Dr. Coleson is Professor of Economics at Taylor University, Upland, Indiana.
A lot of so-called liberals have talked about "scientific socialism" so long now that the world has well-nigh fallen for the delusion that socialism is, indeed, scientific. While certainly a number of scientists, engineers, and technicians have had a distressing affinity for socialist and communist causes along with a number of other shortcomings and vices which they share with the general population, it simply is not true that pure science as such has a pro-collectivist bias. In fact, when it seemed that everyone else was going "liberal" back in the New Deal days, it was the insights of science coupled with an elementary course in economics which helped to hold the writer steady when the issues were not clear or well understood. Some things simply could not be true by the very nature of the world even if everyone approved, and I found myself a lonesome minority of one. At least this has saved me the embarrassment that many a well-meaning individual has experienced who must now make his painful way back from a bankrupt utopia, like the Prodigal Son returning from the swine pen of the Far Country.
Economic Perpetual Motion
Actually, New Dealism, the bright hope of multiplied millions of Americans in the 1930′s, had a strangely familiar ring to one brought up on science and mathematics. We used to have that trouble in engineering, too. A number of craftsmen, long on mechanical skill but short on theory, have wasted their lives trying to rig ingenious machines that would achieve perpetual motion, or simply, something for nothing.
Although there are doubtless as many schemes as individuals, the following example may suffice to illustrate what is meant. Having grown weary of buying gas for the family car, we invent an electric automobile. It is all very simple. We mount a generator and a motor side by side with each running the other as in Figure 1. We assume, of course, that there will be a considerable "unearned increment" of energy that can be used to drive the automobile down the road. We need a push to get it started, but then the "multiplier" takes over, and we have an abundance of power—and all for nothing—until we put on the brakes at the end of the way. It is a very good scheme, except it won’t work.
The motor and generator might be coaxed to very nearly run each other but, since there is friction, a little outside power would need to be added to keep them both going. If any work is demanded of the combination, there must be an additional input of electricity commensurate with the task to be performed.
Our Persistent Politicians
Most everyone in the sciences quit looking for something for nothing quite a while ago, but the politicians are still at it in full force with no indications even yet that they sense even vaguely that the whole business is impossible. Our whole Operation Bootstraps by which we tried to lift ourselves out of the Great Depression under the New Deal reeked with perpetual motionism, as did certain popular private schemes as the chain letter craze and the Townsend Plan. They never worked and business stagnated all during the 1930′s. Having learned nothing and forgotten nothing in the intervening years, we are still trying those same outworn schemes. We have a principle in science, which is used to discourage such hopeless endeavor, called the Law of Conservation of Mass and Energy. In plain English, it says you can’t get something for nothing.
Frictional Losses Lead to Poverty
Now there are better and worse ways of doing things. Suppose we want to lift a 450-pound barrel up and set it on a shipping dock three feet high as illustrated in Figure 2. It will require a minimum of3 x 450 or 1,350 foot pounds of work to lift it up there. Given the size of the task, nothing on earth can reduce the figure below 1,350 foot pounds. Since we can’t lift 450 pounds directly, we may whittle the task down to size by pushing it up the ramp. In this case we exert a lesser force over a longer distance, but nothing will reduce the minimum figure. If we use a jack screw, an electric hoist, or a stick of dynamite, the force required is the same. If we ladle the contents up with a teaspoon into another container and lift the empty barrel up later, we have gotten out of nothing. Indeed, we most certainly have wasted a considerable amount of additional effort to no purpose.
The engineer of today has long since given up trying to get something for nothing: he is earnestly striving to get as close to 100 per cent efficiency as possible—the irreducible minimum of effort necessary to perform the task. Frictional losses are still high; a steam engine wastes 80 to 85 per cent of its power input, and an automobile as much as 75 per cent. Diesels do somewhat better and, recently, reaction engines (rockets or jets) have been developed which are very nearly as efficient as our older engines were wasteful. Still we aren’t getting something for nothing. Indeed, we are only beginning to get our money’s worth.
To Discipline the Mind
All of these calculations may seem irrelevant and uninteresting to the person not trained in science and mathematics. However, these rigorous disciplines do something to one’s mind. It simply is not possible to tell many of us that the government can give without first taking. It is sheer rubbish that there are all sorts of colossal tasks—education, roads, housing, care of the poor and aged, besides subsidizing every group you can think of—jobs that the states simply cannot do but which Uncle Sam can easily handle. Nor can you tell us that inefficiency adds up to prosperity. John Maynard Keynes might convince well-nigh the whole world that pyramid building made ancient
A person who spends his life trying to invent and devise more efficient ways of doing the world’s work in industry, or striving to produce enough food on the farm to at least meet mankind’s minimum needs, necessarily bitterly resents deliberate efforts in the opposite direction, disguised to confuse the issue in the public mind. We are rapidly coming to the state described by Thomas Jefferson a century and a half ago:
If we run into such debts, as that we must be taxed in our meat and in our drink, in our necessaries and our comforts, in our labors and our amusements… as the people of England are, our people, like them, must come to labor sixteen hours in the twenty-four, give the earnings of fifteen of these to the government for their debts and daily expenses; and the sixteenth being insufficient to afford us bread, we must… be glad to obtain subsistence by hiring ourselves (to the government) to rivet their chains on the necks of our fellow-sufferers.
To several million American farmers who can scarcely make a go of it when they work eight hours a day in a shop in town and as many or more on the land,
The Logic of Laissez Faire
The old laissez-faire’ doctrine of a self-regulating economy managed by the "invisible hand" is remarkably like the science of ecology, which insists that Nature balances the budget, gives everyone his due, and keeps the myriad forms of life in check as long as man does not upset the natural scheme of things. The disastrous results of human interference are well known, as for example, the story of how the timid rabbit well nigh took over the continent of
Professor Pavlov, the noted Russian physiologist, also found in the workings of the body examples of how artificial inhibitions wrought havoc. These he compared with the paralysis produced by the communist system of national planning. He should have known.
Of course, it can be argued that such analogies drawn from mathematics, mechanics, and biology do not prove that the free system is appropriate in economics and that the fantastic schemes of the national planners lead only to misery and ruin. But as Winston Smith says in Orwell’s 1984: "If two and two are four, the rest follows."
¹ Laissez faire is here used, not in the sense of doing as one wills regardless of how that might infringe upon the rights of others, but in the classical sense of freedom to produce, exchange, travel, and the like according to one’s own interest within the bounds of due respect for the lives and property of others.
Criticism Founded on Fact
One word "education" is a misnomer. We are not educating; we are domesticating. To educate is to develop latent capabilities so that one may be strong to overcome the hampering obstacles of prejudice and environment in reaching out for truth. To domesticate is to train one to accept the prejudices, and to obey the conventions, of his environment. To educate is to develop free activity. To domesticate is to train to a prescribed end for a prescribed purpose. The domesticated animal, whether a biped or a quadruped, believes what he is made to believe, and does what he is made to do. The educated being believes what appeals to his reason, and thinks for himself. To educate is to teach people how to think; to domesticate is to teach people what to think. The processes of domestication, toward which we are drifting, make for small, narrow, and prejudiced minds.
THOMAS S. CLARKE, from a Symposium in The Rotarian.