All Commentary
Friday, December 1, 1972

A Reviewer’s Notebook – 1972/12

Along toward the end of the Nineteen Twenties, the philosophy of humanism — it was called the New Humanism then, just to make it fashionable — had a short-lived revival in literary New York. The New Humanism set its face against most of the prevailing ‘isms of the day, against humanitarianism, socialism, liberalism, anarchism, progressivism or whatever. Naturally its enemies vastly outnumbered its friends, but for a brief period the New Humanism had its magazine outlets (Seward Collins’s Bookman and, to a limited extent, Lincoln Kirstein’s Hound and Horn). For one excited year Irving Babbitt, the Harvard don who had made an arch-devil out of Rousseau, and Paul Elmer More, a legendary figure who had been literary editor of The Nation before World War I (what a different Nation it had been then!), were the subject of thousands of arguments in Greenwich Village. Babbitt and More were the Old and New Testaments of the New Humanist movement, and as we searched the texts (Babbitt’s Rousseau and Romanticism and More’s Shelburne Essays) we found horrifying things. One of our group, C. Hartley Grattan, got up a book, The Critique of Humanism, to which we all contributed scornful papers. My own was a defense of the modern novel against New Humanist critics.

We hated Paul Elmer More with a special passion for his defense of property. Had he not said that, “looking at the larger good of society, we may say that the dollar is more than the man, and that the rights of property are more important than the right to life”?

(The italics were More’s.) More had written the infuriating words in 1915 in response to Socialist Morris Hilquit’s attack on the Rockefellers for their alleged hiring of “criminals and thugs to shoot the strikers” in the coal fields of Colorado. Remembering the recent executions of Sacco and Vanzetti, whom we considered victims of the propertied classes of Massachusetts, we could only conclude that Paul Elmer More was a cold-blooded enemy of humanity who deserved all that he got in our now-forgotten Critique of Humanism.

New Wars to Wage in 1929

The quarrel over the New Humanism was at the height when the stock market crashed in 1929. But as the depression snowballed, with the bread lines lengthening, literary New York soon turned to more immediate concerns. Babbitt and More were forgotten; the newer quarrels were over Howard Scott’s Technocracy, Rexford Tug-well’s Brain Trusters and the Stalin-Trotsky split in the Soviet Union. The intellectuals of the Thirties went off in several sociological directions, some of them to work for writers’ projects on the WPA, and the big tempest over the New Humanism blew no more. Since then the works of Paul Elmer More have gone out of print, and only an occasional Russell Kirk has seen fit to talk about More as though he were a living author.

The republication of a selection from More’s writings in The Essential Paul Elmer More, edited with an introduction and notes by Byron C. Lambert (Arlington House, $12.95), is an eye opener after all these years. Rereading that once-hated essay by More in defense of property, I am struck by its subtlety. What seemed, in 1929, to be a crass defense of rich men was actually nothing of the kind. More was championing the rights of property not particularly because he cared for the Rockefellers, but because he believed that the right to life could not be secure if property were not itself secure. More had written his essay before Lenin had taken over in Russia and rendered life precarious for generations to come. With tremendous foresight More questioned that “community of ownership” would “eliminate the greed and injustice of civilized life.” He had nothing to go on here beyond his observation that socialists were “notoriously quarrelsome” among themselves, yet he turned out to be eminently correct. Looking back over the long past, More found “a convincing uniformity in the way in which wealth and civilization have always gone together, and in the fact that that wealth has accumulated only when private property was secure.”

In the Worker’s Interest

It was in the interests of the working men that More defended the property relations of the capitalist order. He had noticed, he said, that nearly all that makes life more significant to men than it is to beasts is associated with possessions. This is true “with property, all the way from the food we share with the beasts, to the most refined products of the human imagination.” More was not sentimental about the workers, but he argued that those who were careless about ownership would not see to it that “labour shall receive the recompense it has bargained for” and that “the labourer, as every other man, shall be secure in the possession of what he has received.” As for the old canard that the desire for property encourages “materialism,” More said that the sure way to foster the spirit of materialism is to unsettle the material basis of social life. “The mind,” he argued, “will be free to enlarge itself in immaterial interests only when that material basis is secure, and without a certain degree of such security a man must be anxious over material things and preponderantly concerned with them.”

All this, in 1972, sounds most reasonable. What More was saying as far back as 1915 is that the property right is a human right, and that a man without possessions is inevitably at the mercy of others, and especially at the mercy of the political bureaucrats who run the State. In 1929 most of us were too stupid to see the validity of More’s reasoning.

Training for Civilization

In a foreword to Professor Lambert’s selections of “The Essential Paul Elmer More,” Russell Kirk writes that “if some of us are to fight our way to shore, we need More’s chart.” The chart is here, for the Lambert selections give us More in all his catholicity. He was immensely learned in Greek, Latin, Sanskrit and several modern languages, yet he hated the pedantry that would shun ideas in order to concentrate on such things as linguistics and archaeology. He thought Greek and Latin supplied a good discipline, but an equally important reason for studying the classics was to learn something about the rise and fall of civilizations. It was “a virile scholarship of ideas” that he was after.

