The Human Side of Human Beings: Fountainhead of the Free Economy


Mr. Abelson, editor, writer, and lifelong stu­dent of economic and social problems, is now an executive in the copy department of Comp­ton Advertising, Inc.

About 2,300 years ago Aristotle described man as the uniquely "political animal." He went fur­ther than this, of course, and elaborated the precise political and other arrangements which he considered suitable for the human community. And in his scheme of things he included human slavery as a "natural" custom because "on grounds of both reason and fact, from the hour of birth, some are marked out for subjection, others for rule."

Plato’s star pupil, for all his brilliance, could not reason beyond the limited biological data avail­able to him. He did not know, for example, that man is not the only species with a political and social history which includes "natural slaves." A nonhuman instance is that of the Polyergus, a species of ants which has been completely dependent on a slave system through­out the millions of years of its existence. Aristotle might have been impressed by the fact, brought to light through modern research, that the Polyergus "from the hour of birth . . . are born to be masters." Their jaws are like sickles, excellent for fighting but almost useless for manipulating food in the tiny quantities they require. They need to be fed by other ants who are "from the hour of birth . . . marked for subjection."

So they raid and subdue the ap­propriate species and continue to perpetuate a neat social setup in which the higher-born perform the noble arts of warfare and political management while the lower-born toil at the essential chores of sus­tenance—an arrangement not anatomically too unlike the social system prevalent in Aristotle’s time. Here was an example, taken from the unyielding and unalter­able rules of nature itself, which Aristotle could have pointed to as a paradigm for his own contrived human system. Perhaps he would have done so, for he did not under­stand how wide and deep is the gulf between the meanest human slave and the highest subhuman animal.

The slave system of the Greeks—and of other advanced civiliza­tions—came and went, while that of the Polyergus still lives on, seemingly destined to continue indefinitely into the future. Why should this be? Why should slavery be a fixed custom among these social insects and a fluid one in the human community? We find the answer in elementary and elemen­tal biological facts, facts which are not often looked at sharply enough to reveal their profound significance for human social thinking.

Of Ants and Men

Ever since—and perhaps before—King Solomon admonished slug­gards that they "go to the ant . . . consider her ways and be wise," men have been practicing the intriguing art of formulating anal­ogies between ant and human societies. And, of course, they have found in those analogies warnings of impending human debacle and lessons for the reform of our own social ways; for the ants are re­markably successful as social crea­tures. Their unwavering industry and unquestioning adherence to effective social customs have left them free from the convulsions and upheavals suffered by human societies throughout the ages.

The ants have no problems in their interpersonal relationship. They undergo no internal social cataclysms. They have no jails, no corrective or psychiatric institutions. They are never bedeviled by juvenile delinquency nor by any of the other personal and social dif­ficulties which have made social work so urgent and important in the human community. Each mem­ber of each of the 1,500 or more species of ants is born with a pre­determined place in the social structure, and he keeps his place without complaints and without re­grets. By virtue of unremitting industry and an unfailing capacity to do exactly the right thing at the right time the ants build homes and communities for themselves that serve their purpose of survival to perfection. And they have been performing these marvels of social organization for millions of years, with every prospect of sur­viving in the same way for millions of years to come.

Fundamental Differences

The simple biological fact is that the ant society has an organic structure entirely unlike that of the human community. Each ant is, in a realistic sense, an organ of the total group which in turn de­pends for its survival upon the ef­fective functioning of its organs, just as an individual body depends upon the functioning of its vital parts. Though ants do have diverse habits and individuality, these characteristics are limited in their expression to performance of pre­determined tasks. There is no so­cial mobility in an ant community, no opportunity to alter the bio­logically established customs. Even if an especially talented ant were to arise, it could not reorganize this rigid communal structure without performing unimaginable biological miracles. And in that case the ants would no longer be ants.

Humans, on the other hand, ex­hibit no such biological rigidity. We are born, it is true, with lim­ited or definable physical and psychological abilities, but these, despite Aristotle, do not fix our status or capacity for status in the social organization. Even the most humble slave in ancient Greece had feelings and desires, poten­tial and actual abilities incompar­ably and irreversibly different from those of the ants—and from all other subhuman creatures. No in­dividual human being is born to be a plumber or a playwright, though experience may show that one or the other occupation may, indeed, be the most rewarding possible in terms of aptitude and because of environmental opportunity. But that is the point: we cannot know what a given human is best fitted for until he has had the widest possible opportunities to explore his interests and test his capaci­ties. Moreover, we know now that heredity is not all-limiting; cul­tural situations often draw out un­suspected abilities, if not in a given individual, often in his children. A quite ordinary male and an even more ordinary female can—and did—become the parents of a Da Vinci. Such an astounding change in one generation is unthinkable and impossible in an ant society or among any other creatures ex­cept man.

