All Commentary
Saturday, September 1, 1962

A Healthy Skeptism


Even the experts may be wrong, and a May 1962 commentary from the Smith Kline & French Labora­tories cites these examples:

“For centuries men dreamed of flying. But experts were skepti­cal. Baron Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibnitz, the German philosopher-mathematician, doubted that men would ever fly: ‘Here God has, so to speak, put a bar across man’s path.’ The French astronomer Joseph Lalande demonstrated that flight was a scientific impossi­bility.

“After George Stephenson’s lo­comotives reached the speed of 30 miles an hour, the Munich College of Physicians issued an earnest warning against railway travel. Trees and houses flashing past the eyes would bring on head­aches and vertigo. In England it was predicted that traveling at 30 miles an hour would cause in­sanity.

“When Samuel Clegg proposed to light the streets of a London borough with gas, the borough council vetoed his plan. Expert scientific opinion maintained a filled ‘gasometer’ was hazardous. Lighting a jet might cause all the gas in the tank to explode, reduc­ing the city to ruins.

” ‘Impossible,’ said electrical en­gineers when Alexander Graham Bell began his experiments with the telephone in 1874. ‘This is the triumph of folly.’ Contemporaries saw Bell not as a genius, but as a troublesome youngster who neg­lected his professional duties to follow a will-o’-the-wisp.”

The commentary then ques­tioned the advisability of proposed legislation that would give the Secretary of Health, Educa­tion, and Welfare the power to pass on the effectiveness of new drugs. This might postpone in­definitely vital contributions to the health of our nation.

Broader Implications

The point is well taken with reference to drugs, but it has broader implications involving many other facets of our lives. The course of progress would be slow indeed if every innovation of man had first to be approved by the government. As B. E. Kline and N. H. Martin point out: “the chief characteristic of the com­mand hierarchy, or any group in our society, is not knowledge but ignorance. Consider that any one person can know only a fraction of what is going on around him. Much of what that person knows or believes will be false rather than true…. At any given time, vastly more is not known than is known, either by one person in a command chain or by all the or­ganization. It seems possible, then, that in organizing ourselves into a hierarchy of authority for the purpose of increasing effi­ciency, we may really be institu­tionalizing ignorance. While mak­ing better use of what the few know, we are making sure that the great majority are prevented from exploring the dark areas be­yond our knowledge.”’

A Device for Learning

While it is true that even the experts may be wrong, this is not to deny that a healthy skepticism is a desirable human trait. It is a device for learning, as well as a protection against unwise schemes others would foist upon us. And without a good measure of en­lightened skepticism, one stands faint chance of becoming an ex­pert in any field.

Therein lies the greatest dam­age from socialism or any other compulsory government control of our lives. Such systems breed mediocrity and preclude the emergence or ascendancy of the wise. The notion that no drug is fit for use until government has given its stamp of approval finds its corollary in the view that everything the government recom­mends is unquestionably safe and acceptable. When eternal vigilance gives way to passive approval of “the guaranteed life,” the bless­ings of liberty are lost— and with them goes man’s best hope for safety, security, and progress.

As Professor F. A. Hayek sug­gests in The Constitution of Liberty (page 29): “… the case for individual freedom rests chiefly on the recognition of the inevitable ignorance of all of us concerning a great many of the factors on which the achievement of our ends and welfare depends.”

Witness the Failures

Around the world is abundant testimony to the failure of com­pulsory collectivism to yield the security and progress promised by political leaders. The more com­plex the five-year plans and regu­lations and controls— the more highly institutionalized the ignor­ance— the more anxious seem the “beneficiaries” to escape to the comparative freedom outside the curtains and walls. Witness those who have risked their lives at the Berlin Wall, or those driven by starvation in Red China to refuge in Hong Kong, or those fleeing from Castro’s Cuba to Miami and other havens. Witness the flight of doctors from Britain‘s Na­tional Health Service, the flight of private capital and managerial talent and skilled personnel from any nationalized industry or en­terprise or profession. Witness the shortage of food that inevita­bly follows agrarian reform, the shortage of housing in rent-con­trolled Paris and other cities and countries where government has taken charge, the shortage of coal in Newcastle when British mines are nationalized, the scarcity of everything consumers want as soon as government attempts to give “to each according to need.”

Nor need we look abroad for ex­amples of the dismal failure of compulsory collectivism; plenty of evidence is to be found in the United States of America.

What security have farmers found in surrendering to govern­ment the freedom to choose when to sow and when to reap? What greater waste of natural re­sources, of capital and human effort, has ever occurred in any land at any time than in the name of agricultural conservation and soil bank programs which leave hanging over the market unman­ageable stockpiles of wheat, corn, cotton, peanuts, tobacco, and other farm products? How many Ameri­can farmers today believe this to be a safe way to earn a liveli­hood? And what safety or secur­ity does agricultural price and pro­duction control afford the con­sumers of food and fiber? Or, those who pay the taxes?

How safe is it to be in business in a tariff-protected industry, or one favored by import quotas against competing foreign goods? How safe to be a franchised, regu­lated, and controlled railroad or airline or communications facility or any other “public utility”? How safe to be a supplier or distributor of power and light, dependent on TVA or REA or some other government agency for the other end of the service?

How safe is government-ap­proved fluoridation of the water supply? Or mass innoculation against smallpox or polio? Are cigarettes with government-ap­proved advertising slogans safer than some other brand? Does the government stamp of approval truly relieve suppliers and con­sumers of foods and drugs of any further responsibility concerning their use?

How safe from exploitation are workmen obliged by government regulation to join a union and abide by its rules to gain or hold a job? How safe are potential em­ployees who can’t find employers willing or able to hire them at the government-decreed minimum wage? How safe is the promise of unemployment compensation from a government unable to balance its own budget? How safe the promise of old age benefits solely contingent upon the willingness of younger taxpayers to forever foot the bill?

Indeed, how safe is any promise or bond payable in dollars of con­stantly diminishing buying power? How sound is a dollar, anyway, under a deficit-spending government that pushes its obli­gations through the controlled fractional reserve banking system to more or less continuously and arbitrarily expand the supply of money and credit? And how safe is a man’s life when his property may thus be diminished indirectly, if not taken directly, by a govern­ment that respects few if any of its constitutional bounds? How safe are we in using the force of government to get “our share” on grounds that “everyone else is do­ing it”? How safe can one be if he abandons personal obligations and responsibilities and votes to have the policeman take charge of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”? Since when is it safe to thus “institutionalize ignor­ance” and back it with guns?

Even the experts may be wrong; and the price of freedom is a healthy skepticism about turning over to them the political power to rule one’s life.

 

***

The greater a man’s freedom, the more does he become dependent on himself, and well-disposed toward others.

Wilhelm Von Humboldt

Foot Notes

1 “Freedom, Authority and Decentrali­zation,” Harvard Business Review XXXVI (1958), p. 70.


  • Paul L. Poirot was a long-time member of the staff of the Foundation for Economic Education and editor of its journal, The Freeman, from 1956 to 1987.