More wrote long before we had a “counter-culture,” or before the modern theory of “relevance” had been elaborated. But his essay on “Natural Aristocracy” could stand for a good commentary on the cultural and educational trends of the Nineteen Sixties. Concentration on currently topical studies, he said, “results in isolating the student from the great inheritance of the past; the frequent habit of dragging him through the slums of sociology, instead of making him at home in the society of the noble dead, debauches his mind with a flabby, or inflames it with a fanatic, humanitarianism. He comes out of college… a nouveau intellectual, bearing the same relation to the man of genuine education as the nouveau riche to the man of inherited manners.”

More, of course, had not heard about “relevance.” But he knew all about cant, and he had the answer to the Sixties way back in 1915.


ENTERPRISE DENIED: Origins of the Decline of American Railroads, 1897-1917 by Albro Martin (New York: Columbia University Press, 1971, $10.95, 402 pp.)

Reviewed by Joseph M. Canfield

America grew at a phenomenal rate during the first decade of the twentieth century, and the railroads tried to expand to meet the challenge. This era produced Pennsylvania Station and Grand Central Terminal in New York and Union Station in Washington, conspicuous evidence of the desire of the railroads for expansion. Railroad buffs can show, from their own photo collections, or from the pages of a plethora of published railroad histories, dramatic evidence of the increase in size and power of locomotives in this period. But rolling stock is easy to acquire, even when capital for fixed way and structures is difficult to obtain. President Elliott of the Northern Pacific Railway observed, in 1907, that the roads were “attempting to force a three inch stream through a one inch nozzle.” The congestion of the railroads was a harbinger of things to come.

The warning sounded by Elliott and other railroad leaders wasn’t heeded. Martin declares, and demonstrates his point statistically, that the capital needed for expansion of the railroad plant was far, far short of what was needed to cope with expanding traffic. His table shows that the growth capital available in certain years, before World War I, came to as little as a fourth of the amount actually required to handle the traffic being thrust upon the railroads.

In those “Golden Years” the price index rose rapidly. Everything that the railroads bought cost more. Labor demanded — and received — substantial wage increases. But under the regulatory philosophy prevailing, the railroads were not permitted to raise rates at all.

Railroad regulation was based on a philosophy, called by Martin “Archaic Progressivism.” It had several assumptions, all now proved to be substantially invalid. One was that the railroads were overcapitalized. This supposedly made the shippers pay excessive rates in order to give the security holders undeserved earnings. The fallacy was ultimately exploded, as a result of the ICC ordered valuation of the railroads, but it is still believed in many sectors of the community and still taught in many schools.

Another fallacy was the concept of a “reasonable rate.” A freight rate is a price for moving goods, nothing more. Hopefully, it would permit satisfactory recompense to the carrier, covering the cost of service and a return on investment. At the same time it must be at a level that will permit goods to move. Somehow, the Progressives in Congress — and elsewhere — believed in a concept of “reasonableness” substantially independent of market factors inherent in the setting of any other price. This undefined and undefinable concept buttressed the determination of leaders in the “Progressive Era” to deny the railroads increases in rates.

Three times in the Roosevelt-Taft-Wilson period, the railroads went to the Interstate Commerce Commission for general across-the-board increases in freight rates. The chapters in which Martin describes these exercises in futility are entitled, “The First Denial,” “The Second Denial,” “The Third Denial.” The philosophy of the times, the prevailing political climate, the laws creating the Commission and directing its activities doubtless left any other kind of decision outside the realm of probability; the parties involved really didn’t know how the economy worked. They appeared quite unaware of how tinkering at one point in the economic system could produce unwanted results in other areas. Even the railroad officers, expert railroaders, were quite unaware of the ideas prevailing outside their own group — and how to contend with them.

“Defeat of the young by the old and silly.” This quotation from one of Vachel Lindsay’s poems appears at the head of the chapter “Third Denial.” The quotation is appropriate in view of the succeeding generations which have had to contend with inadequate transportation. The men who “starred” in that era in placing the regulatory shackles on the railroads may well be described as “old” and/or “silly.” Typically they were men whose thinking on railroads had congealed in the conditions of the 1870′s, with remedies based on interpretations which probably weren’t valid even then. They were men of advancing years who clung to ideas which had lost contact with the real world they were supposed to be legislating for.

Robert M. LaFollette fought valiantly as late as 1917 to prevent any rate increase. An increase didn’t fit in with his ideas of Commission regulation. LaFollette’s reputation was based on his earlier career in Wisconsin where his Wisconsin Railroad Commission was considered a model of the genre. Elsewhere it has been shown that this Commission came close to depriving Milwaukee of both power and transportation a few years later.

Theodore Roosevelt’s blocking of E. H. Harriman’s control and revitalization of the Alton Railroad served only to provide first-rate publicity for an exceptional case of looting a railroad. And it kept the Alton from its full potential in the railroad system until after World War II.

