A Reviewer's Notebook - 1976/3

MARCH 01, 1976

Reviewed by John Chamberlain

SAMUEL C. FLORMAN, author of the enigmatically titled The Existential Pleasures of Engineering (St. Martin’s Press, $7.95), is a construction engineer who happens to hold an M.A. in English literature from Columbia University. The possessor of a most pleasing style, he moves comfortably in two worlds of the imagination — or in the "two cultures," as the British novelist C. P. Snow would put it.

Like any person of common sense he knows that the creative personality is the same whatever the means of expression the creator may use. As critic Lewis Mum-ford once noted (before he went off on his anti-technological rampage), the esthetic impulse in our so-called Gilded Age flowered just as importantly and effectively in the great suspension bridges designed and built by Roebling as it did in the poems of Walt Whitman or the paintings of Whistler. The good engineer works in a human dimension, to make life more civilized, more bearable, more pleasurable and, incidentally, better able to yield the leisure for literature, sculpture or just plain fun and games. The engineer, in short, is just another artist.

The trouble with the artist-engineer, however, is that he has never bothered to explain himself. During the Golden Age of Engineering, which lasted a full century from 1850 to 1950, he didn’t have to justify his existence. People took it for granted that it was good to rid the world of household drudgery by engineering everything from washing machines to air conditioning. There was no question about the value of such things as the automobile, the airplane and the Panama Canal —they speeded life and, simultaneously, left more time for living. The builders of the St. Gotthard Tunnel were eulogized in fiction by no less a person than the tortured dramatist August Strindberg. In Kipling’s verse "romance brought in the 5:15," and Carl Sandburg lamented the loss of a discarded steel rail as "straight strength pitched into the slime of the ditch."

But even as engineers were placing men on the moon and unlocking the secret of the atom, the tide turned against the engineer. A whole group of sociologists —Jacques Ellul, Lewis Mumford, Charles Reich, Theodore Roszak —began to think of technology as a Frankenstein monster that had, somehow, taken over and was running the show by itself. The means had become an end. The environmentalists and the ecologists, seeing only that cars have exhausts and that atomic fuel leaves a poisonous waste, headed for the exits. There was nothing left to do, they said, but return to a pre-technological Nature. America must be "greened again,"

Our Debt to Technology

With his knowledge of the past, Mr. Florman takes extensive issue with Ellul, Mumford, Reich and the rest of the anti-technologists. Mumford salutes the Middle Ages, when men presumably had common aims and built to the glory of God. But if the Middle Ages had anything over the Dark Ages, it was because technology had turned up such prosaic wonders as the horse collar, which enabled people to move goods from place to place over the rough roads between seas and rivers. Diets were sparse until technology, in the form of the compass, enabled mariners to bring New World vegetables to Europe along with Aztec gold. There should be no need to belabor the point: modern populations, brought into existence by the very fecundity of science and engineering, could not live without fertilizers, new energy sources, and great ships to carry raw materials to points where they can be transformed into the means of sustenance for the millions.

It is obvious that man sets his own ends, and uses technology to get where he wants to go. It is not the fault of the engineer when men move perversely to hurt each other, or to pursue power for the sake of domination. World War I came before the invention of the tank; World War II preceded the harnessing of the atom to destructive ends. It is the politician and the warrior who make wars that require the jet engine and jungle defoliants, not the engineer, whose discoveries can be switched from use to use, depending on the motives and purposes of non-technical men who often do not know the existential pleasures of building for the sake of enjoyment and peaceful trade.

Gloomy Forecasts

So mixed up have we become that a Stanford University seminar for freshmen in California can feature a speaker, anthropologist George Collier, who expatiates for the students on the losses attendant upon modern technology, including the loss of many tools and skills and "even the loss of hundreds of species of cultivated plants." This remark about plant loss was apparently made with a perfectly straight face not far from the town of Santa Rosa, where Luther Burbank created new plant hybrids by the dozen, and in the very state that had turned a single navel orange branch, a mutation, into a great industry within the lifetime of the navel’s discoverer.

At the same seminar a Professor James Gibbons of the Stanford Department of Electrical Engineering downgrades technology by saying that the most it can do for "us in solving the imminent catastrophe of world overpopulation and insufficient resources is to delay that catastrophe by a few years." Professor Gibbons thinks we must all accept a reduction in the standard of living if we are to have any hope for the future.

