All Commentary
Wednesday, May 1, 1974

A Reviewer’s Notebook – 1974/5


Leonard Read is the very antithesis of the arm twister. He does not teeter on your lapel to shout in your ear. But his phrases, gently repeated in his wisely ruminative essays, do succeed in grabbing people. There is his reiterative use of the phrase “the freedom philosophy,” for example. Pundits have spent many hours trying to figure out a modern substitute for the once-honorable word “liberalism,” which has been stolen by the collectivists. The best the pundits have been able to come up with is the clumsy word “libertarianism.” It doesn’t quite fill the bill —and I have noticed that people like Professor Ben Rogge of Wabash College, who is himself the complete libertarian, now use the phrase “the freedom philosophy” to indicate their body of beliefs.

In his latest collection of freedom philosophy essays, Having My Way (Foundation for Economic Education, $4.00 cloth, $2.50 paper), Leonard Read tosses off the word “dictocrat” on page eleven. It was a new coinage to me, and I placed a check beside it. Further on in the book Mr. Read made an adjective of it, “dictocratic,” using the adjective three times within three pages. Rather good, I thought. “Dictocrat” covers a multitude of characters who try to get their way by force, including the force of seizing other people’s money to pay for their experiments. “Dictocrat” brings out the common strain that you will find in Communists, Socialists, Anarchists-of-the-deed, Social Democrats, Majority Rule fanatics, Planners, Collectivists, and what-not, including all the many varieties of Progressive or Liberal (modern sense) who need forgiveness, for they know not what they do.

Let me hasten to say that Mr. Read is not being pejorative in his use of “dictocrat.” He doesn’t pin it on specific people, knowing that to do so would only succeed in alienating possible converts to his own freedom philosophy. Mr. Read has his Marquis of Queensbury code. He uses the word in a coolly scientific spirit. A “dictocratic scheme,” to him, is the antithesis of a “free market scheme.” That is all there is to it, and it is enough.

Economics and Morality

The older he grows, the more Leonard Read thinks that economics must be considered a branch of moral philosophy. If one does not have moral scruples in the market place, one will inevitably distort the processes of production and exchange. If, by using interventionist compulsions, you take more out of the system of exchange than you put into it, you will be guilty of diminishing productivity and multiplying scarcity. This, to Mr. Read, is thievery. Try as he may, Mr. Read cannot imagine a society totally composed of thieves: parasites, he says, die in the absence of a host. He is forced to conclude that economics and morality depend on the same values. Since they do, there is little sense in talking about keeping economics “value free.”

With morality on his mind, Mr. Read is more concerned with what the interventionist, or dictocratic, philosophy does to bring injustice to individuals than he is with the usual statistical expressions of economic thinking. Above-market wages and below-market hours create unemployment, a statistical category. But this is the cold, “value free” way of putting it. Mr. Read prefers to emphasize that minimum wage laws make the relatively poor suffer. They become victims of a legally sanctioned form of theft.

The Power of Example

Mr. Read would object to any characterization of his essays as sermons. A sermon is a form of intrusion — the dictionary defines it as “a lecture on conduct or duty,” or as a “homily.” Leonard Read lectures no one; he writes, so he says, to clear things up for himself in order that he may get on with his own life-project of trying to perfect his own understanding. If he can improve himself to the point of becoming an example for other people, then so much the better. But he does not mean to be intrusive. He has found that the surest way of scaring people off is to set out consciously to do the other fellow good.

For all his lack of intrusiveness, however, Mr. Read conducts a very subtle pastorate. He preaches the Word by redefining it. As he becomes older he finds himself going more and more back to the roots of language. He cannot believe that it makes sense to let the “meek” inherit the earth if the meek be defined as “timid, shrinking, apologetic” Casper Milquetoasts. But, traced back through Greek to its Aramaic original, “meek” becomes something different. As Gerald Heard has said, the word stands for something opposite to “overbearing” or “aggressive.” “Meek” suggested itself to the King James translators because, in Elizabethan usage, it implied a “wonderful, inherent, teachability.” So the Beatitude should read, “Blessed are the teachable, for they shall inherit the earth.” As for the meaning of “earth” in this context, Mr. Read is reasonably sure that it relates to “man’s earthly potentialities.”

Learning from Mistakes

Mr. Read is always willing to change his mind, if his pursuit of root definitions leads him to believe that he has been wrong. Once he believed that it was “unfortunate” that inequality should exist. Now he considers it would be a terrible misfortune if everyone could be made equal. We all benefit from the discoveries of the gifted. True, people should be regarded as “equal before the law,” but this very equality must mean that crooks and murderers will be treated differently than honest men. It is not even true to say that everyone is “equal in the sight of God.” The Deity is not to be insulted by implying that Judas Iscariot could be the “equal” of Peter when called before the Heavenly bar. God, says Mr. Read, should not be condemned as nearsighted.

In talking about willingness to confess past errors, Mr. Read tells a remarkable story about his encounter almost thirty years ago with John Maynard Keynes. He had invited Keynes to oppose J. Reuben Clark, President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, on the subject of the U.S. foreign aid program. Keynes declined the invitation, saying “My mission is to obtain the British loan. Were I to stand before your audience and say what I now think, which is what I would do, I would disparage my mission.”

This is historically very interesting. It accords with Keynes’s praise of Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom. Mr. Read doesn’t want to single out Keynes as being alone in the fault of refusing to make public a confession of error. But, in view of the harm that “Keynesian” economics has done the human race, I hope Mr. Read’s historical revelation will be read on the campuses where Keynes is still regarded as the master.

 

THE ENTERPRISING AMERICANS: A BUSINESS HISTORY OF THE UNITED STATES by John Chamberlain, new and updated edition. (New York: Harper & Row, 1974) 283 pages, $8.95.

