So is uncertainty a reason to freak out or an opportunity?

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The future seems especially uncertain at the moment. There are those who would object that the future is always uncertain, and that it is when we think we’ve captured it in our forecasting models that we’ve invariably gotten things terribly wrong. But still, it is possible most of the time to be reasonably confident that one knows the range within which growth, inflation, and other important economic variables will fall for at least the next year or two. It’s that confidence that allows business executives and investors and consumers to make decisions.

Right now that kind of confidence is in extremely short supply. The economy is shrinking at a rapid pace. That won’t go on forever, but when it will end, and what the recovery will look like, is anybody’s guess. Are we about to get sucked down into a deflationary spiral, or are the Fed’s aggressive actions eventually going to make inflation the real threat? Is the global economic clout of the U.S. going to be permanently diminished by the current crisis, or does this represent a second chance to get things right? Are we really about to enter a new age of thrift, or just take a time out before returning to borrowing and spending? Are we looking at a long-term malaise, or a sharp-but-short shock?

When one is not confident about the answers to such questions, the natural tendency is to hold off on making decisions, especially decisions that involve any kind of long-term commitment. When lots of people postpone decisions, economic activity slumps. Uncertainty is a cause of recessions. And there’s so much uncertainty now that this recession could really be doozy.

But at the same time, uncertainty is what makes capitalism go. This was the theme of University of Chicago economist Frank Knight’s Risk, Uncertainty and Profit, a 1921 book that’s overdue for a comeback. Wrote Knight:

With uncertainty absent, man’s energies are devoted altogether to doing things; it is doubtful whether intelligence itself would exist in such a situation; in a world so built that perfect knowledge was theoretically possible, it seems likely that all organic readjustments would become mechanical, all organisms automata. With uncertainty present, doing things, the actual execution of activity, becomes in a real sense a secondary part of life; the primary problem or function is deciding what to do and how to do it.

Knight argued that making such decisions was the job of an entrepreneur, and that business profit was the reward for for being willing to act in the face of uncertainty. This means, I think, that some people who aren’t sticking all their money into mattresses (or the modern equivalent, U.S. Treasuries) right now are going to make an awful lot of money over the next few years. Which people? I’m afraid I’m too uncertain to offer an answer to that.