How the modern world made cowards of us all

The following op-ed appeared in the July 22nd print edition of The New York Times:  

Back in the late 1980s, Dana Carvey of “Saturday Night Live” used to do a funny impression of President George H. W. Bush, in which the character would justify his own supposed timidity by muttering “wouldn’t be prudent” to himself about every small risk. The impression neatly captured the contemporary notion of prudence: faintheartedness, caution and a general bias against action.

So perhaps it seems odd that this is my advice for young people heading out of school and into the world: Be prudent.

Yes, it sounds boring, but it may turn out to be a more radical suggestion than most graduates hear.

I thought prudence was not my cup of tea. When I quit college to go on the road as a musician, I was being imprudent. When I quit music to go back to school in my 30s, it was imprudent. When I left a tenured professorship for an unsecure job? You guessed it — imprudent.

Then I had an epiphany. When I finally read the German philosopher Josef Pieper’s “The Four Cardinal Virtues,” which had sat unread on my shelf for years, I was shocked to learn that I didn’t hate prudence; what I hated was its current — and incorrect — definition.

The connotation of prudence as caution, or aversion to risk, is a modern invention. “Prudence” comes from the Latin “prudentia,” meaning sagacity or expertise. The earliest English uses from the 14th century had little to do with fearfulness or habitual reluctance. Rather, it signified righteous decision making that is rooted in acuity and practical wisdom.

Mr. Pieper argued that we have bastardized this classical concept. We have refashioned prudence into an excuse for cowardice, hiding behind the language of virtue to avoid what he calls “the embarrassing situation of having to be brave.” The correct definition, Mr. Pieper argued, is the willingness to do the right thing, even if that involves fear and risk.

In other words, to be rash is only one breach of true prudence. It is also a breach to be timid. So which offense is more common today?

A new study by the University of Chicago economist Steven Levitt helps answer this question. He started with the premise that people who agonize over important choices may systematically make wrong decisions, defaulting to either “yes” or “no” with too much regularity. To investigate, Mr. Levitt found several thousand people in the throes of a difficult decision, weighing choices like job offers and marriage proposals, who volunteered to let him make the decision for them — with the flip of a coin.

Heads meant to decide in the affirmative; tails meant to decline. (Let it sink in that thousands of people agreed to have their most important decisions made by a stranger — worse, an economist — flipping a coin.) When given heads, Mr. Levitt found people were much more likely to take the decision affirmatively than they would be if left to their devices, so the experiment was effective.

But the really interesting result concerned the participants’ happiness. In follow-up interviews six months later, Mr. Levitt found that the average “heads” person was significantly happier than the average “tails” person.

Here’s what all this means: Our sin tends to be timidity, not rashness. On average, we say “no” too much when faced with an opportunity or dilemma.

Once you start looking for this imprudently risk-averse behavior, you see it everywhere, particularly among young people. According to data from the General Social Survey collected by the National Opinion Research Center, people under age 30 today are almost a third less willing than under-30s in 1996 to relocate for their careers. And as the economist Tyler Cowen observes in his new book “The Complacent Class,” the fraction of people in this age group who own their own businesses has plummeted by about 65 percent since the 1980s.

Economic changes have contributed to both trends, to be sure. But there is another culprit: a diminishing frontier spirit and an increasing paranoia about taking big leaps.

Family formation, perhaps the ultimate personal leap of faith, looks to be another victim of this imprudent hesitation. Census Bureau demographers recently reported that while only a quarter of 24- to 29-year-olds were unmarried in the 1980s, almost half of that age group is unmarried today. And delaying the jump to adulthood has real social consequences. Last August, the Centers for Disease Control announced that the United States fertility rate had fallen to its lowest point since they began calculating it in 1909.

My checkered past, it turns out, may not be a litany of imprudent decisions. True prudence means eschewing safety and familiarity in favor of entrepreneurial living. It requires clear eyes, a courageous heart and an adventurous spirit.

So take a risk. Be prudent. Don’t wait for social scientists to flip a coin on your behalf. Choose heads.

Arthur C. Brooks is the president of the American Enterprise Institute and a contributing opinion writer.

A version of this op-ed appears in print on July 22, 2017.

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