism and Economic Order, Chicago, 1948, pp. 77-91.
8. It is important to remember in this connection that the statistical aggregates which it is often suggested the central authority could rely upon in its decisions, are always arrived at by a deliberate disregard of the peculiar circumstances of time and place.
9. Cf. in this connection the suggestive discussion of the problem in K. F. Mayer, Goldwanderungen, Jena, 1935, pp. 66-68, and also the present author’s article “Economics and Knowledge” in Economica, February, 1937, reprinted in Individualism and Economic Order, Chicago, 1948, pp. 33-56.
10. The Scientific Outlook, 1931, p. 211.
11. Ibid., p. 211. The passage quoted could be interpreted in an unobjectionable sense if “certain purposes” is taken to mean not particular predetermined results but as capacity to provide what the individuals at any time wish — i.e., if what is planned is a machinery which can serve many ends and need not in turn be “consciously” directed towards a particular end.
12. A. Bebel, Die Frau und der Sozialismus, 13th ed., 1892, p. 376. “Der Sozialismus ist die mit klarem Bewusstsein and mit voller Erkenntnis auf alle Gebiete menschlicher Taetigkeit angewandte Wissenschaft.” Cf. also E. Ferri, Socialism and Positive Science (trans, from the Italian edition of 1894). The first clearly to see this connection seems to have been M. Ferraz, Socialisme, Naturalisme et Positivisme, Paris, 1877
13. M.R. Cohen, Reason and Nature, 1931, p. 449. It is significant that one of the leading members of the movement with which we are concerned, the German philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach, explicitly chose the opposite principle, homo homini Deus, as his guiding maxim.

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