We can see, then, that Aristotle’s concept of an ideal master-slave society is inapplicable to humans however much it may stand up as descriptive of certain insect soci­eties. The human being is biologi­cally unfit for a rigid social struc­ture; in the very nature of his total being he requires a plastic or fluid environment if he is to suc­ceed in utilizing his potentials, potentials which are not even re­motely existent within any other species.

But what about the vast amount of evidence, adduced by modern investigators, which so definitely reveals a "human side of animals"? Comparative psychologists and scientists in related fields have convincingly proved that apes have thinking capacity, birds an aes­thetic sense, rats the ability to learn, to mention just a few of in­numerable such instances tending to indicate that in the final sense man is unique in degree rather than kind.

The Uniqueness of Humanity

Even if we accept the conclusion that man is nothing more than an advanced animal, the degree of his advancement is so great as to put him beyond comparison with lower animals in terms of the scope and richness of life’s op­portunities. It is only necessary to repeat for the record that man’s capacity for abstract thinking, his improvisation and accumulation of culture, and many other features establish his remarkable unique­ness in the world of living crea­tures. By comparison with man’s achievements all human-like facul­ties discovered in lower animals are of the most rudimentary sort and just barely measurable. How­ever, the cataloging of these evidences of man’s uniqueness is only a way of looking at effects. Why does man improvise and accumu­late? Why does he so restlessly keep changing his way of life? Why does he roam the world—per­haps the universe!—forever alter­ing the face of natural things?

Questions such as these cannot be finally answered until the mys­tery of existence itself is unveiled. Yet we can answer them for prac­tical purposes in terms of a "mechanical" feature of man’s in­herited equipment.

Thus, Aristotle classified about 500 separate and distinct species of living creatures. Today, that once formidable catalog has grown to include more than one million species. And the enlightening fact is that man and man alone among all this vast array of creatures possesses an inborn need to satisfy new, cumulative, and accumulat­ing desires not directly related to the maintenance of life itself. No­where among the million or more of man’s fellow creatures on earth has this characteristic been dis­covered, even in rudimentary form.

Desire for Change

This implacable desire for change and variety is the inborn motive force which puts man’s ad­vanced brain capacity to work. It is the lever which has lifted humankind above the level of bar­barism. It is the necessity which becomes the perpetual mother of invention. It is the irrepressible conspirator which contrives to keep the cauldron of dissatisfac­tions forever at a boiling point. It is the magician which compels concepts like "old-fashioned" and "out-of-date" to arise from no­where. It is the progenitor of bore­dom and, at the same time, the counterforce of inertia. It is the supreme artisan which has made of the basic problems of biological survival—sustenance, sex, and threat of attack by other creatures—a means instead of an end. It is the component of man’s biological inheritance, for all its mystery, which has given him the incentive and the power to overcome his physical insufficiencies and to out­wit all other creatures and nature itself in the struggle for survival. Without it man would be nothing more than a tricky sort of animal, capable of performing ingenious but sterile mental feats, yet in­capable of surviving the grim physical battle with other crea­tures far superior in mass and muscle.

Man is not satisfied, except at the lowest levels and under extra­ordinary circumstances, with mere survival. Like the lower animals he must meet the vital, strictly biological, and primary needs of keeping alive. But, for one thing, he satisfies or attempts to satisfy these needs with extraordinary embellishments. For another, he looks upon them only as necessary chores required to establish a base for true living. And the ambit of this truer or higher life includes derived, acquired, and secondary needs, needs that are psychological, socially invented, discretionary.

Beyond the Bounds of Necessity

This seeking of satisfactions that are outside the scope of neces­sity comprises the essentially human part of human beings. How­ever sharp may be the anatomical and physical analogies between man on the one hand and other creatures on the other, however intriguing may be human and sub­human psychological similarities, this drive remains to mark the startling uniqueness of human­kind. Wearying, imponderable, often frightening, it is still ines­capable; we cannot turn our backs on it, we cannot attenuate it, we cannot live without it.

There are, of course, social phil­osophies and religions which be­little, or minimize, or seek to deracinate this uniquely human characteristic. In the cause of either peace or salvation of the soul they propose a life of denial and rejection, a "return" to simple ways in which bare physical sur­vival and minimum comforts sup­posedly would provide an environ­ment conducive to the develop­ment of a state of mind more in tune with man’s spiritual needs for this world or the next. But in the long run they are fighting a losing battle: this strange and un­remitting drive manifests itself in a way that will not be denied. Where in the world today are there more than feeble protests against the onrushing advance of a tech­nological culture which promises an unpredictable flow of "better things for better living”?

