All Commentary
Wednesday, August 1, 1973

The Confession of Error

Many people, I suspect, would rather entitle this piece, “the error of confession” than “the confession of error.”

My thesis is that error can and should play a profound role in man’s advancement toward wisdom. There are two doors through which the fallible individual must pass before he can behold the light of truth. The first is the discernment of error; the second is the confession of the error, not only to self but to anyone influenced by his error, whether that influence extend to one or to a few or to millions of persons. Rarely does the individual err in solitude; most of one’s mistakes have a social impact, may indeed bring harm to others as well as to himself. So, one is socially obligated to confess as well as to correct his errors.

A personal experience may help illustrate my point. In 1945 I was given the assignment of choosing two speakers to present opposing views on the U.S. foreign aid program. I chose J. Reuben Clark, Jr., President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, whose point of view coincided with mine. The most prestigious individual I could nominate for the other side of the argument was Lord John Maynard Keynes, then on an official visit to the United States. When I called on him to invite his participation, he replied, “I shall not accept your invitation, and for two reasons. First, I shall not be in this country at the time of your meeting. And if I were here I would not accept. My mission is to obtain the British loan. Were I to stand before your audience and say what I now think, which is what I would do, I would disparage my mission.”

Lord Keynes, it seemed, had changed his mind about government spending. He confessed this to himself and to me but, so far as I know, not a word of his changed position reached the hundreds of millions who came within his orbit of enormous influence. Had he publicly confessed his error (he passed away nine months later) the reckless spending policies of nations all over the world might have been halted. He discerned his error which is the first step. But he never took the second step; he failed to make public his confession, and the light of truth did not shine forth. Lord Keynes opened but one of the two doors; and the rest of us are now the poorer for his failure to open and pass through that second door to truth.1

I would not single out the late Lord Keynes as alone in this fault. His case is simply a magnified, and thus easily observed, example of the thing I am talking about. The same inability or unwillingness to confess error plagues most of us. Keynes’ leverage over events was so great for at least two reasons: (1) he was a prestigious professor of economics at Cambridge University and a titled nobleman, and (2) his error is one that all politicians, here or elsewhere, ardently want to believe: that politicians can spend the people’s money on anything that suits their fancy and, by so doing, assure prosperity to the victims. Had a commoner — one without degrees and a title — made such a silly proposal he would have been “laughed out of court.”

Why the reluctance to confess error openly? Doubtless, there are more reasons than we know. Take a politician — one gaining office by promising, if elected, to do this or that for his constituents, perhaps a higher minimum wage or any of thousands of “benefits” at taxpayer’s expense. Later, the light dawns and he sees the error of his ways. Confess this mistake to his constituents? Not likely! He would never be returned to office, his political power at an end. More often than not such a fateful prospect destroys any desire or incentive to confess error.

But no one can confess an error until he sees it for what it is; and self blindness is a trait as common among the electorate as among the elected. Once an error is believed and embraced as right, it is absorbed into the tissues, so to speak; it becomes a part of one’s being. An immunity develops and explanations of the fallacy are warded off, not heard. Only confirmations of the error are received and they become supporting evidence. Most of us simply cannot stand the thought of being wrong, at least not to the point of openly confessing an error.

Often the explanation of our error is made by a political opponent or by one having a faith or general philosophy we do not approve, that is, by our “enemies” —persons we abhor or, at least, do not like. The very source is enough to close our eyes and mind; we will have none of it! Indeed, this lack of catholicity on the part of anyone tends to confirm him in the rightness of his mistaken views. Small chance of confessing errors thus buried in rancor!

The fact that society, today, is in one of those devolutionary swings — common to history — and that countless people are proposing remedies of every variety and without success, suggests that the right answer has not yet been found.

I venture to say that the remedy is simple; indeed, if it is not simple, in all probability it is not right. The first step is to remove all obstructions to the discernment of error; and the second is to confess the mistake openly. How wonderfully different would be the societal situation were a considerable number of us to open these two doors. It seems obvious to me that this is the way and the only way to wisdom, truth, light!

A considerable number! Yes, but a number of individuals, one by one. After all, it is not society that acts; it is only discrete human beings.

There is no point in dwelling further on removing the obstructions to the discernment of error. Count him out who cannot rid himself of prejudice, bias, egotism, know it allness. Include only those who welcome exposure of error, regardless of source.

The door most of us have had no practice in opening is the second: open confession of discerned error, not only to self but to all who have come under the harmful influence of the mistake. By “open confession,” I am not referring to any maudlin wailing. Rather, I am talking about a clear explanation of one’s new insight — the truth that displaces the error he had espoused and inflicted on others as well.

There are two points to keep in mind. First, if the purpose of life is to grow in awareness, perception, consciousness, the refusal to confess error is to strangle growth; it is to nail one’s self down to mediocrity, along with others under influence of one’s errors. Be free!

Second, confession not only is good for the soul; it also turns out to be a joyous experience, as is any freedom from inhibitions. To prove it, try it!


1 For an enlightening account of Lord Keynes’ sound money theories before he went “Keynesian,” see “Inflation” by John Maynard Keynes (The Freeman, April 1956). 

  • Leonard E. Read (1898-1983) was the founder of FEE, and the author of 29 works, including the classic parable “I, Pencil.”