The hike to the summit of Mount Lafayette in New Hampshire’s White Mountains climbs a steep and rugged 3550 feet over 4 miles. The winter snows bury the rocks; and after a storm, snowshoed hikers pack the snow into an almost-smooth “herd path” that others can then hike with light crampons. Step off that herd path and you’ll find yourself stuck knee-deep or even waist-deep — in snow.
It never occurred to them that what they were experiencing could be a product of human action, but not of human design.
I was hiking this path on a pristine winter day when a fit young couple, well outfitted for the cold, passed me. For a while we hiked in earshot. They were certain the wonderful conditions on the packed trail must have been the product of intentional human design, with work crews shoveling the trail.
I was amazed at their certainty. There are hundreds of miles of snow-packed trails in the White Mountains, and nobody plans it. It is staggering to think of the amount of snow that would have to be shoveled, over rugged terrain in brutal weather, after each storm rolls through. Instead of creating a winter garden path, shoveling would expose the rocks and ledges, which would ice over, and then hiking would be dangerous and grueling.
Just minutes into their hike, the young couple was confident in their explanation for the snow-packed trail they were experiencing: shoveling, presumably by a government agency or kind-hearted volunteers.
Questions depend on theory.
Einstein wrote, “Whether you can observe a thing or not depends on the theory which you use. It is the theory which decides what can be observed.” In other words, the questions we are capable of asking depend upon the theory we are using to observe our world.
The conclusion reached by the newbie hikers was limited by their theory of snow removal. It never occurred to them that what they were experiencing could be a product of human action, but not of human design.
What would have happened had the couple remained puzzled as they experienced the herd path phenomenon? What if, for the moment, they could have been content to let the mystery be and learn more?
Turn on the light.
My undergraduate economics college students often displayed similar confidence in the first conclusions that came to their minds. Few wondered at what produces the modern standard of living, unimaginable to the vast majority of humans who lived in desperate poverty just a few short centuries ago.
In 1800, one hour of light from a candle cost an average worker a staggering six hours of wages.
For example, consider indoor lighting. Matt Ridley in his book The Rational Optimist reports that in 1800, one hour of light from a candle cost an average worker a staggering six hours of wages. Today one hour of indoor light costs merely a half-second of work. Yet, some students simply refused to believe the facts presented by Ridley.
As for those undergraduates who did believe the facts on progress, most, at least initially, believed that government deserved the credit. If these students don’t have the curiosity to explore alternative explanations, what explanation other than the visible hand of government is possible for them? After all, the unplanned human actions that produce their bounty are largely invisible, rarely discussed in the media or schools, and beyond the full understanding of any individual.
Often students did not understand that they, by their actions, are participating in this wonderful chapter in human history.
Order doesn’t have to mean control.
F.A. Hayek in his essay “Cosmos and Taxis” in volume 1 of Law Legislation and Liberty, points us in a direction that many have not yet considered. Order and thus progress, Hayek explains, can be a spontaneous phenomenon that is not controlled by anyone or any group of people. There are “orderly structures which are the product of the actions of many men but not the result of human design.”
Importantly, Hayek instructs us that spontaneous order has a “degree of complexity” that “is not limited to what the human mind can master.” Spontaneous orders have two other essential characteristics: they “need not manifest [themselves] to our senses” and although they have no “particular purpose” they “may be extremely important for our successful pursuit of a great variety of different purposes.”In the absence of curiosity, people show an intolerance of uncertainty.
For those who are not curious, what possible interest could they have in Hayek’s ideas on an order? If spontaneous order cannot be observed by our senses, nor controlled, nor mastered, why would the incurious turn and look in its direction? Debates over the hollow promises and plans of politicians seem more real than unplanned progress that emerges as individuals pursue their own purposes.
Indeed, among some of my undergraduate students, more were concerned about redistributing wealth than they were about inquiring into the principles by which human action creates wealth.
They could not conceive that implementing a plan to redistribute wealth will interfere with progress, just as the winter hikers could not conceive that shoveling the snow would worsen, not enhance, trail conditions.
Curiosity is essential.
In his book Curious? psychology professor Todd Kashdan reports on a study by famed psychologists Martin Seligman and Chris Peterson. Curiosity is one of the traits most highly associated with experiencing happiness and overall life fulfillment.
Kashdan writes that in the absence of curiosity “people show an intolerance of uncertainty.” Economic progress creates uncertainty. Does the absence of curiosity create an intolerance for unplanned progress?
John Taylor Gatto has written eloquently about how public schools stamp out curiosity. In his book Dumbing Us Down, Gatto explains how schools value compliance with rules more than expression of curiosity.
Look around: we are surrounded by phenomena that we don’t understand. In a state of not knowing, it is natural to be curious, ask questions, and explore assumptions.
The truth of life is that mighty and invisible forces are working unceasingly and impersonally on our behalf.
Are we content to let the mystery be, or do we want to fill in the blank with instant answers?
Kashdan encourages us to live “a life of wonder,” in which we are “always questioning, investigating and wondering.”
When sharing the ideals of liberty, might it serve us to rouse curiosity by posing more questions and providing fewer answers? With a heightened sense of curiosity, individuals might look in a different direction and investigate the ideas of liberty for themselves.
The truth of life is that mighty and invisible forces are working unceasingly and impersonally on our behalf. If curiosity stirs us to look in the direction of those forces, a new respect for liberty is a natural result.
Republished from Learn Liberty.