Since when did being prudent become a radical idea?
Apparently, sometime in the 2010s.
That's the suggestion from American Enterprise Institute President Arthur Brooks, who said it sounds boring, but for young people heading out of school and into the world, being prudent — which doesn't mean what you think it does — could do a world of good.
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 (emphasis added).
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.
Brooks argues that being timid is as bad as being rash when it comes to prudence, and cites one of his favorite studies - by University of Chicago economist Steven Levitt, who got thousands of people to make life-changing decisions on the flip of a coin.
On issues like marriage, jobs offers, home purchases, if people in the experiment flipped heads, they said yes to a decision, and if they flipped tails, they said no.
Six months after the coin flip, Levitt learned that people who said yes were "significantly happier" than the average no person.
Yet, it would appear that young people are less and less willing to take a risk, whether it's to relocate for their careers or open up their own business. Economic turbulence can account for some of this aversion, but Brooks argues another cause: "a diminishing frontier spirit and an increasing paranoia about taking big leaps."
Brooks, who has been imprudent throughout his life - having taken off to Europe at age 19 to be a musician, says being prudent may be the best decision young people make.
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.