… is from page 14 of the first volume (“Rules and Order,” 1973) of F.A. Hayek’s brilliant trilogy, Law, Legislation, and Liberty:
In civilized society it is indeed not so much the greater knowledge that the individual can acquire, as the greater benefit he receives from the knowledge possessed by others, which is the cause of his ability to pursue an infinitely wider range of ends than merely the satisfaction of his most pressing physical needs. Indeed, a ‘civilized’ individual may be very ignorant, more ignorant than many a savage, and yet greatly benefit from the civilization in which he lives.
DBx: Who can seriously doubt either the truth or the significance of this insight?
Think of any five-minute slice of your life today: you munching on breakfast; you showering; you putting in your contact lenses; you driving to the gym; you using your smartphone to chat with your mother or with your child or with your business associate; you reading this blog post; you having a hard roof above your head and with your feet and furniture resting firmly on hard floors. You having indoor plumbing and artificial lighting. It’s impossible to comprehend all the uncountable different bits of knowledge that were put to use, almost all by strangers, to make each of these experiences possible for you.
You know virtually nothing about how to make any of these experiences a reality. And yet these experiences are not only a reality, their reality is so regular and reliable that you (as do we all) take them for granted. Each of us in modern society, every moment of every day, is served by the knowledge and efforts of billions of strangers.
Why are you not in awe of this amazingness? Why do you believe that the relatively few glitches, real or unreal, in the modern economy – “Damn, my Internet connection just went down!” or “Damn, Amazon’s delivery of my gourmet Keurig coffee pods is delayed by 24 hours!” or “Damn! Thomas Piketty has graphs that reveal that some people have lots more money in their financial portfolios than I have in mine!” – are the relevant facts to focus on rather than the sheer amazingness of modernity for ordinary people?
I’ve often said that this book by Hayek – volume one of Law, Legislation, and Liberty – is the single most important book that I’ve ever read. I’m now re-reading it, cover to cover, for what is probably the fourth time since I first read it as a senior in college in 1979. My assessment of it stands. It’s not perfect, but it’s sublime. No book has had as big an impact on my worldview as has this one. Some works have come close: Leonard Read’s “I, Pencil”; Deirdre McCloskey’s Bourgeois Dignity; Frederic Bastiat’s Economic Sophisms; Richard Dawkins’s The Blind Watchmaker; Julian Simon’s The Ultimate Resource 2; Armen Alchian’s Economic Forces at Work; Adam Smith’s An Inquiry Into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations; H.L. Mencken’s A Mencken Chrestomathy; James Buchanan’s and Richard Wagner’s Democracy in Deficit; Thomas Sowell’s Knowledge and Decisions; Geoffrey Brennan’s and Loren Lomasky’s Democracy and Decision; Robert Higgs’s Crisis and Leviathan; Richard Epstein’s Simple Rules for a Complex World; Don Lavoie’s National Economic Planning: What Is Left?; Paul Heyne’s textbook, The Economic Way of Thinking; Oliver Williamson’s The Economic Institutions of Capitalism; Etienne de la Boetie’s The Politics of Obedience – but none quite matches the first volume of Hayek’s Law, Legislation, and Liberty.