Growing up, I was taught that wisdom begins with understanding that no matter how much you may think you know, there’s still an infinite amount of knowledge that you don’t.
That truth had two big effects on me. One, it ignited a curiosity to learn more. Two, humility became a habit. I realized that all the knowledge I’ve gained — especially about the future — is still no bigger than a blade of grass on a football field.
Yet all around us are people who claim to know far more than I suspect they do. What’s really disturbing is that many of these know-it-alls are so unreachably cocksure that they want to use the force of government to impose their dreams and schemes on the rest of us. Washington is full of people who are busy planning almost every aspect of our lives, no matter how well or how poorly they might be managing their own.
Energy is a case in point. An entire religion has arisen against fossil fuels and in favor of various “green” options. Its high priests tell us that we’re running out of oil, that things like wind or solar or algae power are the way to go, and — here’s the rub — subsidies, taxes and mandates are needed to get us there.
In the early 19th century, Americans used whale oil as their primary fuel for lighting. Prices rose as the demand for whale oil grew and the supply of whales declined (they were “common” property, not private, so everyone had an incentive to use them and no one had a particular reason to conserve them). No bureaucrat predicted it in 1850 but within 25 years, we switched from whale oil to kerosene, derived from crude oil produced by a brand new industry. Supply and demand, prices acting as signals in a free marketplace, entrepreneurs taking risks to make a buck — all of that worked beautifully.
This is what happens when people are economically free. Computer chips, satellites and lasers replaced wires, transistors and vacuum tubes. Cars replaced mountains of horse manure in our city streets. Would we have to run out of trees before somebody would think to plant more without a government edict? What makes anyone think that regulators, control freaks and spendaholics know more about the future than do the real creators of wealth who actually have to solve problems or go out of business?
Maybe wind, solar, algae or something as yet undiscovered will prove superior to fossil fuels. I don’t know. But how will anybody know unless we let all possibilities compete freely? I can think of no good reason to substitute the judgment of election-focused and often power-hungry government officials over the judgment of markets.