Reviewed by John Davenport

The republication of John Chamberlain’s Enterprising Americans comes at an opportune time. Businessmen all over the world find themselves under attack and thus far, judged by public opinion polls, have had little success in meeting their critics. One reason for this failure, it seems to me, is that business is still portrayed by friend and foe as a kind of special interest group entitled to a fair share of profits, just as labor is portrayed as a separate group entitled to its fair share of wages and salaries. Our social philosophers have succumbed to the disease of “groupitus” which makes them advocates of ever stronger government measures to “countervail” the power of highly organized and contending minorities. At the end of the road looms some form of the corporate state.

This is the Galbraithian view of things and Mr. Chamberlain will have none of it. In his preface he defines business as “creative busy-ness” that includes just about everybody from factory worker and farmer to manager, investor and entrepreneur. From this vantage point he then traces American economic development from precolonial times forward. The result is a rich and many-plied story focusing on the inner dynamics and motivations of men who transformed a continent into a highly industrialized society which, for all its faults and current problems, still gives its citizens a better shake than any other society in history.

In the foreground as the tale progresses stand certain prime movers, familiar to most college students though all too often portrayed in unflattering terms — Henry Ford, Andrew Carnegie, J. P. Morgan, Rockefeller, and the genius of Edison. But interwoven in the story are other aspects of America all too often forgotten in our haste to deify, or more often today to villify, the work of the titans. We watch William Pepperrell of Kittery, Maine, transforming the rocky shores of New England into a jumping-off-place for ships and world-spanning trade. We are reminded of the effects in Montana and the Dakotas of Sam Colt’s revolver and his development of mass production methods. The du Ponts of Wilmington back a scientist, Dr. Wallace Crowthers, and we have nylon and the artificial fibers which today largely clothe a nation. Bell Laboratories and Dr. William Shockley perfect the tiny transistor, and lo! — we enter the age of the computer — not to mention the space rocket and satellite probing the far reaches of Mars and the universe.

It is because Mr. Chamberlain has an eye for such details and interrelated consequences, and because he has cast his book in the form of history rather than abstract argument, that it carries a profound message. The message is that the much-maligned businessman, far from being a greedy exploiter, is in fact the essential intermediary between man, the consumer, and man, the producer — between the demands of the public for goods, and the desire of most of us for jobs and productive work. In a complex civilization characterized by the division of labor, someone must play this role, and on the evidence, the businessman has played it surpassing well. In the end Mr. Chamberlain’s history of what businessmen have done is a spirited defense of the market process which, in supporting the free society, may one day make possible the good society.

 

POPULATION, RESOURCES, AND THE FUTURE: NON-MALTHUSIAN PERSPECTIVES, edited by Howard M. Bahr, Bruce A. Chadwick, and Darwin L. Thomas (Brigham Young University Press: Provo, Utah, 1972), $3.95 paperbound.

Reviewed by Bruce D. Porter

Ever since Parson Malthus penned his Essay on the Principle of Population, prophets of gloom by the handful have denounced childbirth as the source of human woes. In more recent years, however, that handful has multiplied geometrically (and common sense but arithmetically), to make it “common knowledge” that a population crisis of immense magnitude is at the door, about to thrust civilization to its doom.

“In the belief that non-Malthusian perspectives on population are not receiving the attention they deserve,” fourteen top scholars join forces in Population, Resources, and the Future to refute numerous myths about overpopulation and resource shortages. The book is a significant contribution to rationality.

The scholars are highly critical of “population myopia” — the increasing trend to blame all manner of social maladies on the infants coming into the world. Such a catchall diverts our attention from far more significant problems and creates a convenient scapegoat for erring politicians. Drumming up a crisis may only encourage hasty, possibly foolhardy solutions.

Several scholars challenge the Malthusian premise that resources inevitably run a losing race with population. The food supply, for example, has not only kept pace with the birthrate, but since the dawn of serious agricultural research in the first half of our century, it has surpassed it, and the Green Revolution is only beginning. If fully developed and allowed to produce, the world’s present croplands could support our growing numbers many times over.

The same is true of housing and energy technology. R. Buckminister Fuller contributes an imaginative essay on the potential of engineering to handle increased population at increasing levels of affluence. He maintains that improved technology rather than political organization will ultimately be the key to erasing housing, water and energy shortages.

Certain environmentalists have identified overpopulation and “the exploitive system of capitalism” as the two main sources of our pollution problems. B. Delworth Gardner of Utah State University convincingly demonstrates that most environmental damage involves public resources and lands, where common ownership eliminates individual responsibility for waste. Contrarily, private ownership of well-defined properties normally works to reduce pollution to negligible amounts. He proposes some unique ideas on using the free market system to control environmental abuses.

Another major assertion of neoMalthusians has been that high population density is the major cause of crime, delinquency, civil unrest, suicide, and drug abuse. An analysis of demographic patterns dispels this idea. Our urban riots have typically occurred in areas declining in population; the highly crowded countries of England and Holland have among the lowest crime rates in the world. A case can even be made in favor of high density life — that it is good for people, their health and sanitation.

The big picture we get is that population is only one of many factors contributing to social problems, and a minor one at that.

“Mass starvation is not made in bedchambers, but in council chambers.” The closing essays of the book deal with the moral questions raised by population control. “Coercive programs are incompatible with self-direction and personal freedom.” In the realm of living, breathing people, there are values more precious than survival itself. Should the time indeed come when our numbers reach crisis proportions (and these scholars agree the time is still distant), people will voluntarily bear less children. It may frighten some to thus trust humanity’s future to the wisdom of free individuals, but a far more foreboding spectre is that of a society planned and ordered and limited, but alas! Void of the values, dignity and freedom we have come to take for granted.  


  • 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.