It Shouldn’t Be Hard To Be Humble

(Editor's note: Below is an edited version of the text from Lawrence W. Reed's commencement speech delivered Dec. 13, 2008, at Northwood University.)

Thank you, Dr. Pretty; members of the Northwood administration, faculty and staff; graduates, and all parents, relatives and friends of the graduates, no matter in which category you fall — the proud, the relieved, the pleasantly surprised or those convinced for the first time that miracles can really happen.

Speaking to you today is a distinct honor and a special, personal delight. Thirty-one years ago last summer, I emerged fresh from graduate school and immediately unemployed. My mother thought "unemployable" was more like it. Then, a college in Midland, Mich., I knew little about hired me to teach economics. I said goodbye to my native Pennsylvania and settled in here, eager for whatever the future would bring.

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I was making six figures right off the bat — it's just that four were on one side of the decimal and two were on the other. People told me I looked so much younger than the students that it was only a matter of time before one of them would beat me up. Then came my first winter in Midland. Starting on a Wednesday in January, we were slammed with the worst winter storm I had ever seen - 30 inches of snow and 50 mph winds. It appeared that everybody in Midland but me had skis and a snowmobile. It turned so cold I heard a disc jockey on a local radio station declare he had just seen two hunting dogs with jumper cables trying to start a rabbit.

Seven years later when opportunity led me reluctantly to move on to other places and positions, I could look back and gratefully say, as I still do today, "Thank you, Northwood, for taking a chance on me!" Northwood University will always feel like a second home to me.

More often than not, commencement addresses are light and aimed at puffing up the crowd, especially the graduates. But I want to focus on some serious business. We are a country in crisis, and I'm not referring to the economic situation, the stock market, crime, education or any other problem that dominates the headlines. In fact, the crisis I'm most worried about is the main reason we have all those other problems. Fix this one thing and the rest of our problems would shrink to comparative insignificance. I refer to the crisis of character.

By almost any measure, the standards we as citizens practice ourselves and expect of those we parent, influence and elect have slipped badly in recent years. Simple courtesies are increasingly rare. Our celebrity-drenched culture focuses incessantly on the vapid and the irresponsible. What once was shunned as bad behavior is all too often flaunted today as a sign we're "doing our own thing." Our role models would make our grandparents cringe. To many, insisting on sterling character seems too straight-laced and old-fashioned. We cut corners and sacrifice character all the time for power, money, attention or other ephemeral gratifications. The terrible price we're paying for this disturbing erosion of character is reckoned in terms of theft and violence, family break-ups, scandals in business, unions and government, and numerous other ills.

You see this erosion of character when you turn on the evening news any night of the week: Political campaigns resorting to last-minute smears to win elections. Businessmen groveling before politicians, begging for a handout, refusing to speak truth to power by explaining the government's complicity in their troubles, in fear the money won't be approved. You even see it in the coarse and vulgar language people plaster on their car bumpers, or the obligations and responsibilities that so many freely walk away from when it becomes inconvenient to keep their word.

Character is ultimately more important than all the college degrees, public offices or even all the knowledge that one might accumulate in a lifetime. It puts a concrete floor under one's future or an iron ceiling over it. Who in their right mind would want to live in a world without it?

Liberty and free enterprise, which Americans ritually claim they cherish, depend entirely upon character. They cannot possibly survive without it. A people who will not govern and restrain themselves will sooner or later be governed and restrained by others.

Many traits define strong character. Among them are honesty, humility, responsibility, courage, self-discipline, self-reliance, optimism, a long-term focus and a lust for learning. A society that forsakes those virtues is bound for chaos, serfdom and extinction.