Well, so we must if our anti-technologists, for the fancied sake of a few caribou who couldn’t care less about the loss of a sliver of Arctic land, insist on holding up the building of a needed oil pipeline for seven years. So we must if the Sierra Club activists keep virtually uninhabited wastes in the Powder River area of Wyoming and Montana from becoming the center of a coal mining industry capable of giving us power that now comes at great expense from the Middle East.

We fail not because our engineers have lost their skill but because the aims of men have suddenly become much smaller than they were in the Golden Fifties. The engineer is perfectly capable of winning through to new vistas of plenty, and if there is pollution to be fought as a by-product, the engineer can take care of that in his stride once he gets the signal from the people.

Maybe the intellectual climate is about to take a turn for the better. Last year an English economist, Wilfred Beckerman, wrote his witty Two Cheers for the Affluent Society in which he proved the "ecosystem" could do little for man and beast unless there was an economic surplus to turn into water purification and so forth. Now we have Mr. Florman’s defense of the artist-engineer, a fit companion book to Two Cheers. Incidentally, St. Martin’s Press has published both books, a sign of true sanity.

RACE AND ECONOMICS by Thomas Sowell (New York: David McKay and Company, 1975) 276 PP., $9.95.  

Reviewed by Allan C. Brownfeld

IF ONE WERE TO SURVEY what has been written in the U.S. about the racial question during the past quarter century, he would be hard pressed to find a more eloquent and honest presentation than this book by professor Thomas Sowell, a black economist now on the faculty of the University of California at Los Angeles. It deserves wide readership — among members of all races.

Dr. Sowell, a firm advocate of the free market, declares that "Race makes a difference in economic transactions as in all other areas of life," but he denies that the black experience in America is radically different from that of other groups.

Although blacks arrived here during the colonial period, groups which came later — such as the Irish and the Italians — have moved ahead faster. Some have identified race as the retarding factor, but this is a mistaken view, Dr. Sowell argues. It "is not the time . . . of arrival in America, but (1) the time of being freed from slavery, and (2) the time of movement from the rural south into a modern, industrial and commercial economy . . . "

Blacks "had to undergo two major drastic transformations within two or three generations. They had first to adjust to freedom and individual responsibility for feeding, clothing and housing themselves. This adjustment had to be made in an economy and society devastated by war . . . . The second great adjustment was to urban living — an experience which had proved shattering to European immigrants from similar rural backgrounds before them. Most of today’s black urban population has been in the city only two generations, and many of the poorest and most problem-ridden, less than that."

The experiences of the Irish immigrant in the 19th century and the black urban dweller of the 20th are, argues Dr. Sowell, very similar. In 1888, William Dean Howells noted that "the settlement of an Irish family in one of our suburban neighborhoods" strikes a "mortal pang" in the old residents. Henry George applied the phrase "human garbage" to the immigrants of the 1800′s and H. G. Wells doubted that they could be absorbed into society.

Dr. Sowell writes that, "The Irish were prominent among the immigrant groups exhibiting the usual symptoms of social pathology among people at the bottom. They had very high rates of death from tuberculosis . . . as well as high rates of insanity, a disproportionate number of widows and orphans and inmates of poor-houses, as well as very large overrepresentation among those arrested and imprisoned."

Of the several 19th century immigrant groups, the Jews advanced most quickly. The reason dates back to their distant past — as did the corresponding failure of other groups to advance more quickly. He writes that, "In one important respect, medieval Jews were very fortunate in the particular form of occupational discrimination practiced against them. They were forbidden to engage in those occupations which were central to feudalism — those involving the land … and were therefore forced into urban, commercial and financial occupations, which would of course later turn out to be central to the modern capitalist economy."

Thus, argues the author, blacks, Poles, Irish, Italians and other groups came from a rural and illiterate past which had to be overcome. Prejudice and discrimination was not, in reality, blind hatred, but represented an aversion to the vast differences between these groups and the urban American population. As they acclimated and succeeded, the prejudice largely ended.

The most successful non-white group was the Japanese. They met discrimination, and during World War II were interned by the U.S. Government. Yet, their economic advance continued. Neither they nor the even more successful Jews looked for government aid or assistance. They simply educated themselves, acquired the skills necessary to succeed, and made dramatic economic progress. Contrasting the Japanese approach to that of today’s liberal desire for governmental intervention in the economy, Dr. Sowell notes that, "Legally, Japanese-Americans never received full restitution for their wartime losses. . . . The actual settlement payments amounted to no more than ten cents on the dollar. The Japanese-Americans, however, did not put their emphasis on trying to get justice, but rather on trying to get ahead. This they did."

