Back in the late 1960s, during graduate study at UCLA, I had a casual conversation with Professor Armen Alchian, one of my tenacious mentors. Professor Alchian is among the top 20th-century contributors to economic knowledge. During our graduate student/faculty coffee hour conversation, I was trying to impress Professor Alchian with my knowledge of type I and type II statistical errors.
I told him that my wife assumes that everybody is her friend until they prove differently. While such an assumption maximizes the number of friends that she will have, it also maximizes her chances of being betrayed. Unlike my wife, my assumption is everyone is my enemy until they prove they’re a friend. That assumption minimizes my number of friends but minimizes the chances of betrayal.
Professor Alchian, donning a mischievous smile, asked, “Williams, have you considered a third alternative, namely, that people don’t give a damn about you one way or another?” Initially, I felt a bit insulted, and our conversation didn’t go much further. That was typical of Professor Alchian — to say something profound and maybe controversial, without much comment, and let you think about it.
During the earlier years of my professional career, I gave Professor Alchian’s question considerable thought and concluded that he was right. The most reliable assumption, in terms of the conduct of one’s life, is to assume that generally people don’t care about you one way or another. It’s a mistake to assume everyone is a friend or everyone is an enemy, or people are out to help you, or people are out to hurt you.
Let’s do a thought experiment applying this to issues of race. Listening to some people, one might think that white people are engaged in an ongoing secret conspiracy to undermine the welfare of black people.
Evidence for those people is the large numbers of black men in prison, low black academic achievement and poverty. For some, racism is the root cause of the high black illegitimacy rate and family breakdown.
Are white people obsessed with and engaged in a conspiracy against black people? I’m guessing no, and here’s an experiment. Walk up to the average white person and ask: How many minutes today have you been thinking about a black person? If the person wasn’t a Klansman or a gushing do-gooder, his answer would probably be zero minutes. If you asked him whether he’s a part of a conspiracy to undermine the welfare of black people, he’d probably look at you as if you were crazy. By the same token, if you asked me: “Williams, how many minutes today have you been thinking about white people?” I’d probably say, “You’d have to break the time interval down into smaller units, like nanoseconds, for me to give an accurate answer.” Because people don’t care about you one way or another doesn’t mean they wish you good will, ill will or no will.
If Professor Alchian’s vision of how the world works is correct, what are its implications? A major implication is that one’s destiny, for the most part, is in his hands. In other words, how you make it in this world, for the most part, depends more on what you do as opposed to whether people like or dislike you. In order to produce a successful life, one must find ways to please his fellow man. That is, find out what goods and services his fellow man values, and is willing to pay for, and then acquire the necessary skills and education to provide it. Whether your fellow man cares about you or not is largely irrelevant.
Walter E. Williams is a professor of economics at George Mason University. To find out more about Walter E. Williams and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.
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