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Thinking for Oneself

Mises Daily: Thursday, March 11, 2010 by

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[Chapter 2 of Accent on the Right]

During the discussion following one of my recent lectures, it occurred to me that the questions fell into a pattern, and that this pattern was the same — whether in Manila, or Boise, or wherever. Each question was based on something the inquirer had heard or read; no questions appeared to stem from a genuine impasse in the person's own effort to solve a problem. These people were merely repeating questions someone else had raised for them; they weren't seeking directions by reason of having lost their way for, in fact, they had done no exploration on their own!

What a fearful thought — if this situation is general: a nation of people, the vast majority of whom do no thinking for themselves in the area of political economy! Positions on matters of the deepest social import formed from nothing more profound than radio, TV, and newspaper commentaries, or casual, off-the-cuff opinions, or the outpourings of popularity seekers!

The quality and influence of an idea, Ortega saw, was not so much in the idea as in a man's relation to it. Has he made the idea his own, or merely inherited it? … The man born into a culture confident of its knowledge is in danger of becoming a barbarian.[1]

Granting the correctness of this gloomy thought, what are the political consequences? And what counsel can you and I offer individuals who are doing no thinking for themselves? So, let's explore the two significant questions this deplorable situation seems to pose.

To assess the political consequences, view the American populace as a market. Suppose, for instance, that the consumer tastes in literature have deteriorated until there is demand for pornography only. Pornographic authors and publishers will spring up by the thousands; authors and publishers of ethical, moral, and spiritual works will fade away for lack of a market. Reverse the market situation and assume only highly elevated tastes in literature. Authors and publishers of pornography will then be displaced by authors and publishers of high-grade literature.

One needs no poll to determine the literary tastes of a people. Merely observe the kind of literature that is gaining in favor and profit. We can infer from this that it is useless to blame commentators, authors, and publishers for purveying trash. They are merely irresponsible responses to the general taste — the market — whatever it is.[2] The market determines who are to be the successful purveyors.

The Political Climate

Market demand also determines the kinds of persons who vie with each other for political office.

Assume a people who do no thinking for themselves. Theirs is a stunted skepticism. Such people only react and are easy prey of the cliché, the plausibility, the shallow promise, the lie. Emotional appeals and pretty words are their only guidelines. The market is made up of no-thinks. Statesmen — men of integrity and intellectual stature — are hopelessly out of demand. When this is the situation, such statesmen will not be found among the politically active.

And who may we expect to respond to a market where thinking for self is absent? Charlatans! Word mongers! Power seekers! Deception artists! They come out of their obscurity as termites out of a rotten stump; the worst rise to the political top. And when our only choice is "the lesser of two evils," voting is a sham.

Now assume a society of persons who do their own thinking and, as a consequence, possess a healthy and intelligent skepticism, persons who cannot be "taken in," hardheaded students of political economy graced with moral rectitude. The market for charlatans is dead; we are scarcely aware of such people. Instead, we find statesmen of character and integrity vying for political office.

There is no need for a poll to determine whether original or introspective thinking is declining or rising. Merely keep in mind that whatever shows forth on the political horizon is the response to the market, an echoing or mirroring of the preponderant mode in thinking. When thinking for self is declining, more charlatans and fewer statesmen will vie for office. Look at the political horizon to learn what the thinking is, just as you look at a thermometer to learn what the temperature is. So, blame not the political opportunists for the state of the nation. Our failure to think for ourselves put them there — indeed, brought them into being. For we are the market; they are but the reflections!

An interesting fact intrudes itself into this analysis: approximately 50 percent of those who do not think for themselves are furious with what they see on the political horizon — which is but their own reflections! And to assuage their discontent they exert vigorous effort to change the reflection from Republican to Democrat, or vice versa. As should be expected, they get no more for their pains than new faces masking mentalities remarkably similar to those unseated. It cannot be otherwise.[3]

No improving trend on the political horizon is possible except as there is an improvement — quantity and quality — in thinking for self. Thus, it is of the utmost importance that we seriously attend to our thinking. What helpful points can we make?

