Bonus Quotation of the Day…

by Don Boudreaux on May 20, 2023

in Seen and Unseen, Standard of Living

… is from page 10 of the 1991 Pantheon edition of the 1958 translation by Max Hayward and Manya Harari of Boris Pasternak’s great 1957 novel, Dr. Zhivago; the words are spoken by the character Nikolai Nikolaievich to Ivan Ivanovich:

Goodness, what a view, you lucky devil. Though I suppose as you live with it every day you don’t see it.

DBx: Although Nikolaivich is referring to the view of the physical landscape, his understanding applies more generally. It applies also, for example, to our view of our economic reality.

The view that we denizens of the modern global economy have of our economic is really something spectacular. We see every day automobiles whizzing by, countless miles of paved and spacious roads, commercial jetliners etching the sky, cell phones sending out and taking in communications from friends, lovers, co-workers, and family members far, far out of earshot, no starvation, sturdy homes, businesses, and tall buildings all with hard roofs and hard floors and indoor plumbing and electric lighting and air-conditioning and wi-fi (and in the case of nearly every commercial building that’s taller than one story, elevators), restaurants catering to every taste and budget, appliance stores, department stores, and supermarkets.

The economic reality that we daily get to behold is the economic equivalent of – you name your favorite geographic or ‘natural’ view – the Grand Canyon, Niagara Falls, the Atlantic from Cape Cod at sunrise, the Pacific from Big Sur at sunset, fields of lavender in Provence, the Northern Lights. Breathtaking sights all. But of course if we were to see any of these natural beauties all day and every day, their ‘stunningness’ would soon disappear. They would appear normal, or even mundane. We would fail, as might be said by Nikolai Nikolaievich, to “see it.”

I submit that this same ‘blinding’ effect operates on those of us who live, work, and play in the modern global economy. Were an ancestor from 50,000, or 5,000, or 500 years ago – indeed, in many cases from a mere 50 years ago – to be resurrected and given a tour of the economy as daily seen and experienced today by ordinary Americans, that ancestor would be overwhelmed by the beauty, splendor, and seeming magic of what he or she would behold for the first time. “What a view!” that ancestor would exclaim. And correctly so.

But we don’t see it. Or, rather, we see it only with vision distorted by familiarity, as well as by ignorance of the hideous view of economic reality what was – and remains for many people – the norm.

We moderns inhabit a world of marvels. This world isn’t perfect (obviously). But many of its avoidable flaws and problems are caused by our failure to appreciate the reality of modern economic marvelousness – a failure that prompts economic interventions that threaten to turn economic reality again into the ugliness that it was for almost all of human existence.

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