Everything that happens — pleasant or unpleasant — has a lesson to teach, provided instruction is sought in every event. Here is an example of how two words, dropped in more or less idle conversation, conveyed an important lesson to me.
Having discovered that my newfound friend had a plane of his own, I inquired as to his flying experience. He began by telling about his pilot’s license to fly small craft in good weather: VFR (visual flight rules). That, however, was not enough for him; he wished to qualify for the kind of all-weather flying allowed commercial airline pilots. Therefore, as a minimum, he had to obtain an IFR (instrument flight rules) rating.
During the final briefing, prior to the official IFR exam, the instructor explained why he was so intently observing every move: "I am not checking as to whether you are on course or off but only to make absolutely certain that you are scanning those instruments and constantly correcting."
Constantly correcting! That instructor probably had not thought of himself as a philosopher. Yet, it seems to me, he made a profound philosophic point: the discipline required for flying by instruments also applies to living by numerous, basic guidelines. To live the good life requires constant correcting, achieved by a constant and faithful scanning of the guidelines.
Learning to fly within seeing distance of a runway in clear weather is possible for anyone competent to drive a car. But learning to fly long distances over unfamiliar territory, by day or by night, and in all kinds of weather, is quite a different matter. The further one ventures from what can be easily observed, the greater is the chance of error — of getting off course — and the more necessary is constant and skillful correction. Truly, those of a venturesome spirit expand their horizons, provided they observe the rule: constant correction.
Analogous to simple flying is the life of primitive peoples. Not much in the way of correction is required of Kalahari bushmen, for instance; they only forage. These little people have no trouble staying on course for they have few courses to pursue beyond chasing wild animals or finding their way to nature’s scant offerings of nuts, roots, herbs, water. At their level of life, there is little, if anything, requiring correction.
However, not everyone has been content with primitive life. Millions, with a somewhat venturesome spirit, have chosen to broaden their horizons. In doing so, they have to strike out into new, unfamiliar, and increasingly complex relationships. And the more they break with simple ways and traditions, the less there is to go by — off "into the wild, blue yonder," as an Air Force song has it. They must learn to fly by instruments. The further they venture, the greater the risk of getting off course; each must keep asking himself, "Am I constantly correcting?"
Individual vs. Collective
To sustain a complex society we must observe numerous basic guidelines: political, economic, moral-ethical, spiritual.
For example, the Golden Rule is the oldest, ethical guideline of distinctive universal character. Many people are capable of abiding by this nonviolence rule in simple relationships or close at home, as we say. But note how difficult it is to practice this basic precept in societies featured by special interest groups: axe-grinding collectives. More and more the tendency is to try to rule over others rather than to respect and treat them justly.
Only the individual has combined powers of reason and self-control by which to refrain from doing to others that which he would not have another do unto him. Such personal attention to responsibility tends to be lost when individuals are absorbed into special interest groups; these collectives have no perceptual powers, none whatsoever!
How did we stray so disastrously off course and wander into this special interest, collectivistic situation in the first place? Quite simple! Individuals — millions of them — failed constantly to correct their ones in the United States. The vast moral and ethical positions as they ventured toward expanding horizons. By taking their eyes off one of the most important guidelines, they surrendered their individuality and lost themselves in the numerous collectives. A collective can no more practice the Golden Rule than it can think, and the same is true of persons who allow themselves to become collectivized.
There are other guidelines on the societal instrument panel which must be scrupulously heeded if we would stay on course. Among them are the Ten Commandments. I shall choose two at random, sufficient to make my point.
Take "Thou shalt not steal" and note how easy it is to stray off course unless one is constantly correcting. How many among us will personally rob another? Perhaps one in ten thousand! The vast majority of us would starve before snatching another’s purse. Personal observance of this Commandment is so much a part of our heritage that honest behavior is little more than doing what comes naturally. And who will contend that it should be otherwise? Such a person can hardly be found; nearly everyone believes that this is a good guideline.
But observe what has happened to these "honest" millions, the majority who would not snatch a purse to gain a few dollars will now advocate schemes taking not less than $150 billion annually. They will take a substantial part of each other’s income and capital and do so without the slightest qualm. Most of them, as they feather their own nests at the expense of others, will think of these actions as righteous rather than sinful. Why so far off course?