Dishonest people will lie and cheat and become even bigger liars and cheaters in elected office. People who lack humility become arrogant, condescending, know-it-all central-planner-types. Irresponsible citizens will blame others for the consequences of their own poor judgment. In a world without courage, who would stand up and defend what's right in the face of wrong? People who will not discipline themselves invite the intrusive control of others. Those who eschew self-reliance are easily manipulated by those on whom they are dependent. Pessimists dismiss what individuals can accomplish when given the freedom to try. Short-sighted citizens will mortgage their children's future for the sake of a short-term "solution" or bailout.

And closed-minded, politically correct or head-in-the-sand types will never learn from the lessons of history and human action.

I don't have time to elaborate on all of those traits, but one of them will be the focus of the balance of my remarks — humility. T. S. Eliot said, "Humility is the most difficult of all virtues to achieve; nothing dies harder than the desire to think well of oneself."

If you're not sure what humility is, these lyrics from an old Mac Davis tune will at least remind you of what it's not:

Oh Lord it's hard to be humble, when you're perfect in every way.

I can't wait to look in the mirror ‘cause I get better looking every day.

I guess you could say I'm a loner, a cowboy outlaw tough and proud.

I could have lots of friends if I want to, but then I wouldn't stand out from the crowd.

Oh Lord, it‘s hard to be humble!

I beg to differ. It's not hard to be humble if you stop comparing yourself to others. It's not hard to be humble if your focus is building your own character. It's not hard to be humble if you first come to grips with how little you really know. "The wise person possesses humility. He knows that his small island of knowledge is surrounded by a vast sea of the unknown," noted Harold C. Chase.

One of the greatest teachers and theologians of our day, Pastor Timothy Keller of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, makes this keen observation: Until the 20th century, most cultures, including ours, held that having too high an opinion of oneself was the root of most of the world's troubles. Misbehavior from drug addiction to cruelty to wars resulted from hubris or pride — a haughtiness of spirit that needed to be deterred or disciplined. The idea that you were bigger or better, or more self-righteous, or somehow immune from the rules that govern others — the absence of humility, in other words, gave you license to do unto others what you would never allow them to do unto you.

These days, however, it's a different story. Being humble rubs against what millions have been taught under the banner of "self-esteem." Even as our schools fail to teach us elemental facts and skills, they somehow manage to teach us to feel good in our ignorance. We explain away bad behavior as the result of the guilty feeling bad about themselves. We manufacture excuses for them, form support groups for them, and resist making moral judgments lest we hurt their feelings. We don't demand repentance and self-discipline as much as we pump up their egos.

In an extraordinary 2002 article in The New York Times titled "The Trouble With Self-Esteem," psychologist Lauren Slater concluded that "People with high self-esteem pose a greater threat to those around them than people with low self-esteem, and feeling bad about yourself is not the cause of our country's biggest, most expensive social problems."

Don't get me wrong. Humility doesn't mean thinking less of yourself. It means thinking of yourself less. It means putting yourself in proper perspective. It means cultivating a healthy sense of your limitations and the vast room you have to grow and improve. It means you don't presume to know more than you do.

Dec. 18, just five days from today, will mark the 50th anniversary of the appearance of a very famous essay by the founder of the organization I now head. His name was Leonard Read — no relation — and his essay was titled "I, Pencil." Many first-time readers of it never see the world quite the same again. You can read it for yourself on our Web site — — but let me summarize it for you here: No one person — repeat, no one, no matter how smart or how many degrees follow his name — could create from scratch, entirely by himself, a small, everyday pencil, let alone a car or an airplane.

Think about it. A mere pencil — a simple thing, yet beyond any one person's complete comprehension. Think what went into it: The mining of zinc, graphite and copper. The logging of cedar or other wood, and all the technology involved in the saws, trucks, rope and railroads that took it from the forest to the factory. The castor beans that became an ingredient in the lacquer. The dozens of chemicals found or produced and then distilled into the pencil's parts, from the eraser to the glue that holds it all together. Countless people and skills assemble miraculously in the marketplace without a single mastermind, indeed, without anyone who knows more than a corner of the whole process. Because of my professional interests, it's impossible for me not to think of the huge implications of this lesson for the economy and the role of government.