The Proper Role of Government

Given the present situation, where government is recklessly out of bounds and has its hand in practically every aspect of life, the well-informed citizen is expected to know all about everything: how to deliver mail, poverty the world over, giveaways to foreign countries, you name it, are up for public discussion. Most of these so-called national or world problems are of similar origin and nature — each one trying to manage everyone's business but his own. This hopelessly impossible challenge doubtless accounts in no small measure for so many having "thrown in the sponge" when it comes to thinking for self.

No person on the face of the earth knows how to make socialism work. And don't try! Instead, concentrate the thinking on what the principled and proper scope of government really is. This is easily within the realm of any reasonably intelligent person, and is first of all the kind of thinking for self in political economy one should cover.[4] All else — welfare, security, prosperity — is in the realm of the free market: you to your affairs, me to mine.

The Individual's Role

Most individuals who have abandoned thinking for self in matters of political economy are unaware that they thus dry up the source of Creative Wisdom. Such wisdom as society requires does not and cannot exist in any one person, though each of us should be responsible for his own part. Each of us views the world through a tiny aperture. No two apertures, no two views, are identical.

Your and my disparate wisdoms, such as they are, these minuscule dividends of exercising the introspective faculty, can be likened to two wee candles, each different from the other and each, by itself, barely perceptible. But when all persons with any capabilities in this respect are realizing their potentialities, there is a remarkable wisdom, a Creative Wisdom that can be likened to an overall luminosity, a great light.[5]

To understand the nature and origin of Creative Wisdom is sufficient to inspire many persons to introspective action.[6] The responsible citizen insists on knowing what is his part and then doing it.

There are obstacles, of course, on this path to wisdom. One is a lack of faith in an overall wisdom representing a coalescence of tiny bits of individual understanding. There are numerous reasons why it isn't trusted. Obviously, it cannot be seen with the eye; it can be apprehended only by abstract thinking. Nor have enough people been thinking for self to make an impressive demonstration. Yet, this is the nature of knowledge in society and it behooves each of us to make the best of it.

Another obstacle is busyness, a consuming preoccupation with housework, children, the job, a business, making a living, or whatever. But these amenities of life are impossible in the absence of a good society, and a good society cannot be developed except through the process of thinking for self. Until such introspection becomes as natural as eating and breathing, there is little prospect for the good life.

The essential critical faculty cannot be developed when we copycat the questions and conclusions of others. Each to his own thinking! The rule, therefore, is not to take somebody else's word for it. And to be consistent, what must my counsel be? Don't take my word for it! Scarcely any self-anointed seer or prophet wants to go that far, but unless he will, write him off as an intellectual authoritarian, a be-like-me god.

Does this counsel, "Don't take my word for it," mean that others should close their minds to my word? Not necessarily. Indeed, one who would think for himself should look not only among his contemporaries but also among his predecessors, even among the ancients, for any bits of wisdom that can be garnered. Take full advantage of one's environment, experience, and heritage, but let each thoughtfully do his own selecting, evaluating, and reasoning.

To trust this Creative Wisdom reflects an abiding faith in self and in all free men — really, a faith in the creative process. But don't take my word for it; think that one through for yourself.

Notes

[1] MANAS, October 25, 1967.Download PDF

[2] Exception: Men of virtue and talents — the natural aristocracy, to use Jefferson's term — would never irresponsibly respond to the lure of either fame or fortune should the response contradict their concept of righteousness. Man cannot stoop below his goodness.

The Law

[3] In the above I have assumed the two extremes: nobody and everybody thinking for self. In society this is never the case; it's always a tendency toward one extreme or the other. The societal tendency, of course, is not swayed or determined by the many who fail to think for themselves but by the few who strive to do their own thinking. The thinkers ultimately govern.

[4] Commended for reference reading is The Law by Frédéric Bastiat.

[5] See "The Use of Knowledge in Society" by F.A. Hayek. The Freeman, May 1961.

[6] More of an explanation of "Creative Widsom" appears in chapter 9.