Quotation of the Day…

by Don Boudreaux on August 23, 2017

in Hubris and humility, Other People's Money, Property Rights

… is from page 288 of the late Vincent Ostrom’s 1997 book, The Meaning of Democracy and the Vulnerabilities of Democracies:

The condition of freedom requires the courage to assume responsibility for one’s own actions and for the way one makes use of relevant knowledge, skill, and intelligibility to relate to others in mutually productive ways.

DBx: Enthusiasm for – and romance about – politics causes this profound truth to be discounted or even ignored.  This truth is masked also by arrogance and hubris.

State power can be, and is, used by those who are politically influential to reap gains at the expense of the politically less-influential.  Also, state power not only enables those with political influence to treat other people as guinea pigs in social-engineering experiments, but to do so without the social-engineers themselves having to put at stake in their experiments much, if anything, of their own.  One of the great benefits of private-property markets is that they allow individuals to conduct their own personal ‘experiments’ (such as my friend Lyle Albaugh is doing with his entrepreneurial venture to improve the college-admissions process) without first having to get permission from those whose persons and property rights are not at stake, while simultaneously requiring the experimenters to get permission from those whose persons and property rights are at stake.  That is, the institution of private property, because it gives property owners the right to say “no,” prevents experimenting individuals from conscripting the persons and properties of others involuntarily into their experiments.

In short, private-property markets allow (and, especially in bourgeois societies, encourage) experimentation to find ways to improve economic and social processes.  At the same time, private-property markets, by preventing experimenters from forcing other people and other-people’s properties into the role of guinea pigs, confine the experiments to those for which the experimenters themselves are most likely to really believe stand a high-enough chance of being successful.  By requiring experimenters to have skin in the game of each of their experiments – and by not allowing experimenters to conscript other people’s ‘skin’ and property into such experiments – private-property markets provide a powerful up-front empirical test of the strength of each ‘hypothesis’ that is to be tested and of the confidence with which that ‘hypothesis’ is held by those who claim to believe that the ‘hypothesis’ is so likely to be correct that it’s worthwhile to give it a go in reality.

‘Pay attention only to persons who put their money where their mouths are’ is always sound advice.  This advice was beautifully summarized by H.L. Mencken: “The kind of man who demands that government enforce his ideas is always the kind whose ideas are idiotic.”


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