A Reviewer's Notebook - 1977/3

Gary North, in an article on the Austrian school of economics, notes that F.A. Hayek, "the most famous Austrian," has more or less forsaken economics for "a study of law and society, in an attempt to find classical liberal ways to limit the modern political State." Hayek’s action, however, represents no desertion of his real subject. Indeed, it is inherent in the nature of the economics of Carl Menger, who made the subjectivity of choice the foundation of the Austrian system. Value is in the eye of the beholder, not in any such abstraction as labor hours or cost of production.


The eye of the beholder, of course, may stray quite away from economics. It remained for Ludwig von Mises, who had an unerring instinct for fundamentals, to observe that all choices, whether economic or not, compete for time in the life of human beings. Economic action is part of human action. It follows logically that man’s choice of a political (and moral) system will have directly observable effects on his ability to choose in the market place.


This is what concerns Hayek, leading him from his original preoccupation with technical aspects of economics to his researches into the "constitution of liberty."


As Hayek has found, the "planned society" doesn’t leave room for subjective divagations. To save economic choice, one needed a certain view of man. So, when Leonard Read set up The Foundation for Economic Education to disseminate sound economic ideas, he discovered that exploration in what he calls the "freedom philosophy" was basic to his mission. Man’s moral being is the quintessential question. If "dictocrats" (a favorite word with Mr. Read) presume to set limits to men’s choices, the world will be poorer in invention and production and therefore in consumption. The dictocrats themselves will be menaced by stultification.


The Morality of Freedom


Since Leonard Read’s books are concerned with the wider choices that affect economic choices, it is scarcely to be wondered at that his references to moral teachers are vastly more numerous than his references to economists as such. His latest collection of essays, Comes the Dawn (FEE, $5.00), like his other works, invites a curious reader to play a little game. One can count forty citations of philosophers (Goethe, Kant, Socrates), saints (Augustine, Matthew), great patrons (Lorenzo the Magnificent), humorists (Will Rogers, Sydney Smith), political theorists (Burke, Woodrow Wilson), poets (Tennyson, Cowper), psychologists (William James),amateurs of ideas (Stewart Edward White, Aldous Huxley) and general essayists (Montaigne, Voltaire) to ten mentions of professional economists. But it is all germane to what Gary North has called FEE’s basic concern for the "transmission of introductory economic ideas rather than front-line economic research."


Leonard Read doesn’t condemn all "front-line" monographs, but he thinks research of a statistical nature has its limitations when one is talking about future probabilities. He has great fun with some of the statistical fetishes of contemporary economics, the Gross National Product (GNP), for example. GNP is always expressed in a monetary unit, so it grows whenever the medium of exchange is diluted. It reached its peak in Germany in 1923 when a bushel basket of marks couldn’t buy a loaf of bread. Mr. Read ponders the absurdity of boosting the GNP by paying farmers not to produce, and marvels that if a man were to divorce his wife and hire her as a cook at $50 a week he would increase the GNP by $2,600 for the year.


Problems of Intervention


The Command Society (Mr. Read lumps feudalism, socialism, fascism and the Welfare State together under this heading) limits choice to a small group of "preemptors." Naturally this drastically circumscribes the experimentation that comes when individuals are free to try things out for themselves. We don’t know what would happen in any detail if the post office monopoly should be somehow broken. But we can be sure that men would continue to communicate. As Mr. Read says, the Bell telephone system, which is privately owned, does a pretty good job projecting the human voice over vast distances. Mr. Read doesn’t mention Citizens’ Band radio, which (if you don’t mind what amounts to a party line) has the potentiality of competing with Ma Bell herself. The point is that if ideas are free to flow, almost anything can happen. Where choices are limited to a few preemptors, they function as agents of destruction.

Twenty years ago Henry Hazlitt remarked to Leonard Read that the country was going in two directions at once. Since then, our regulatory agencies have invaded practically every human province, we have more pre-emptors sitting in Washington than we ever had even in wartime, and the talk of "national planning" is louder than it has been since Rexford Tugwell’s day. Socialism, says Mr. Read, "is more agreeably accepted today than a year ago or two decadesago." But the "saving remnant" of "freedom philosophy" devotees, while it hasn’t saved us yet, threatens to become much more than a remnant. The literature of freedom has been growing rapidly. Mr. Read is convinced, from reading his mail and talking all over the country (and, indeed, the world) that thousands of new people are becoming skilled in understanding and explaining the nature of freedom. FEE has had more requests for seminars than it can accommodate. Mr. Read might have mentioned the trouble the Mont Pelerin Society, which he helped to found, now has in making room for all those genuine lovers of freedom who want to join it.

Setting an Example

With more than a "remnant" becoming convinced that the Command Society must inevitably break down, Mr. Read’s observation that it only takes a few "authentic heroes" to turn things around becomes more pertinent. Three men—Ludwig von Mises, Wilhelm Roepke and Ludwig Erhard—put post-World War II West Germany on the right economic track. And two men—Richard Cobden and John Bright—turned England away from mercantilism after the Napoleonic wars. But, though "saviors are always few in number," they benefit when there is more than a remnant ready to listen to them. If the currents weren’t flowing in two directions at once, saviors would have to wait.


