Tiny Increments

A few years ago, the Beloved Spouse and I did a major home renovation.

Out of what had been a large, derelict room we built a beautiful library (or rather, our contractors did), with shelves that can hold something like 10,000 books. The Beloved is a truly prodigious reader, and I intermittently one, so we already had around 5,000 books, acquired over the roughly fifty years since each of us entered high school. I thought it would be fun to put them all in one place, then fill the obvious holes in what we had. The end result is a room in which we can sit surrounded by the masterworks of brilliant writers from down through the ages.  

With gifts from friends and family, many of whom are looking to get rid of the very things I’ve been seeking, the collection now numbers about 7,000 books. They are organized into reasonably identifiable sections of my favorite novels and (separately) the Beloved’s, and combined collections of history, poetry, art, food, nature, business and children’s literature. There’s one shelf for books given by friends – each of which has a note from the donor or my notation as to who gave it. Within these categories, though, there is almost no organization at all. I’ll get to that someday, I hope.

I sometimes spend a few minutes looking over the section of my favorite novels book by book, moving different titles by the same author to be adjacent to one another, finding a book to lend to a friend or, candidly, just savoring the memories of stories I particularly enjoyed.

While doing so recently it struck me that most of those wonderful stories have little or nothing to say about the innumerable, barely noticed things we do every day to provide sustenance for our families. Stories about love or sex, crime, war, power struggles, dynastic succession, extreme avarice and abject poverty rarely mention, except obliquely, the daily efforts of people trying to make a living by providing something of value to others.

There isn’t much drama in an engineer figuring out how to slightly improve a product, a lawyer writing a clear contract, a farmer increasing the yield on his acres, a teacher helping her student understand a difficult concept, or most of the other things that productive adults spend their days doing. But in an important sense, these are the acts that matter most – both to those who put food on their tables thereby and to the world at large.

For the most part, the progress of mankind comes in numberless tiny increments. Genuine, if invisible, wealth is created when buyers and sellers willingly exchange goods (usually for cash which, in turn, is presumably used to buy other goods) because each participant feels he has improved his position thereby. The beauty of a market system with clear property rights and freedom of contract is that it encourages a continuous, nearly infinite number of such decisions by all that collectively create an enormous store of value. Centrally controlled social/economic models definitionally reduce the scope people have to make such value-creative decisions, and generally limit or destroy the incentives for the continuous improvements in products and productivity that improve mankind’s lot.   

Most of the stories we read and cherish are about what is done with the wealth that is created through mankind’s stupendous and almost infinitely complex efforts. Few are the storytellers who can even begin to grasp (except regarding their own efforts) how wealth is really created or tell that story in an interesting way.

It has ever been thus and, I daresay, ever will be. The heroes and villains (real and imagined) of the past and present are like the waves that grab our attention when we look out on the ocean; in the moment, we rarely consider the tide.  

And we often forget how much better off we are in material terms and health than previous generations were. In that story, boring and taken-for-granted though it may be, the real heroes are Western Culture’s emphasis on personal freedom, which set the stage for the explosion of wealth and knowledge in recent centuries, and the millions and millions and millions of people who took advantage of those freedoms to make things just a little bit better for themselves and each other through their lives and work.

I still love the books I’ve collected; I just think the biggest part of the meta story is largely absent from their pages.

M.H. Johnston         

4 comments to Tiny Increments

  • Anonymous  says:

    I like this post very much as it encapsulates your philosophy in a very elegant way.

  • KH  says:

    Civil Horizon….. ah yes I can see that more clearly now. Thanks for writing about this.

  • Anonymous  says:


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