Manuel Lora’s recent article highlighted the importance of economic education. I’ve long believed the single most important thing we can do is to foster liberty is to promote economic literacy. (I made this point in Why are Austrians Libertarians? and in this interview by Alberto Mingardi.) Why are economic education and economic literacy so important? The basic answer is we can never have a free society–libertarian civilization–without large-scale voluntary respect for others’ rights. The degree of civilization we currently have is made possibly only because most of us, to some degree, would not steal from our neighbors even if we would not get caught. If human nature were such that everyone were totally corrupt, and had no empathy for others and placed no value on others’ well-being, no type of civilization would be possible. That it is demonstrates that there is a significant, systematic, widespread degree of voluntary respect for others’ lives. In other words, stark criminals are in the minority.Most of the majority are not consistent in their respect for others, however, which is why socialism in various forms–institutionalized aggression–persists. Therefore, it seems to me that we can approach a freer society only if the “decent”, civilized among us achieve greater understanding of the effects of the socialistic policies they tend to consent to and favor. This, of course, requires economic education or understanding. It is my view that if the bulk of humankind who view themselves as civilized, and who do care to some non-trivial degree for the welfare of their fellow men and overall civilized progress, had a good understanding of even basic economics, they simply would not favor most socialistic policies in force today, such as minimum wage, wage and hour legislation, socialized medicine, progressive tax rates, and so on–becase they would then realize these policies are incompatible with the more basic civilized norms they really favor–harmony, peace, prosperity, cooperation, etc.
And yet, how can there be economic education of the masses? As an immediate, or practical, matter, there are groups like the Mises Institute and the Foundation for Economic Education, who seek to promote sound economics. Groups like these–in particular, the Mises Institute, since it explicitly devotes itself to the truly sound school of economics, Austrian economics, not just “free market” economics in general–are therefore critical and essential.
But it remains true that most people are not academics or autodidacts. If nothing else, they have no time for personal enlightenment on the level of reading Hazlitt, Mises, or Rothbard. They are too busy with their careers and families. Moreover, those that do embark on such studies encounter much mainstream soft-socialist economics implicit or explicit in what they seek to read, creating yet another obstacle to sound economic understanding.
But given the lack of time for or interest in personally economic enlightenment, how can we ever hope to have a populace economically literate enough so that significant societal shifts towards freedom happen naturally? I believe that, if it can happen, it can only happen over time and because of technology and capitalism. If we reach a point where the riches and prosperity of capitalism permit people to work, say, 10 hours a week, and retire (or have the ability to retire) at 40, we are likely to see a blossoming of autodidacticism. Such prosperity can only be achieved by capitalism and various technological advances that help us to prosper despite being hampered by state controls.
Moreover, the increasing digitization and instant access to written works will catalyze this. And two other factors should be noted. First, even though there will in the future be both socialist and capitalist economics and politics to choose from, as we achieve greater prosperity and harmony in our increasingly commercial and capitalist system, there will be a greater natural awareness of the validity of the free market way of thinking, just as the fall of the USSR has led to a sort of background awareness of the superiority of capitalism over socialism that did not exist twenty years ago.
Second, free market economics is true; whereas socialist political and economic theory is self-contradictory, pseudo-scientific, and bankrupt. We can only hope that, in the long run, the basic decency of most people, combined with their ability to learn given a chance, and increasing economic prosperity due to capitalism and technological advances, and ready access to insights of free market thinkers, will lead to an eventual enlightened populace that throws off the chains of statism as incompatible with the basic values of civilized people.