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
"When Samuel Clegg proposed to light the streets of a
" ‘Impossible,’ said electrical engineers when Alexander Graham Bell began his experiments with the telephone in 1874. ‘This is the triumph of folly.’ Contemporaries saw
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.
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
Nor need we look abroad for examples of the dismal failure of compulsory collectivism; plenty of evidence is to be found in the
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
1 "Freedom, Authority and Decentralization," Harvard Business Review XXXVI (1958), p. 70.