Depersonalizing the Act
First, is the depersonalization of the action; the taking is not done on anyone’s personal responsibility but in the name of some so-called social good or group. Second, this taking has been legalized which, to nonthinkers, makes the action seem all right. And third, these people apparently have had no instructor who said, "I am not checking as to whether you are on course or off but only to make absolutely certain that you are constantly correcting." They have taken their eyes off the instrument panel — off this guideline — and are now so far into "the wild, blue yonder" that they regard taking each other’s substance as benevolence. Petty thievery they reject; coercive taking from each other on the grand scale they accept. "Thou shalt not steal" has become a mere Biblical tag line instead of a hazard-avoiding guideline.
What about "Thou shalt not kill"? No need to labor the answer, for to do so would be a repetition of the stealing explanation. Few, indeed, would personally commit murder, any more than a wolf will kill his kind.’ Yet, people in the most "advanced" nations will engage in mass slaughter and, if proficient enough, receive medals for so doing! And for precisely the same reasons that they steal from each other on the grand scale: failure to look to this guideline on the societal instrument panel and constantly correct. That most people from all walks of life really believe in this Commandment as a correct guideline is attested by their strict observance of it in personal relationships.
Let us now refer to one among numerous economic guidelines: If exchange is voluntary, everybody gains; otherwise, one man’s gain is another’s loss. Behind this remarkable guideline lies the subjective theory of value. This was no invention but a discovery. Carl Menger (1870) merely observed how people behave among themselves when free to act voluntarily. What he discovered is as simple as the Golden Rule: The value of any good or service is whatever another or others will give in willing exchange. If I swap two hours of my labor for your goose, the value of my labor is your goose and the value of your goose is my labor. Observe that each of us — subjectively, that is, in our respective judgments — gains by the exchange. I value the goose more than my labor and you value my labor more than your goose or we would not trade one for the other. Even a child can understand this basic economic guideline if it is explained correctly.2
The free market of voluntary exchanges, based on each person’s judgment or choice of values, affords the pricing information each participant needs to tell him instantly what is relatively scarce or relatively abundant, whether to consume or to save, to buy or to sell, to produce more or less of this or that — market price guidelines for constant correcting. Today, millions of exchanges are not willingly but coercively made. Samples: The part I have been forced to pay for the Gateway Arch, urban renewal and "full employment" projects, going to the moon, and so on. Reflect on the unwilling exchanges labor unions coercively exact from their own members as well as employers. The individual’s judgment of value and desire to trade are disregarded. Exchanges are unwillingly effected. This is a substitution of warlike, antagonistic relationships for the peaceful, harmonious ways of the free market. This sort of exchange can no more persist or survive than can a society of thieves. Such a dog-eat-dog arrangement has to spell disaster.
Why this economic nonsense? We have been staring into "the wild, blue yonder" and failing to heed this and other simple guidelines on the societal instrument panel. Ours is a miserable record because we are not constantly correcting.
Finally, it makes little difference what aspect of life one examines; the further we venture from the ordinary, the traditional, the habitual, the greater the risk of losing our way.
Take my own case, for instance. I have been delving into the free market, private ownership, limited government way of life, along with its moral and spiritual antecedents for four decades, and the more I probe, the easier it is to get off course. As one explores the wonderful potentialities of the free society, the further one departs in his thinking from the socialistic world in which we live. It gets pretty misty up here in the ivory tower — the ideal — and unless one is constantly correcting — that is, forever referring to the societal instrument panel with its accurate guidelines — one is hopelessly lost.
If we would edge our way out of the political interventionist hodgepodge in which we presently find ourselves, we need to heed the basic guidelines. The way we live our lives at the personal level is demonstration enough that we believe in the accuracy of these instruments. So, regardless of how far we venture, now on course and then off, constantly correct! This is the way to continuously expand our horizons in safety.
1 See "Morals and Weapons," the final chapter in King Solomon’s Ring by Konrad Z. Lorenz who, according to Julian Huxley, is "one of the outstanding naturalists of our times." In paperback (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Co., 1961).
2 For an explanation of why the subjective theory of value is not more generally comprehended, see "The Dilemma of Value," in Talking to Myself (The Foundation for Economic Education, Inc., Irvington-on-Hudson, N. Y., 1970), pp. 81-88. And for a suggestion as to how this theory can be taught to children, see "Economics for Boys and Girls." Copy on request.