… is from page 151 of the 1992 Transaction Publishers edition of Wilhelm Röpke’s 1946 book, The Social Crisis of Our Time:
Everyday experience proves that many people, especially on questions regarding the life of the community, tend to think in very vague terms which easily make them miss that crucial nuance which sharply divides truth from error.
Examples abound. Consider the ideological and political debates fueled by the term “inequality.” Liberal values create an instinctive aversion to inequality, but inequality as such is neither good nor bad. What is unequal? And what is the source of the inequality?
I am not Yo-Yo Ma’s equal at playing the cello or Paul McCartney’s equal at writing songs. Is this inequality bad? Of course not. And the answer “Of course not” holds if this inequality is ‘natural’ (these two gentleman were ‘born’ with more musical talent than I was born with) or acquired (these two gentlemen worked harder than I did at – or were afforded better opportunities for – developing musical talent). Fortunately, I have a comparative advantage over both of these musicians at teaching economics. I use my talent, such as it is, to earn income some part of which I spend purchasing opportunities to listen to the music played and produced by these guys.
What about the fact that my income is unequal to that of Jeff Bezos? Many people are figuratively up in arms over this sort of inequality. But how many of these agitated people would remain agitated if they paused to consider that Bezos’s income was earned by creatively improving the lives of millions of individuals? Bezos’s income is disproportionately large, but also disproportionately large is the contribution that Bezos makes to humanity. Put differently, when reckoned relative to the contribution that each of us makes to society, Bezos’s income is roughly equal to my own. (Actually, when reckoned in this manner, Bezos’s income is likely lower than is my income given that I’m a government employee who is almost surely paid more in my government job than I’m really worth. There might well be justice in efforts to redistribute income from the likes of me to the likes of Bezos.)
Language is indispensable to the human endeavor. But far too seldom do individuals pause to reflect on the deep meaning, significance, and nuance of words and on the phenomena to which words refer. The words and symbols that we use to describe reality are always far simpler than the reality that we seek to describe.