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Thursday, November 25, 2010

Plenty to Be Thankful For

Accentuate the positive today.

Thanksgiving has always been one of my favorite holidays.  I love football. I love to eat, and family means a great deal to me.  I also like it because I think it’s important to step back from time to time and take stock of how things are going in our lives — to note, as I have argued before, just how much better we have it than our ancestors.

In some ways, being thankful for what we have is tougher than usual in 2010.  We remain, judging by the sluggish unemployment rate, mired in perhaps the worst recession since World War II.  We are approaching $14 trillion in government debt without any idea how its growth will be slowed, much less how it might get reduced.  We have an out-of-control Federal Reserve that is so worried about “the deflation” that its leader, the great “Ben Bernank,” thinks we need another $600 billion in new bank reserves on top of the more than $1 trillion he’s already given us.  And we now have a new health care system that looks to be way worse that the horrifically broken previous one.

As though that weren’t enough, if you try to get on a plane to get away from it all, you may first have to survive a TSA “pat down” that would get anyone not wearing a uniform arrested.

So what exactly is there to be thankful for?

Well, despite all of that gloom and doom, there’s still plenty of good news to be found.  Even with government sanctioned gropings, we still live in a society in which government largely obeys the rule of law and in which individuals have a large degree of freedom to read, write, speak, and think what they wish.  To a large extent, our most intimate and meaningful decisions — for example, those involving whom we marry, how many kids we have, what belief systems we hold — are still ours to make, and the Internet has opened people’s eyes around the world to the variety of “experiments in living” that are part of the broad human family.  These are still real and meaningful freedoms.

The market manages to move forward, even as we keep burdening it with heavier and heavier ankle weights of destructive government intervention.  The smart phones that so many of us hold in our hands are little miracles that improve our lives in myriad ways, including bringing us closer to our friends and family.  Medicine continues to advance, with diseases that killed our parents and grandparents being conquered and life expectancies, at least in the relatively free parts of the world, continuing to rise.  We can always do better, but infant and child mortality is increasingly a thing of the past, and a smaller percentage of the world goes to bed hungry every night.

Commonplace Luxuries

The things our grandparents considered luxuries here in the United States are now more commonplace among the poor than they were for the average American a generation ago.  The typical poor American’s house has machines and gadgets that were either available only to the rich or not even in existence a generation or two ago.  And these are not just toys like LCD TVs and iPhones;  they are lifesavers like air-conditioning, medicine, smoke detectors, and burglar alarms.

The bounty that the market has given us can desensitize us to the marvels that are all around us.  I spent several hours earlier this week flying through the sky in a chair in a long silver tube in an environment more comfortable than many homes a few generations ago.  I can talk to my wife at home from the middle of a park in Atlanta or send my daughter a picture of my fried-apple-pie-with-bacon dessert.  I can come home in a car that will last for well over 100,000 miles and settle into bed to watch an endless variety of movies before I go to sleep.  And I can wake up in the morning knowing that my food for the day is safe in my refrigerator/freezer, which uses much less energy than those of my parents or grandparents.

I can also take a moment to realize that for all the marvels that the market has made available that we could not have imagined when we were little, the world that my kids will inhabit in the next generation will be full of even cooler marvels, longer and healthier lives, and improving living standards for all the world.

Even as the overbearing State burdens the market, I still believe that human ingenuity and our desire to progress will win out.  We’re a hardy and resilient bit of fauna, after all.  On Thanksgiving it’s worth taking a few moments to recognize this and to give thanks to both the institutions of the market and the humans whose ingenuity has provided us so much.

  • Steven Horwitz was the Distinguished Professor of Free Enterprise in the Department of Economics at Ball State University, where he was also Director of the Institute for the Study of Political Economy. He is the author of Austrian Economics: An Introduction.