William Howard Taft succeeded in alienating every shade of opinion on the railroad question. But he proudly took credit for the Parcel Post Law. This forced the railroads to haul packages as mail at much lower rates than they had received for similar packages when handled as express — not very helpful when earnings were already jeopardized and the roads thirsting for capital.

Louis D. Brandeis, while supposedly protecting the “public,” played major roles in all three “Denials.” In fact, he made the hearings pretty much his show. He cleverly trapped railroad officials and twisted the effect of their testimony, while refutations didn’t get the publicity his presentation received. He was on the Supreme Court when the Adamson Act (8-hour railroad day) came before that body. He served neither the railroads nor the public.

The 8-hour day crisis as it built up under Wilson demonstrates the silliness of the time, the age, the movement. Martin describes a dramatic scene at the White House where Wilson had summoned thirty railroad presidents:

If the railroads would cooperate he was willing to do all he could to get the ICC to grant rate relief, provided that the eight-hour commission recommended it. Pointing his finger at the railroad presidents, he declared, “If a strike comes, the public will know where the responsibility rests. It will not be upon me.”

The crisis had been forced upon the railroads by denying them normal economic freedom. Placing the entire onus for a strike on the railroad presidents was not in accord with the moral principles of our American tradition. It was reprehensible to order the railroads to increase their costs (by shortening the working day) without permitting commensurate rate increases by grant of the Interstate Commerce Commission. If Wilson could order the railroad men, he could instruct the Commission. He didn’t choose to give equal treatment.

In the winter following Wilson’s “salon,” the nation paid dearly for the maltreatment of its railroads. The incredible congestion at the ports, the car shortages, the shortages of necessities, the skyrocketing prices, the approach to civil rights were among the end results of following policies which did not allow the railroads to operate in a free market.


THE GROWTH OF ECONOMIC THOUGHT by Henry W. Spiegel (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1971), 816 pp., $12.95.

THE EVOLUTION OF ECONOMIC THOUGHT by W. E. Kuhn (2nd ed.; Cincinnati: Southwestern, 1970), 500 pp., $10.20.

Reviewed by Gary North

There are a lot of textbooks tracing the development of economic thought. Too many of them, in fact. Sometimes one of these can become a true classic, such as Joseph Schumpeter’s History of Economic Analysis, but most of them gather dust on the shelves, for good reason. They are essentially reference books and tortures inflicted on undergraduate students.

The two books under review are, from the point of view of the free market position, quite serviceable. Spiegel’s is more clearly a reference book, going from school of thought to school of thought, scholar by scholar. His is a summary, a descriptive work, with very little critical analysis. But he gives a fair presentation of the advent of marginalism and the contributions of the Austrian School. The book contains a superb annotated bibliography, 130 pages long. It is a kind of miniature encyclopedia, and for quick reference for refresher purposes, Spiegel’s is an ideal guide.

Kuhn’s book is more technical and analytical. In contrast to Spiegel’s brief sketches of the contributions of many economists, Kuhn has focused on key members of various schools of thought, thus enabling him to present more complete descriptions of their contributions. The first half of the book is arranged in terms of the various economic schools: “From Menger to Bohm-Bawerk,” “From Marshall to Wicksell,” “Keynes,” and so forth. The second half is devoted to important areas of inquiry, such as “Monetary and Banking Theory,” “International Trade Theory,” and “Business Cycle Theory.” At the end of each chapter he adds a helpful biographical section, although the sketches are brief.

By avoiding the pitfalls associated with any single form of organization, whether purely chronological, topical, or biographical, Kuhn has produced a textbook that deals adequately with both history and issues, people and ideas. The careful student can come away from the book with a better chance of remembering some of the data jammed into the chapters.

So long as the reader understands the limitations on textbooks — that they should be used to introduce us to the key primary sources and to refresh our memories once we have read the basic original materials — an investment in either or both books could pay off. Next time, you can look up that seemingly obscure footnote and find out why the author bothered to make reference to some long-dead economist. It will help us to understand why Keynes said that the intellectuals and politicians of any era are quite likely to be mouthing the phrases of some “academic scribbler of a few years back.”


AN ECONOMIST’S PROTEST by Milton Friedman (22 Appleton Pl., Glen Ridge, N. J.: Thomas Horton & Co., 1972), 219 pp., $2.95.

This paperback collection of Prof. Friedman’s Newsweek columns is a handy reference guide for those who want a simplified, quick introduction to the author’s controversial opinions. Sections on “Nixon Economics,” “Monetary Policy,” “A Volunteer Army,” “Social Security and Welfare,” “Government and the Interests,” and “Government and Education” present numerous articles that have been plaguing “liberals” over the past six years. For example, the section on “Monopoly” contain: three essays, two of which assail the Post Office, and the third one criticizes governmental regulation and state ownership in general. 

  • John Chamberlain (1903-1995) was an American journalist, business and economic historian, and author of number of works including The Roots of Capitalism (1959). Chamberlain also served as a founding editor of The Freeman magazine.