Mr. Read quotes an unknown savant who said that "if you are not part of the solution, you are part of the problem." The first step toward becoming part of the solution is to cease doing wrong (in this case, to cease trying to live by and through the State, which has no money of its own to give away). The second step is to become a creative thinker and expositor of the freedom philosophy. The third step is to be such an exemplar that others will seek your tutorship. Though Mr. Read counsels humility, it is obvious that he is a most convincing third-stage exemplar. He made his critical decision when he decided there was more to economics than economics itself.


TWILIGHT OF AUTHORITY by Robert Nisbet. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1975) 287 pp.

Reviewed by Haven Bradford Gow


Western civilization and America in particular is in a state of decadence. Mr. Nisbet discerns America’s decline in such indices as the decay of values, the deification of the self, the erosion of patriotism, the loss of faith in our institutions, the militarization of our society and the centralizing of power in the hands of the state, increasing hedonism, the rising rate of crime and social disorder, waning belief in heroes, the corruption of language, the disintegration of traditional social and moral authority, the destruction of human loyalties and the loss of a sense of social roots. It is America’s "twilight age," a political, moral and cultural crisis similar to that which marked the decline and fall of Rome.

By "the loss of social roots," Mr. Nisbet means the decline of "the local community, the dislocation of kinship, and the erosion of the sacred in human affairs." He cites the rebellion of youth against any and all forms of parental domination, the perpetually rising divorce rates, the shunting aside of traditional family for novel forms of communal living, and the women’s liberation movement as evidence of the decline of the family’s "functional importance in the social order." Ironically, as Mr. Nisbet observes, the disintegration of, and virulent assaults upon, the family are occurring at a time when we are beginning to learn how very important the family is in such crucial areas as individual motivation, the ability to learn, and personality,

sexual and moral development. Numerous studies buttress the recognition that while the school, peer group and church do indeed have a tremendous influence upon the mind of a child, these influences nevertheless are "comparatively weak" in comparison with the pervasive influence of the family.


Is it too late to arrest, perhaps even reverse, the pernicious trend toward political Leviathan on the one hand and the disintegration of the social order on the other? Mr. Nisbet finds no reason for optimism, for the ranks of "those still committed to the private sector, to the social sphere, and to the individual liberties within each of these, become progressively thinner, their voices increasingly muted."


Mr. Nisbet, though, does provide some reflections concerning "what a genuine social regeneration in the West might consist of—either as a consequence of historical factors now only dimly to be seen or foreseen or of direct, enlightened statesmanship." Briefly, Mr. Nisbet argues for the decentralization of cultural, economic and political power; he contends that the concentration of power in the hands of the state inevitably leads to the diminution of personal liberty. He makes a sharp distinction between state and society, and points out that there are areas of life beyond the competence of politics and of the state to cope with. Closely connected with the distinction between state and society is the need to "recover the social," that is, the need to reaffirm and strengthen a sense of community, kinship, and social roots, and such social institutions as marriage, family, the church, and other kinds of self-help and charitable organizations and associations. By so doing, we may still be able to reverse the trend toward the total state and achieve order in the soul and in the commonwealth.


THE PSEUDO-SCIENCE OF B.F. SKINNER by Tibor Machan. (New Rochelle, N.Y.: Arlington House) 224 pp.

Reviewed by Haven Bradford Gow

B. F. SKINNER believes that man’s behavior and choices are determined by processes beyond his control; man is nothing more than an animal who reacts blindly to stimuli in his environment. Freedom and dignity, therefore, are just "myths;" they cannot be "scientifically verified," that is, weighed or measured.


The author, on the other hand, contends that Mr. Skinner’s view of freedom is the myth, and to check it he has written a much-needed affirmation of man’s dignity and freedom, and a hard-hitting attack on the thinking of those social scientists and philosophers who deny man’s moral worth and freedom.


Dr. Machan points out that the attacks on free will—i.e., man’s inherent capacity to make free choices and judgments—are based upon a warped view of man, the view that man is simply a machine. True, man has a material body, but he is also a spiritual being. Human beings have the capacity to reason, to conceptualize, to grasp universals, to utilize and comprehend symbols, to express in written word and in propositional speech their private thoughts and feelings. Man can love and hate, he can cry and understand and laugh at the meaning of a joke. Clearly, if man’s freedom, moral worth and uniqueness cannot be verified through the techniques of the laboratory, this is no proof that these qualities do not exist. They are indeed real, even though their reality cannot be chemically analyzed or weighed.

There is an obvious relation between the Skinnerian view of man and freedom on the one hand and pernicious attempts in our time to wrest away man’s political liberty and concentrate decision-making power and authority in the hands of a few. If, as Mr. Skinner claims, the "survival of the culture" is the highest value, and individual freedom and dignity are just "myths," then man’s political liberty may be sacrificed. Mr. Skinner and his followers would then "feel free" to use scientific know-how and technology to manipulate man and his environment to achieve their desired results.

On the other hand, if, as Dr. Machan believes, man has the capacity to reason and also possesses free will and dignity, then proposals and efforts to manipulate man through science and technology are virulent assaults on man himself. Let us, instead, cultivate and preserve those institutions and those social, economic and political conditions which help human beings to live rationally and freely choose good over evil.