It is Dr. Sowell’s conclusion that, "political power is not a necessary condition for economic advance. . . . The Irish were the most politically successful of American minorities. They dominated political life in a number of American cities by the middle of the 19th century. Yet . . . the bulk of Irish-Americans was still predominantly in unskilled and menial occupations in the last decade of the century…. Emphasis on promoting economic advancement has produced far more progress than attempts to redress past wrongs."

It is the author’s belief that liberal and interventionist programs — minimum wage laws, rent control, school busing — do more harm than good in assisting black Americans to advance economically. Concerning the minimum wage he writes: "minimum wage laws are not passed for the purpose of racial exclusion, but the actual economic effects do not depend upon the intentions of those who establish a . . . situation. The net effect of any . . . arrangement which sets the rate of pay above that required to attract the number of qualified workers needed is to make it cheaper to discriminate in deciding who not to hire." Similarly, he writes, "Rent control reduces the cost of discrimination in housing, and enables ethnic boundaries to be maintained longer than otherwise." Welfare, in particular, has made many blacks wards of the state and has deadened the incentive needed to progress.

Of the so-called "experts" who have produced programs such as urban renewal — meant to help the poor, but proving counter-productive—Dr. Sowell asks for a healthy skepticism: "Everyone understands that when a representative of a soup company tells us that his product makes the best lunch, a healthy skepticism is in order. But when a housing ‘expert’ unveils the latest plan to ‘save the cities’ or a member of the education lobby asks for expanded ‘opportunities’ for youth to consume his product at taxpayer expense, there is a tendency to regard them as wise men promoting the public interest."

Every negative situation faced by blacks today, argues Dr. Sowell, was faced at an earlier time by other immigrant groups. The future success of blacks, he believes, is to look carefully at the qualities which other groups developed to improve their condition: "Among the characteristics associated with success is a future orientation —a belief in a pattern of behavior that sacrifices present comforts and enjoyments while preparing for future success."

Today’s minorities, Dr. Sowell believes, are not really far behind the 19th century immigrant groups at similar stages of development. The answer, he believes, lies within the groups themselves — not with the larger society. If government would simply stop meddling in such affairs and throwing up roadblocks — such as union shops which have notoriously kept blacks out of skilled crafts and license laws which restrict entry into many jobs—progress would be more rapid. Prejudice, the author argues, is not eliminated by carrying placards against it but by removing its causes. The small degree of blind racism which remained would be of little consequence.

This book, hopefully, will become a landmark in the literature of race relations and its relationship to economic success. It is an eloquent plea for freedom and free enterprise from a black intellectual about whom we will be hearing a great deal in the future.

¹ Time, February 10, 1975, pp. 70-71.


FAITH AND FREEDOM: A Biographical Sketch of a Great American, John Howard Pew compiled by Mary Sennholz. (Grove City, Pa., Grove City College, 1975) 179 PP.

Reviewed by Mark B. Spangler

"We never plan anything. I think there’s got to be more central planning. . . . People may think badly of the idea simply because anything that smells of government and planning stinks. To me it makes sense." Those are the words of Henry Ford II, and they express adequately the most significant change American society has undergone over the course of this century. Government has been sanctioned solver of all problems, particularly in the realm of economics. Today the popular search for economic well-being is by way of special privileges or money transfers from the government.

Instructors and students enjoy the use of federal and state aid at schools. Urban renewal officials use federal grants to reconstruct communities. Failing industries petition for federal subsidies as do bankrupt cities. "Charity" has come to mean distributing food stamps, unemployment relief, old age care, health aid, and so on. If the government is not called upon to subsidize, then it is expected to control certain actions of individuals. The federal government controls prices that are too high or too low; it regulates competition that is too much or too little. By issuing licenses and permits, the state decides who can enter an occupation and who can build what and where. Employers are told whom they can employ and under what conditions; new workers can be told to join a union. And so it goes today — utilizing government for the benefit of one at the expense of another’s liberty or income. Unfortunately, the play does not end happily. History has seen such performances time and again and knows the outcome.

Consider the following, in direct contrast to the present picture:

To J. Howard Pew, every wanton restraint to individual liberty whether practiced by a dictator or a popular government, was a degree of tyranny. He opposed every form of government intervention with the creative activity of man. With heavy heart he watched the growth of government in Washington and saw its bureaucracy encroach upon the traditional freedoms of Americans. To him central planning and control meant denial of individual freedom to plan and control. Therefore in countless speeches, he pleaded the case for individual freedom and the private property order, which to him was "the great American Heritage."

