All Commentary
Wednesday, March 1, 2000

Humble Hubris

We Can't Decide the Future Using Today's Knowledge

Al Gore, presidential aspirant and environmental sage, once spoke admiringly of an Indian tribe whose leaders, he said, planned seven generations ahead. His message was clear: if only we shallow, conceited bourgeois Americans had the concern and humility to think like that.

I don’t believe there was such a tribe. Anyone who does can’t tell the difference between thinking and wishful thinking.

But it is revealing that someone like Al Gore would believe it and revere the tribe. It hardly indicates a humble awareness of man’s limits. (That such a tribe, if it did exist, is not around today should surprise no one.)

Anyone who would try to plan seven generations in advance would be either claiming a megalomanic knowledge of the future or presuming to tell his descendants how to live regardless of their preferences. Neither flatters.

The eagerness to believe something so ridiculous illustrates a key difference between the “environmentalist’s” and the economist’s mindsets. Despite the humble mask, the ideological environmentalist is vain enough to think he knows enough to plan society’s future, overriding individual rights in the process. The economist (I have in mind especially the Austrian school) understands that the world is open-ended and that we don’t know today what we will learn tomorrow. The environmentalist, sensing no limits to his knowledge, feels justified in shaping and then freezing social development. The economist, understanding the limits of knowledge at any given point, looks to the free market, rooted in private property, for discovery and a multiplicity of individual plans.

The environmentalist will protest that the economist’s method leaves society vulnerable to coming disasters. On the contrary, the economist is confident that people are better able to handle disasters if they are wealthy, because wealth permits flexibility of response and resilience. Besides, since our knowledge of the future is always far from complete, we don’t know what disaster, if any, is coming. Locking in future generations on the basis of present knowledge is not just arrogant, it is foolhardy.

* * *

Everyone knows that economics was dubbed the “dismal science” in the nineteenth century. But why was it dubbed that? David Levy has the shocking answer.

If the law of supply and demand operates as a result of entrepreneurs’ efforts to grapple with an uncertain world, and if those efforts generate the rivalrous process known to most people as competition, is there a role for antitrust law to maintain competitive markets? Israel Kirzner renders his verdict, as he continues his series on fundamentals of Austrian economics.

The Social Security Trust Fund is much in the news. Is it being raided? Can it be protected? John Attarian asks—and answers—a more penetrating question: Is there a Trust Fund at all?

If you’re stuck in a supermarket checkout line, you may be tempted to think that coupons are costly gimmicks that serve no good purpose. Not so, says Bill Field.

And while we’re on the subject of supermarkets, is it unfair for them to charge manufacturers fees for shelf space? Doesn’t that harm small companies and the consumers who would enjoy their products? Gary Galles subjects the matter to some economic analysis.

A cost of the age of e-mail is “spam,” the electronic equivalent of shady junk mail. But Gary McGath says there’s no need to ask the government to rescue those jammed e-mailboxes, because the marketplace is perfectly capable of handing the problem.

Advocates of government control of business have found a new cause in recent years. They claim that since shareholders are not the only ones with a stake in corporations, the government ought to enforce the firms’ obligations to all their “stakeholders.” Norman Barry sees some fissures in the argument.

Would officeholders use the government’s regulatory power to exact tribute from business? Do turkeys gobble? Thomas DiLorenzo examines this most perverse form of entrepreneurship.

Despite a history marred by violence, labor unions have occupied a special place in the hearts of legislators, judges, and even many regular people. Charles Baird identifies the reason for this and explodes the underlying myths.

When officers of government prohibit citizens from reading, it shouldn’t go unnoted. Angus Crane relates an ominous encounter.

Our columnists have found some juicy topics to ruminate on. Donald Boudreaux says there’s no escaping tradeoffs. Lawrence Reed looks at a food fight in Manitoba. Doug Bandow and Russell Roberts wonder why ATM fees are a problem. Dwight Lee sees hidden costs in taxation. Thomas Szasz discusses the alleged connection between “insanity” and crime. Mark Skousen sees new respect for savings. And David Boaz, confronting the claim that “public investment” is deficient, responds, “It Just Ain’t So!”

This month’s reviewers report on books about higher education, homeschooling, Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, transportation, guilt, and the “third way.”

—Sheldon Richman

  • Sheldon Richman is the former editor of The Freeman and a contributor to The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. He is the author of Separating School and State: How to Liberate America's Families and thousands of articles.