The title of this blog came to me after reading a series of books on economics and one book on private property. That book was Tom Bethell’s The Noblest Triumph. Among the economics texts were a collection of essays by Ludwig von Mises entitled Economic Freedom and Interventionism, Selected Essays on Political Economy by Frederic Bastiat, Thomas Sowell’s “trilogy” of Basic Economics, Applied Economics and Economic Facts and Fallacies, Don Paarlberg’s Great Myths of Economics, Milton Friedman’s Capitalism and Freedom, and last, but certainly not least—principally because I haven’t finished it yet— the first 250 pages of Murray Rothbard’s Man, Economy and State.
Before I go any further in describing myself, I am compelled to issue a caveat: I am the son of an economist. This fact could work against me in a couple ways. It may count as a strike against me for economists and students of economics who may—I pray!—visit this blog. It might prejudice the curious and uninitiated; they might believe I know more about economics than I actually do.
Professionals might consider my opinions too ill informed or naïve to be seriously considered; and rightly so. I couldn’t imagine any act with a lower marginal benefit to a professional economist than wading through the therapeutic verbiage of an acolyte. Depending on the frequency and profundity of errors I produce, more knowledgeable and experienced individuals might also unfairly judge my father, considering those errors a failure of his teaching. There would be no need for that. Though his work as an economist and thinker inspires me, and his curiosity about the world and human behavior are great examples of the economic way of thinking, he never taught me, per se. He invited me to accompany him as he thought through economic issues. He never condescended to discuss things in the world with me and always treated me as an equal. Our talks over the years were between father and son, not teacher and student. Family life most likely would have suffered if the latter and not the former were the case.
Even so, there is no reason to expect that I learned more than what the average person knows about economics just because of my father’s profession. He had no control over my natural aptitudes and shortcomings. He was never an overweening influence, just a friendly guide and a loving parent. What I learned from him could certainly have been forgotten or altered as I negotiated the twists and turns of life. I left high school having read Leonard Read’s I, Pencil, Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, several issues of Reason and The Freeman, and the first ten or so pages of The Road to Serfdom. I thought I was going to be an engineer that designed agricultural implements. I left college with a music degree. Thus Dad’s complicity in whatever errors I may produce is absolved. I am my own person with a Dad to be thankful for.
With that bit out of the way, a word on the title. It has something to do, I suppose, with my own economic ignorance. As I mentioned above, it came to me after I read a series of books. I suppose the seed-thought of Scarcity and Inequality was planted by Lionel Robbins’ definition, mentioned by Thomas Sowell on page two of Basic Economics:
Economics is the study of the use of scarce resources which have alternative uses.
I submit, admittedly with only my own behavior and that of my immediate family and friends as evidence, that few people think this way. The dominant paradigm of discussion, the sort of “What is to be done?” of modern table-talk, is that the status quo is the status quo for a reason; that those alternative uses are not worth considering because what we have in terms of political, social or economic organization is roughly enough, that it only needs to be tweaked one way or the other to function better.
That tweaking is where inequality comes in. People may not think about scarce resources with alternative uses; they may dwell on the seen at the cost of the unseen, in Bastiat’s terms, because they are more attuned to scarcity’s more readily perceptible effects: differences in income, GPA, styles of automobiles or the GDP of Sudan versus that of Malaysia. People are acutely, intuitively sensitive to inequality. People search out the crevices of inequality in social life much as a blind person reads Braille. Unlike the blind person, we don’t always know what to do with the topography of inequality once we identify it. We make prejudgments, often wrongly. We consider gaps in standards of living the result of economic arrangements and not the nature of reality. Perceived inequalities inspire policies designed ostensibly to eradicate inequality; those policies proceed in fits and starts; they are struck down and then revived, sometimes decades or generations after their first appearance.
My feeling is that the innate inequality of life, the condition of inequality between individuals, societies and nations due to the scarcity of all resources, is not a burden to be overcome but the very reason life proceeds. Talent and knowledge exist within each of us to varying degrees, and because we are unequal, we must cooperate. Scarcity forces us to cooperate. Ordinary people don’t experience the joys of Ricardian comparative advantage, but they take stock of their assets and faults and they merge into the world intuitively prepared to specialize and trade, or in Adam Smith’s words, to “truck, barter and exchange.”
Scarcity and inequality create opportunity. They exist together as the socio-economic topography of our lives. This blog is my effort to understand how we operate within their constraints.