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In Praise of Discontentment

On more than one recent occasion I have publicly complained about air travel. In nearly every instance, someone responds by sharing a video clip of comedian Louis C.K. reminding us that everything is amazing and nobody’s happy. His point is that we need to be more content with the wealth, technology and opportunity we have. He condemns the discontent voiced by air travelers and users of technology. It is a hilarious clip and a good reminder to marvel at the world around us. But we shouldn’t let this stop us from being discontent. In fact, without discontentment, none of the innovations we rightly appreciate would exist. Our desire to improve our conditions is powerful, and our ability to imagine a better life than what we have serves humanity like little else. Discontentment with the status quo spurs us to innovate; it inspires others to innovate and profit from solving our problems; it helps us recognize innovation when it’s in front of us. If we cannot imagine anything better than horse travel, we may look at an airplane and fail to see its value. Discontentment is the result of a big imagination. Discontentment also helps us see when something is unnecessarily or artificially interfering with the workings of the world and making our lives worse, or preventing our lives from getting better. The first step to removing the impediments we face is being unhappy about them. Discontentment awakens us to features of the world that are changeable—and is thus empowering. Some worry that the drive for more and better makes us materialistic and unhappy. Many people are materialistic and unhappy, but an imagination with the power to see a better world is not the cause. If someone suffering from a curable disease chose to eschew treatment and die at a young age for reasons of principle, we may think them noble or strong. On the other hand, if they did not get treatment simply because they didn’t know treatment was available, there would be nothing noble about their choice; it wouldn’t be a choice at all. It is no credit to us if we are not materialistic only because we have no materials. We can always choose, but ignorance of our choices does us no good. To desire betterment and to feel dissatisfaction with our present state is not evil and need not make us unhappy. It is the cause of action aimed at making us happier, and it can spur a burst of creative energy that fulfills us in a very deep way. Economic thinking helps us see and appreciate the wonder all around that results from the spontaneous order of free people. But we shouldn’t stop there! Economic thinking leads us further still, opening our eyes to new possibilities and reminding us of the power of human energy when free to produce things currently out of the question. Entrepreneurship can also open our eyes to where we have less than we could or than we once did, because of regulatory intervention. Jeffrey Tucker is one of my favorite thinkers because he has a knack for pointing out all kinds of little things that have gotten worse in recent years: lawnmowers that don’t cut, soap that doesn’t clean, showers that don’t refresh, toilets that don’t flush and much more. If we are simply content with the technologies and solutions around us, we might not notice the degradation of many of our household goods. We mightn’t question why things would get worse, rather than better, given the incentives in the market. We might fail to discover the oppressive and destructive power of regulators and busybodies who have interfered and moved us a few steps back in the process of civilization. Sometimes it’s seemingly small things, but sometimes this retrogression results in loss of life. Our discontentment helps us discover these hidden interventions, which is the first step to remedying them. In sum, discontentment generates the creative power of the market and awareness of the destructive power of the state. Airline travel is painful precisely because we can imagine it being so much better. It seems problematic that it has barely changed in several decades and that, overall, the experience takes longer than it did 20 years ago. The provision of health care is increasingly like a trip to the DMV. It’s good that this troubles us. Many people in countries with even more government involvement in the health care industry can’t even imagine anything better. They have stopped being discontent with months-long waiting lists for basic procedures. If we have no power to imagine anything better, we won’t get anything better or we won’t recognize it when it’s there. You can be discontent and happy at the same time. In fact, this may be the key to the most fulfilling, creative and purposeful life. I try to remind myself to sit back and marvel at the wonders of the market; indeed it is this awe-inspiring power that opens my imagination to see what more could be. My appreciation for the power of human creativity as evidenced by the world around me is what opens my mind enough to be unhappy with long lines at the airport or a dysfunctional medical system. Learn to love the world around you and appreciate the powerful forces that created what is; then let that recognition open your imagination to what could be. Discontentment carries the seeds of its own resolution and the fuel for innovation. It’s OK to want more.