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Wealth is Knowledge

George Gilder

Posted February 22, 2021

George Gilder

A human being is wealthy not because of what he has but because of what he knows.”

This wisdom, at the root of the information theory of economics, comes from The Economy in Mind (1982) by Warren Brookes — the late, great columnist for the Boston Herald.

Brookes was a key precursor and inspiration for the titanic Rush Limbaugh, whose fatuous critics at the time of his death last week discredit themselves with their fear of his superior knowledge.

Rush’s wealth supremely came from what he knew — his knowledge of entrepreneurial capitalism and his intuitive faith that optimists prevail.

Like Rush, Brookes disdained the idea that college professors, economists, and other certified experts command the key sources of wealth.

He knew that expertise without the constant tests of enterprise is futile. Thus he understood that the chief threat to prosperity is the effort to replace enterprise with expertise.

Brookes began his book with an observation that could have been written yesterday:

“Now in the third century of its Independence, the United States is once again riding through a storm that threatens to sweep away our ‘right of self-government’ and our economic freedom.”

The essence of the storm, then and now, is a vortex of governmental claims and political pretenses that the world must be saved by the exercise of power. Whether wielded against bad air, bad weather, bad men, or a wildly exaggerated “coronadoom,” ignorant power is the problem rather than the solution.

Brookes’ remedy was the recognition that only knowledge confers real power: “wealth and substance are ultimately metaphysical (and therefore potentially unlimited)” rather than physical and finite.

The conceptual sources of our prosperity flourish in freedom and die in captivity. In lockdowns and behind masks, as Rush knew and Brookes would have passionately proclaimed, we lose our minds and endanger the “economy in mind.”

Another way of putting it is the now familiar principle: wealth is knowledge and its corollary growth is learning.

Brookes quotes the great Austrian economist Friedrich von Hayek:

“Only since industrial freedom opened the path to the free use of new knowledge, only since everything could be tried — if somebody could be found to back it at his own risk… has science made the great strides which in the last hundred and fifty years have changed the face of the world.”

As Hayek crucially specified, this knowledge most of the time was distinguished from mere expertise. The crucial discoveries originated “outside the authorities officially entrusted with the cultivation of learning.”

To Brookes, knowledge is the opposite of power, which is the top-down exercise of doctrine, officious expertise, bureaucracy, and governmental coercion.

The Power of Knowledge

Knowledge is a bottom-up manifestation of the fruits of experiment, testing, and enterprise conducted freely under the inexorable pressure of the passage of time.

In information theory, money is tokenized time. It regulates the tests and experiments of enterprise, and making the ultimate scarcity of time fungible and expressible in all the transactions of an economy.

Under capitalism, knowledge consists of true understandings, honed by experiments called enterprises. Karl Popper expounded the crucial principle of falsifiability. Unless a theory (or a business plan) is framed in terms that can be disproven it is meaningless. Academic theories do not constitute knowledge or wealth unless they are tested in processes that can falsify them.

Similarly, businesses with governmental guarantees cannot generate growth since they cannot be falsified by bankruptcy.

For that reason, as Thomas Kuhn, explained in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, scientific theories themselves are not knowledge. Theories are cyclical and replaceable by new theories or paradigms in the rotating history of thought.

Only when embodied in technologies that have to work to be used, do theories gain traction and become cumulative as wealth.

Today, conservatives are focusing on monetary issues, the rampant growth of debt and prodigal printing of money. We talk of debt catastrophes and monetary debauch.

In 1981, when Brookes was writing, the federal debt crashed through the then portentous but now picayune “trillion-dollar ceiling,” less than one third of GDP.

Today, the federal debt orbits near 30 trillion dollars, close to 130% of GDP, evoking a story told by Brookes of a Georgia dirt farmer with 12 hungry children, and another on the way: “When asked why he didn’t exercise more restraint, the farmer responded: ‘Whenever I get to lovin’ I feel like I can feed every child in Georgia.’”

It is only through knowledge that you can feed all the children in Georgia and in the world and only under freedom that the providential knowledge can emerge under the pressure of time and experiment.

When governments divorce currencies from the constraints of time in an effort to steal from the future, they render money useless as a measure of value.

But the devaluation of money does not destroy the ideas and truths that constitute wealth. That is why monetary crises, as disturbing and devastating as they are, pass rapidly. The Wiemar debauch in Germany was remedied in weeks. The crisis that alarmed Brookes in the 1970s was overcome in months by Paul Volcker and Ronald Reagan.

Today’s Prophecy

When entrepreneurs see money being debauched, they seek other sources of measurement, from bitcoin to gold.

It is crucial for investors to comprehend that just as governments cannot create wealth, they cannot finally destroy it either. Governed by the reality of time-prices in the economy of mind, entrepreneurs in this new era will turn to the Cryptocosm and the blockchain for new measuring sticks of value and progress.


George Gilder
Editor, Gilder's Daily Prophecy

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