… is from page 266 of Thomas Sowell’s 1999 book, Barbarians Inside the Gates:
There are too many people who ought to be grateful for their good fortune, but who are arrogant instead.
DBx: The two great teachers in my life are my parents and economics. In both, I was unusually fortunate. Both taught me to despise envy and to be appropriately humble in the face of a reality that is far more complex than it appears to our senses. In the former, the larger role was played by my parents; in the latter, the larger role was play by economics.
I was fortunate, too, in the kind of economics that I first encountered. It was a mix of Armen Alchian and Milton Friedman-style UCLA and Chicago price theory, and Austrian – especially Hayekian – economics. Practitioners of both styles refuse to fall into a trap that captures many other economists – namely, mistaking models meant to enable our puny minds to better grasp reality for reality itself.
My parents and economics each counseled me that, at least in the society of which I am a part, there’s a high correlation between a person’s material wealth and that person’s contribution to his or her fellow human beings. And correlation here is indeed largely causation. (This causal connection was taught to me by economics.) In the case of my parents, I’m not sure of the source of their notable aversion to envy, but that aversion was real and passed on to my three siblings and me. In the case of economics, once you understand that in a market economy wealth is created and earned by successful efforts to assist fellow human beings to survive and thrive, the attitude one comes to have about successful entrepreneurs is one of gratitude rather than of envy.
Economics also instills gratitude for living in a society that, by allowing markets to work, encourages innovation as well as vast productive cooperation of, today, billions of people around the world. Persons who understand economics look upon strangers across town and across the globe – strangers who produce and purchase in markets – not with suspicion or as enemies, but with thankfulness and as friends.
Economics and my parents also each counseled me that reality is indescribably complex. In the case of my parents, this lesson was conveyed to their children by an insistence on the importance of rules. The greater is our information about the consequences of our particular actions, the less need is there for rule-following. Fully informed creatures take each situation as it comes; they take in any situation those particular concrete actions that are likely to work best in that situation. But if we are, as we are, largely ignorant of the range of the consequences of our actions, the wise course is to act according to the established rules for action in the situations that we confront.
Neither my mom nor dad was aware that their unbending insistence on the importance of rule-following was consistent with the economics and social philosophy that I learned chiefly from F.A. Hayek. My parents simply understood right from wrong – defined, in their minds, by appropriate and inappropriate behavior – and demanded that their children follow the ‘right’ rules and not make excuses for failing to do so. Similarly, economics properly taught conveys the utter puniness of even the smartest and most-well-informed individual’s knowledge of reality compared with reality itself.
Once one realizes the reality of reality’s vast and incomprehensible-in-its-concrete-details complexity, one is naturally humble about what one can do to ‘change’ reality. Schemes for using the coercive powers of government to achieve economic and social betterment are then naturally viewed with enormous skepticism. How do you know? How will you acquire the knowledge you must acquire if your scheme is to work as promised? Such questions are instinctively asked by the wise and stubbornly ignored by the schemers.