Unirule institute of Economics has regarded itself as “provision of public goods through thoughts”. We’ve already discussed public goods a lot. How about thoughts?
Confucius said, “Look before you leap.” It means that acting after careful thinking will decrease mistakes. Compared to actions, thoughts have a kind of transcendence. Firstly, they can go beyond space and time of personal experience, so we can learn from the ancients’ and others’ experience, foresee the possible consequences of our current action and choose a safe path. Secondly, they can go beyond the individual’s sphere, so we can develop empathy; we can judge our actions not only from our own point of view but also from others, to understand the standard of behaviors better and also avoid becoming the target of revenge.
Thus, thoughts and their products —— knowledge and culture, present a sort of long-term rationality. Compared to the present rationality, the long-term one can lead people to take less wrong actions and avoid unfortunate sequels. In a sense, thoughts seem like a virtual rehearsal for actions. Once you’re wrong, you can just change your mind quickly, which cost less. The thoughts derived from the history of human civilizations can constitute the basic principles of human society. Once a man has learned those principles, he can save the cost in wrong actions, which is sort of a huge one——even cost one’s life. Thoughts are of great value to the whole society.
Human beings are dispersed in different regions with different experiences, so they will have different ideas. Because of the limitation of experience and personal preference, their ideas sometimes are wrong. They aren’t anything but men and also have limited rationality, thus their thoughts are not perfect. But it’s not terrible as long as there is a market in ideas. In the marketplace of ideas, different ideas compete, enhance and complement each other. People go to the market of ideas to find out which one is suitable for them. In general, the idea you choose from the market is better than the only “good idea” offered by a monopolist. What if you choose the wrong one? As long as you don’t hold tightly onto your mistake out of reasons like politics, you can still learn a lesson from the failure and choose a new idea.
Thoughts have fantastic aspects. They can surpass human’s limitation. One’s life is limited, so is his rationality. But thoughts can provide people with imagination of hundreds of millions of years and also of the infinity of space. Thus philosophy and religion have been born. Once people can rethink limitation by infinity, they may be able to apply more accurate and just basic principles at present. This is the reason why philosophic principles and religious principles have been changed into constitutional principles. People’s imagination is infinite, so they go beyond themselves, from the limited to the unlimited. That distinguishes men from the animal and brings them closer to God. This also makes them more humble and cautious, and makes them realize that the infinity is always far beyond their reach, that they would better do nothing when they face the complexity they can’t understand.[Page]
After knowing how valuable thoughts are, we will understand the importance of our work. When we study on social phenomena and propose reforms to them, we’re in a rehearsal of thoughts. We’re actually doing tradeoff analysis among various possible ways to find path to the lowest cost. More generally, we are just a drop in the river of human thought of history. The most efficient way for us is to absorb the ideas of all times and all countries, thoroughly understand them, form a new culture tradition and merge into the river of thoughts. And this river is just the wealth of all mankind.
In present China, if we want to be provider of thought in public goods, we have to be a competitor in the market of ideas. We have a duty to introduce thoughts which we consider beneficial to the public, the society, the elites, including our political elites. Beyond all doubts, once the political elite made a mistake, the damage to the community will be immeasurable. Conversely, if they can get the benefit from ideas, a considerable quantity of damage will be avoided. By reading the history of modern China, we can understand this truth. Conversely, if the political elites can receive good thoughts, perhaps they will bring benefits, which can last for a thousand years. Both Emperor Wu of the Han Dynasty Espouse Confucianism and the Great Convert of Constantine to Christianity had great impacts on human history. Apart from the existence of the problem of exclusivity in religions and cultures, this change was generally positive. And this change was not brought by weapons but also by the power of thoughts.
Therefore, thoughts are invisible, but have great power.
At Fivewoods Study
First published in FT Chinese on January 28, 2014