On July 8, 2010, LeBron James made a decision that was so important to him and to the world that it was written with capital letters: The Decision. It was so important, it was televised live. The best professional basketball player on the planet was making the decision on the team he would play for in the coming years, and the city where he would play.
It was a decision with long term consequences, related to James’ and teammates’ professional careers, NBA championships, team revenues, television ratings, and, it’s fair to say, the future of professional basketball.
LeBron James is a professional decision maker. He is good at it. He makes long term decisions like The Decision – and he has another one coming up this year, too – and he makes short term decisions like whether to shoot a three, or drive to the basket or pass to a teammate. All his decisions are important to him and to many others, and all have short term and long term consequences.
The decision maker has heavy burdens to bear. How does he make the right decision that generates the most satisfaction for the most people, including but not limited to himself. When LeBron James made The Decision to leave Cleveland to play for the Miami Heat, many in Cleveland were sadly disappointed, and many were angry. But James’ decision proved to be an excellent one for the Miami Heat and their fan base, for the city of Miami, for the NBA and for his new teammates. It was also an excellent decision for James himself, with positive long term consequences. It is arguable that The Decision generated the most satisfaction for the largest number of people, despite the disappointment of those in Cleveland. The most satisfaction for the most people is the very definition of a good decision that maximizes utility. And seeking the most satisfaction for the most people, including oneself, is the definition of virtue.
Henry Hazlitt makes these definitions in The Foundations Of Morality. He bases his definitions of morality and moral behavior on economic principles – what he calls a realistic view of morality. Economics concerns ends and means. We must choose our ends well, and base them on our values, so that attaining them will fulfill us. Then we must pick the best means to attain those ends.
Thinking carefully about our ends and the means we choose to attain them leads us straight to another economic principle: placing a high valuation on the future compared to the present. The natural tendency is to prefer immediate gratification – we’d rather have satisfaction now than later. Economics teaches us, to the contrary, that sacrificing some satisfaction now, by saving, and investing what we save, can result in greater satisfaction in the future. We gain confidence, become optimistic, and augment our individual potential, as well as that of the entire society. Thinking long term rather than short term is critical to sound decision making.
We don’t know what LeBron James’ long term ends were when he made The Decision. Was he seeking to win an NBA Championship? That’s a long term end. But it may only have been an instrumental step towards an even higher end, such as a lasting legacy, or family security, or a life of achievement, or a happy life. It’s valuable to think about what our ultimate end is; everything else becomes a means, a step along the way.
Another economic principle we encounter when we are making choices is opportunity cost. For every choice we make, there is an opportunity cost: what we forego in order to make the choice we prefer. In fact, in economics, the concept of costs is fully wrapped up in opportunity cost. Cost is what we give up in order to enjoy the results of the choice we make. The Decision cost James, among other things, the approval of his fans in Cleveland. His costs included some significant criticism and verbal abuse. We can be confident that he thought it through.
Henry Hazlitt talks about the athletic discipline of sound decision making. Athletes know that they must make daily sacrifices for their long term goal. They sacrifice time they could use in other ways; they may sacrifice the diet they prefer to one that better helps them meet their long term goals; they may go through the significant pain of strenuous effort to improve their physique and athletic capacity. They are building their muscles. All of us should think the same way about building our decision making muscles. Exercise them daily, understanding the ends we are pursuing by the means we choose, and keeping the long term goals in mind as we strive to create the maximum long term satisfaction for both ourselves and the most people we can.
We may never be called upon to make The Decision. But we make many decisions every day. Simple economic concepts can help us get better and better at it. Another decision (probably with a small “d” this time) is looming for LeBron James. Observe him carefully. He’s good.