It is, in fact, a message that humbles the high and mighty. It pricks the inflated egos of those who think they know how to mind everybody else's business. It explains in plain language why central planning of society or an economy is an exercise in arrogance and futility, or what Nobel Prize-winning economist F. A. Hayek termed "a pretense to knowledge." If I can't make a pencil, holy cow, I'd better be careful about how smart I think I am.

Maximilian Robespierre blessed the horrific French Revolution with this chilling declaration, "On ne saurait faire une omelette sans casser des oeufs." Translation: "One can't expect to make an omelet without breaking eggs." He worked tirelessly to plan the lives of others and became the architect of the Revolution's bloodiest phase — the Reign of Terror. Robespierre and his guillotine broke eggs by the thousands in a vain effort to impose a utopian society with government planners at the top and everybody else at the bottom.

That French experience is one example in a disturbingly familiar pattern. Call them what you will — socialist, interventionist, collectivist, statist — history is littered with their presumptuous plans for rearranging society to fit their vision of the common good, plans that always fail as they kill or impoverish people in the process. If big government ever earns a final epitaph, it will be this: "Here lies a contrivance engineered by know-it-alls who broke eggs with abandon but never, ever created an omelet."

None of the Robespierres of the world knew how to make a pencil, yet they wanted to make entire societies. How utterly preposterous, and mournfully tragic! The Robespierres, the Hitlers, and the Stalins of the world didn't suffer from low self-esteem.

The destructive acts of pride don't always come from a brash and fiery revolutionary or egotistical tyrants full of pompous and hateful rhetoric. More often, they come cloaked in benevolence and disguised as the wisdom of the elders, who have only the best of intentions for the whole community. An outstanding example of this type of hubris is the political philosophy in Plato's "Republic,"in which he maintains, with breathtaking vanity, that the world would be a harmonious and prosperous place if only philosophers like himself were given absolute authority to run it as they saw fit!

We would miss a large implication of Leonard Read's message if we assume it aims only at the tyrants whose names we all know. The lesson of "I, Pencil" is not that error begins when the planners plan big. It begins the moment one tosses humility aside, assumes he knows the unknowable, and employs the force of government to control more and more of other people's lives. That's not just a national disease. It can be very local indeed.

In our midst are people who think that if only they had government power on their side, they could pick tomorrow's winners and losers in the marketplace, set prices or rents where they ought to be, decide which forms of energy should power our homes and cars, and choose which industries should survive and which should die. They make grandiose promises they can't possibly keep without bankrupting all of us. They should stop for a few moments and learn a little humility from a lowly writing implement.

Verse 11 of the 14th Chapter of the Book of Luke cautions us that, "Those who honor themselves will be humbled, but people who are humble themselves will be honored." Fair warning, and good advice there, too.

A humble person is a teachable person because he's not so puffed up that his mind is closed. A humble person reforms himself before he attempts to reform the world. A humble person treats others with respect, and that includes other people's property. A humble person takes criticism or adversity as an opportunity to grow, to build character. A humble person knows that graduating from college is not the end of learning but rather, only a noteworthy start of what should be a life-long adventure. So humility, in my book, is pretty important stuff. It may well be the one virtue of strong character that is a precondition of all the others.

I understand the college is about to confer upon me an honorary degree — Doctor of Laws, I believe. I'm sure it's not because I've written many laws or signed any into effect. In fact, an awful lot of the ones we have I'd repeal at the drop of a hat. Perhaps the thought is that I know a lot about laws. Well, maybe so. But that's dwarfed by what I don't know, and by what I hope to learn in whatever years or decades I have left.

It's really not hard to be humble. It's healthy, in fact, for you and for me and for everybody. Give it a try. I recommend it.

Thank you!


Lawrence W. Reed is president of the Foundation for Economic Education and president emeritus of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the Center are properly cited.