Surplus for Progress

A more urgent problem in our attitude toward the human side of human beings is presented by col­lectivistic economic and social theories. Until the technological break-through of this century—accompanied or made possible by the mass-oriented character of the American economy—the question of survival itself was the most pressing problem faced by the great mass of mankind. The satis­faction of discretionary desires and the enjoyment of refined com­forts were luxuries reserved for the few. It is understandable that under such circumstances economic and social theories would arise de­signed to "spread the wealth" and assure a more decent survival for the many. Since survival as such must precede development of the refinements of human life, there is no logical basis on which excep­tion can be taken to this goal.

However, in seeking this goal the tendency has been to lose sight of the broader human horizons. In correcting the evils of an uninhib­ited individualism there has been a movement in the direction of for­getting the individuality of each of the mass of mankind. In con­centrating on the common denom­inator requirements of survival, collectivistic theories have tended to neglect consideration of individ­ualistic needs and opportunities required by the biological fact that each human being is an extraordi­narily unique member of the aston­ishingly unique human species.

The Unplanned Benefits

It has been said before, but certainly can stand saying again, that central economic planning, however well-intentioned, can pro­vide, if at all, only for minimum needs and commonly-shared essen­tial services. Even this is a the­oretical matter. No collectivistic economy thus far has proved its ability to accomplish this basic aim of assuring a decency level of sur­vival for its members. But in the event such an economy should suc­ceed it could go no further, for the complexity and spontaneity of in­dividual human desires present a calculus of permutations and com­binations beyond solution except by individuals, each acting freely on his own behalf.

Ultimately, it is the unplanned benefits of an economy rather than the planned welfare which com­prise the area of man’s opportunity to transcend survival as such and fulfill his human potentials. Off­hand it might seem as if an ideal economy could be improvised in which survival needs were assured by central planning in such a way as to leave the quest for nonvital satisfactions in the hands of in­dividuals. The difficulty here is that humans, unlike other animals, vary to an astonishing degree in their choices of items required to satisfy vital as well as nonvital needs. And the fact remains that the temperamental component of humans which accounts for this situation is as much a part of their biological heritage as is the more complex brain in which this temperament has its seat.

It is only necessary to look closely at the biological nature of man, temperamental as well as physical, to realize that the free economy is not an incidental con­trivance of self-seeking men. Man does not really know what he wants. "This is a place of hope," wrote Thomas Carlyle, "and man, properly speaking, has no other possession but hope." Man "makes up his mind" as he goes along, placing great value on some desired thing one day and calling it value­less the next. Some items he values for the utility of the moment; others he treasures because they satisfy a vague craving. His life, as an individual and as a species, is an experiment in searching for an undefinable denouement or salvation.

New Adventures in Living

In the course of the few thou­sand years during which man’s truly human side has asserted it­self he has altered his way of life numerous times, accepting status and stagnation only when re­pressed by ignorance, fear, or force. But sooner or later he releases himself from the shackles of an imposed routine and strikes out for new adventures in living. The free economy is the manifestation of man’s biological need to seek satisfaction of diverse and un­predictable desires and through this process to make progress toward some higher goal. In ef­forts to escape from the uncer­tainties and burdens of his rest­less nature man may—and obviously does—experiment with planned economies. Such economies bear within themselves the most potent contradiction possible: a conflict with the irresistible bio­logical necessity of their members. Barring an unthinkable reversal of the human make-up, they are destined to fail.

Does this mean that there is no possible solution of life’s problem that promises stability, security, release from the pressure of pyra­miding desires? It probably does. It does not mean, however, that man cannot achieve a high degree of stability and security. However, it would have to be a stability based on recognition of his unique character and a security that is based on functioning effectively according to that character. In­stead of fearing and attempting to reject and escape from his uniqueness, man can utilize his spe­cial brand of courage—moral and intellectual—to face his special problem. He can accept his unique­ness for what it is, embrace it, envisage its promises, and prepare himself to make those promises realizable.

In any case, because the human side of human beings will not be denied, in the long run the free economy, in one form or another, is here, if not to stay, at least to return. This is a biological im­perative which inevitably takes precedence over the transitory "historical necessity" of collectiv­ist doctrines.    


Ideas On Liberty
Profound Differences 

It is my confirmed opinion based upon diverse considerations and upon prolonged thought, that one of the most constructive and harmony producing moves that we, as inquiring human beings can make, is to get acquainted with, in the most scientific manner possible, the inherent differences that exist among mem­bers of the human family. . . . Why choose our own schools, our own amusements, our own books, our own church? Why not have someone tell us what to eat, what to drink, whom to marry, and when we can have children? The fundamental reason is that each of us is a different individual—with profound differences—and each of us wants to live his own life. . . . There is not the slightest danger that humanity will put up indefinitely with any scheme which involves thoroughgoing regimentation. It is not human nature to tolerate this. There are too many potential Patrick Henrys, and they will continue to reproduce.

Roger J. Williams, "Chemical Anthropology—An Open Door" from American Scientist, March 1958


May 1958

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