Is Humility the Most Important Virtue?
cultivate curiosity about spontaneous processes and notice how human cooperation creates miracles.
In his 1962 book Capitalism and Freedom, Milton Friedman asserted, “Humility is the distinguishing virtue of the believer in freedom; arrogance, of the paternalist.”
Today, there are many more arrogant paternalists who don’t always wear the progressive or socialist label. They create little and demand much from those who add value to the lives of others. As Friedman wrote, the belief system from which the arrogant live is a grave threat to freedom.
In my many years of teaching leadership I have noticed how, for some people, humility doesn’t seem like a virtue worth cultivating. Such individuals were concerned that others would take advantage of them; they feared being humble would hold them back.
Virtues are states of mind that don’t map to specific behaviors, and humility doesn’t mean routinely submitting to others. Like arrogance, depreciating oneself is insisting you are what you are not.
Humility brings us closer in touch with reality. We see more clearly just how dependent we are on the cooperation of others for our existence. We see how ignorant we are, how limited is our useful knowledge. We see how much we have been given compared to how much we have contributed; we are all users of what has been built by others living before us. We are in awe of the majesty of what spontaneous order has created. When we are in touch with reality, we can’t help but feel grateful. Misery follows when we live at odds with reality. When we turn our back on reality, humility helps reset our orientation.
The more humility we cultivate, the more we can depersonalize our interpretations of life; that shift in viewpoint makes us easier to be around and helps us become a greater champion of freedom.
Via Zoom, my wife and I hold a family book club with our adult children. Each week we work through a couple of chapters from books ranging from F. A. Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom to James Clear’s Atomic Habits. Recently we finished Deirdre McCloskey’s and Art Carden’s Leave Me Alone and I Will Make You Rich.
Reading the last chapters of Leave Me Alone, the penny dropped for our daughter; she realized the “invisible hand is not personal.” McCloskey and Carden quote John Stuart Mill from On Liberty: “Society admits no right, either legal or moral, in the disappointed competitors, to immunity from this kind of suffering; and feels called on to interfere, only when means of success have been employed which it is contrary to the general interest to permit—namely, fraud or treachery, and force.”
No individual, no business, is entitled to special treatment. The invisible hand is impersonal; it shows no favoritism. Spontaneous order won’t favor us, but it will help us soar. In “Cosmos and Taxis,” Hayek explains spontaneous orders don’t “have a particular purpose” and are not designed by masterminds. Yet, Hayek writes, spontaneous order “may be extremely important for our successful pursuit” of our purposes.
We have been given a tool of immense value, yet some want more. They want to be favored above others. They want guarantees that spontaneous order will never provide.
We see why some people disdain spontaneous order. They believe in masterminds. They believe their projects are especially deserving and, through the political process, aim to achieve rewards they would not otherwise gain.
The only way to be recognized in markets is by providing a good or service that others value. McCloskey and Carden explain, “the bourgeois innovator gets profit, and his dinner, by respecting the dignity of others. He works not by coercing others in violent ‘competition,’ but by making an offer to a customer that she may accept or reject.”
We face a fundamental choice for how to order society: decide some people and firms are special or respect the dignity of all. McCloskey and Carden write, “The alternative to respecting individual dignity is deciding economic matters collectively, through the government, a government seized by political ‘competition.’” They question collectivist powers, asking, “Can a government with such powers be trusted not to use them for the ‘protection’ of the more-advantaged?”
The answer, as we know, is no. In a 1977 speech, Milton Friedman argued, “The two greatest enemies of free enterprise in the United States, in my opinion, have been, on the one hand, my fellow intellectuals and, on the other hand, the business corporations of this country.”
“Every intellectual,” Friedman offered, “is in favor of freedom for himself and against freedom for anybody else.” Of corporations, Friedman observed, “every business enterprise is in favor of freedom for everybody else, but when it comes to himself, that’s a different question.” Corporate leaders argue their businesses are special: “We have to have that tariff to protect us against competition from abroad. We have to have that special provision in the tax code. We have to have that subsidy.”
With so many thinking they are special, in Hayek’s words, there is “difficulty [in] finding genuine and disinterested support for a systematic policy for freedom.”
Those who demand special treatment from impersonal, anonymous, and uncontrollable processes lack humility. They want credit for their achievements, and they blame others when their goals fall short. With such arrogance, freedom is indeed impossible.
Hayek explains, “A complex civilization like ours is necessarily based on the individual’s adjusting himself to changes whose cause and nature he cannot understand.” Those who lack humility “will put all the blame [for outcomes they don’t like] on an obvious immediate and avoidable cause, while the more complex interrelationships which determine the change remain inevitably hidden to them.”
A warning in The Road to Serfdom should not be overlooked. “A refusal to submit to anything we cannot understand,” Hayek wrote, “must lead to the destruction of our civilization.” Arrogance has consequences.
It may seem to us that the very people who need to practice more humility are those least open to the power of its virtue. That would be a mistaken idea. We all have the power of choice, and to blame others for failing to exercise that freedom is the height of arrogance. We can practice seeing our own needs for special treatment.
If we lack humility today, it is not a permanent character trait. As philosophy professor Iskra Fileva wrote, character “is not a set of stable and unified dispositions.” Fileva provided powerful advice for those seeking consistent exercise of virtues. She observed, “Unity in character is an achievement. And we have a better chance of attaining it if we take it to be a goal, rather than an existing state of affairs.” We can only improve “if [we] make an effort.” Our character is a work in process, as is the free society we help to create.
Creeping collectivism in the world is at odds with reality. Our hubris, also at odds with reality, enables collectivism. Yet we are not powerless. We can stop deceiving ourselves. We can see the limits of our minds and feel gratitude for how much others do for us. We can cultivate curiosity about spontaneous processes and notice how human cooperation creates miracles. If “humility is the distinguishing virtue of the believer in freedom,” then we today can become more aware of our arrogance and, with practice, pivot back to reality.
This essay was originally published at the American Institute for Economic Research.
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There seems to be a powerful desire built into human nature, to run other people's lives and to fantasize that doing so can be beneficial to humanity as a whole. Or to accept being part of a collective with few free choices, again fantasizing that doing so is beneficial. It is easy to fall into the fallacy of thinking that the only options are to be a destructive rebel or to conform to every norm. To break free of that false dichotomy requires both humility (applied to letting others run their own lives) and backbone (applied to making choices for one's own life). As you say, voluntary cooperation creates miracles.
Isn't the defining characteristic of our age the polar opposite of humility, self-interested narcissism? It seems to be subject to a self-sustaining positive feedback loop, and operates at individual and group level, to the detriment of all. When was the last time we had a public-spirited politician? When was the last time a company was swayed to act in the general good, rather than for its own profit? A lot of the current ills currently afflicting the world can be traced to self-interested corporations exerting undue influence on venal and self-aggrandising politicians and global regulatory bodies.