Who was J. Howard Pew? He was an industrialist, researcher, developer, manager, and corporate president; he was an entrepreneur of the oil industry. His career covered nearly three quarters of this century and witnessed the transformation of a free society into a highly controlled society. He saw faith in free men discarded for faith in the state. "A free economy is only possible when all people stand equal before the law. That is the principle laid down in our constitution. . . . But this principle has been violated time after time. . . ." was one way J. Howard Pew described the present course of America.

His actions and words endorsed freedom and free enterprise; he rejected the free society’s only alternative, the centrally commanded society and economy. As an "economist" he saw the efficiency of free markets; as a person he saw the morality of individual freedom. Mrs. Sennholz reports that Howard Pew was defiant and recalcitrant to the authorities of the world, but malleable to eternal principles. Faith and Freedom traces the application of Mr. Pew’s principles to the domains of education, economics, industry, charity, religion, the importance of America’s heritage, and the problems which America faces today.

How did Howard Pew approach the problem of serving consumer demands for higher education? He used the same cost-cutting, managerially-efficient approach that enables enterprises to bring all other goods and services to the masses. Certainly he never looked to government to subsidize his enterprise. Profitable enterprises plow the company’s earnings back into the business to expand and to continue to serve consumers. Comprehending the economic importance of competition, Mr. Pew spoke against business using politics to restrict competitors: "We believe in competition for ourselves. . . . We have never sought . . . a sheltered position. . . . If somebody else can serve the public better in quality or price, he is entitled to the business."

He wisely recognized that in a free market employers must compete for labor’s services; hence, he took a personal interest in his employees. Howard Pew initiated a stock purchase plan for his employees; and during the Great Depression he refused to make general layoffs or wage reductions. He understood how free market prices regulate an economy and direct its production; price controls only restrain economic growth. Mrs. Sennholz has included in the book one of his 1934 speeches relating the damaging repercussions that could have been brought upon the oil industry if at that time the government had imposed controls just on transportation. He gives a clear description of the process by which federal controls snowball once initiated.

The major evil of our time is inflation, and Howard Pew knew that inflation is the expansion of the money supply by federal officials. It is such expansion which causes prices to rise in a general fashion, thus bringing instability to the economy and making calculation almost impossible. "War, pestilences, plagues, and catastrophes rarely bring about the fall of a nation; but inflation has been responsible for the downfall of many great empires of the past," he said.

J. Howard Pew saw that government security is a fraud: "it has nothing excepting only that which it takes from the people. The key to security is production," The greatest economic charity to Mr. Pew was every productive effort that enables other individuals to become independent of alms. He thought the greatest danger to charity was the rise of compulsory benevolence by an omnipotent provider state. Above all, while voluntary activity strengthens social cooperation, the coercive redistribution by the state generates conflict and breeds corruption. Charity is a moral obligation that is comprehended in the realms of religion and education; charity is not forced giving.

America’s economy did not become prosperous and strong by mere accident, nor has it deteriorated to its present state by pure chance. Ideologies shape and govern society. A faith in free men gave America its strength; a faith in the state has been undermining the foundation of America. Howard Pew put it this way:

If you believe in freedom for the individual, you must be opposed to any encroachment of government on the rights of individuals. If you believe that everyone is entitled to the opportunity for an education, you cannot believe in government control of that education. If you believe in a free market you cannot justify government price controls. If these are your principles, they admit no compromise, for you cannot mix right with wrong any more than you can mix contaminated water with pure water without having the whole water contaminated — and it makes no difference how little contaminated water there may be in the mixture.

Faith and Freedom is simple and straightforward; it is a common sense expression of the actions and thoughts of an industrial genius defending freedom and free enterprise. 


March 1976


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December 2014

Unfortunately, educating people about phenomena that are counterintuitive, not-so-easy to remember, and suggest our individual lack of human control (for starters) can seem like an uphill battle in the war of ideas. So we sally forth into a kind of wilderness, an economic fairyland. We are myth busters in a world where people crave myths more than reality. Why do they so readily embrace untruth? Primarily because the immediate costs of doing so are so low and the psychic benefits are so high.
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The full text of Hazlitt's famed primer on economic principles: read this first!


Frederic Bastiat's timeless defense of liberty for all. Once read and understood, nothing ever looks the same.


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Leonard Read took the lessons of entrepreneurship with him when he started his ideological venture.


No one knows how to make a pencil: Leonard Read's classic (Audio, HTML, and PDF)