When pride comes, then comes disgrace, but with humility comes wisdom. Proverbs 11:2
Christmas is almost here and, being a Christian, this time of year always gets me thinking about the religious aspects of the holiday. The 1889 Institute does not have a religious mission, and so it’s certainly not my purpose here to proselytize. There is an aspect of the larger story of Christmas, however, that all men of all creeds do well to remember and take heed. This is the concept of humility and what it really means.
Whether one considers it myth or historical truth, the Bible teaches that God humbled Himself and came to earth as a man, deigning to be born in a barn to a carpenter’s household and grow up to wear, not a crown of gold and jewels, but one of thorns for the occasion of a tortured, earthly, sacrificial death. Without going into the theological aspects of the story, it is plain that it is, if nothing else, a lesson in extreme humility. Humility is a lesson that has been taught from ancient times in a number of traditions, religious and otherwise.
Socrates, who pre-dated Christ, taught that true wisdom starts with knowing how much one does not know. That is, always be humble in what one thinks one knows.
We live in a prideful time. Pride comes easily in an age when practically every day sees mankind reach a new pinnacle in knowledge and achievement. Nevertheless, policymakers should be cognizant of how much they do not know, how much others do not know, and that much simply cannot be known by a single person, a single committee, or even a single agency, however large it might be. At the same time, it just might be that someone with little or no education knows something profoundly important that most others do not know.
This hubris – thinking we know more than we really do – is a source of error and misery when it occurs in government. When George W. Bush was President, vague notions of Adequate Yearly Progress and what it took to get kids to educational proficiency actually led some states to relax educational standards. The War on Poverty, a result of the notion that we knew solving poverty was merely a mathematical exercise, has been an ongoing spectacular failure. Housing policy has taken so many wrong turns, we’re in a cul-de-sac, ruining lives with gigantic low-income apartment buildings, restrictive zoning codes, and trying to double back with housing subsidies. These policy boomerangs are always a result of hubris, usually on the part of university-trained public policy “experts.”
But failures due to hubris exercised in government are not limited to federal action. In fact, federal action may be less significant in its total impact than the summed results of daily state and local actions throughout the nation. Zoning codes – pretending a small committee is capable of properly determining building locations – are just one of those many errors. Additionally, there are occupational licensing laws, business licensing laws, certificate of need laws, special districts, economic development subsidies and select tax breaks, tax increment finance districts, ear-marked taxes, independently-funded agencies, and so-called deal-closing funds.
All of these examples, if they are to actually grow the economic pie more than free enterprise, depend on very small groups of people – many of whom have never run businesses themselves – to know more than can be known by those actually participating in the hurly-burly of markets. As economists have long shown, this is a dangerously arrogant self-delusion that easily demonstrates in its logical extreme – socialism – that it is a dismal failure, as shown by decades-long experiments in China, the Soviet Union, and their satellites. The lesson continues in Cuba, Venezuela, and North Korea.
But in our system, pockets of socialism-lite are overwhelmed by the prosperity-producing free enterprise system that still mostly dominates. It turns out that independent human enterprise and the desire to prosper are so strong that if people can enjoy a modicum of decently-defined property rights and keep most of what they earn, market systems are remarkably resilient.
This last fact, however, does not change the reality that some enjoy enhanced prosperity at others’ expense, an expense which outweighs the benefit to the few. Thus, we come back to humility.
Policies that either shrink or prevent the growth of the economic pie, and artificially grant some privilege and prosperity at the expense of others are policies the 1889 Institute is determined to identify and recommend be eliminated. But those artificially privileged by these policies fight their elimination tooth and nail, arrogant in their often self-deluded belief that their position is deserved. The health care industry tells a story of financial hardship – convincing, carefully contrived, and deviously marketed, but ultimately false. The same comes from our various education establishments, and richly-funded independent agencies.
Yet what we really need is humility on the part of our policymakers, who too often think they have been made knowledgeable when they have actually been sold a false bill of goods by those seeking privilege. By recognizing how much they still do not know, policymakers are more likely to ask the critical questions that need to be asked to avoid the error of granting artificial privilege through government. It is not the humble policymaker who thinks there is a government solution to nearly every problem.