A Reviewer's Notebook - 1978/6

In his twenty-third book, Vision (Foundation for Economic Educa­tion), Leonard Read speaks deprecatingly of himself. There is nothing in his striving for foresight and insight, he says, that is original "except the phrasing." By the stric­test of standards, Mr. Read may be right about himself: morality was pretty well covered in the Ten Commandments, the Sermon on the Mount was preached some 2,000 years ago, and Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas and John Locke, the fathers of political science, have had their thousands of glosses, including those of James Madison and Alex­ander Hamilton. But there can be an originality in combinations that goes beyond questions of mere phrasing, and Leonard Read need not apologize for his ability to put things in unique perspective.

Surprisingly, in his Vision, he comes through as a journalist of great perception. The other day, in the course of tracking down infor­mation for a column which I sup­posed would be original with myself, I interviewed a visitor- from Argen­tina. I had been listening to the complaints of American libertarians who are convinced that there will be no place of refuge if the United States is to go all the way to collec­tivism. My own hunch is that the southern hemisphere has seen the worst of its misadventures in socialism. Australia, which has had its labor governments, has been moving back from socialist extremes under the enlightened conservatism of Prime Minister Fraser, who be­lieves in linking labor agreements to productivity. In Chile, the Pinochet government listens to economists who were trained at the University of Chicago. As for Argen­tina, I had heard rumors that it was staging a comeback from the tyran­nies and terrorism associated with Peronism.

My Argentinean informant as­sured me that the rumors were true. Where the Argentine rate of infla­tion under the dictatorship of Pe­ron’s widow had been 900 per cent, it has now been cut to 120 per cent, and is going lower. The present gov­ernment has been waiving taxes and is about to transfer control of schools and hospitals to the provinces. And all those enterprises that had been seized or "intervened" by the Peronistas are now being restored to private investors. This is being done by a public tender that, in the words of my informant, will be "totally and irrevocably" under way by the end of 1978.

The trade statistics, as offered by the Argentinean Minister of Econ­omy, Martinez de Hoz, are particu­larly eloquent. Where there was a deficit balance in 1975, there is now an annual export surplus running close to two billion dollars.

Lessons from Afar

I thought I had something of a scoop in a column that suggested the southern temperate zone might be a haven for libertarian spirits if Washington, D.C., succumbs to "worst-case" socialism. But the sec-and essay in Leonard Read’s Vision, called "Lessons from Afar," shows that Mr. Read was there first. With Dr. Benjamin Rogge of Wabash Col­lege, he spent a week in Buenos Aires in June of 1977. What he and Ben Rogge saw "startled" their imaginations. Never had they ob­served better dressed people. The stores were "aglitter with splendid merchandise and excellent service." The food was excellent—and when Mr. Read, a cordon bleu chef on his own account, says this, it really means something. Shoes cost less than in the U.S.

Mr. Read and Dr. Rogge had not sought their speaking engagements in Argentina. They found the local hunger for the freedom philosophy to be quite fantastic. The army and navy officers, far from entertaining ideas about military control of the economy, were all for a divestiture that would be satisfactory to even the most exacting Austrian economist. We have heard of tyran­nical "colonels" governments in Greece, in Egypt and in Peru. But in Argentina, as in neighboring Chile, the "colonels" want to get out of the business of directing the energies of the citizens as fast as they can.

Konosuke Matsushita

Mr. Read continues his reportorial enterprise in his essay on Konosuke Matsushita, the man who developed the biggest and the most profitable business in Japan’s history. Mat­sushita explicitly forbade the pur­suit of profit as the motive of his enterprise. Instead, he set his goal as the production of better products at lower and lower prices. Profitabil­ity came as the by-product of man­agement efficiency. Good tennis players who concentrate on the next stroke without worrying about the outcome of the game will tell you that the Matsushita formula is psychologically sound. Matsushita was, of course, picking up where the original Henry Ford left off. It is ironical that the Argentineans and the Japanese should now be doing things that the U.S., in its passion for the "planned chaos" of socialism, is forgetting.

The "lessons" that Mr. Read is concerned about do not all come from "afar." Many of them come from his own library. A great reader, Mr. Read excels at relating the separate thoughts of a wide va­riety of sages to a central idea that clamors for illumination coming from all directions. Thus, in asking the question, "Why Not Separate School and State?," Mr. Read begins with Andrew Dickson White’s work on Paolo Sarpi, a Venetian priest who was the first to fight Rome on the issue of separating church and state. Venice, the great world trad­ing center of the sixteenth century, was tired of the pretensions of the popes to temporal as well as spiritual power. There had been popes that were secret murderers and patrons of pornographical plays that would have shocked the most hardened of modern sensibilities. Sarpi’s "brilliant reasoning" led eventually to a separation of church and state. This makes Sarpi one of the world’s great statesmen.

Absolute Power Is Poison

By relating Sarpi to Lord Acton and Hayek, Mr. Read concludes that there is just as much danger from a government monopoly of education as there ever was from a compulsory state religion. (Absolute power over the mind is poison when, as Hayek has noticed, the "worst get on top.") As a matter of fact, state control of education usually ends by control­ling religion by indirection. By ab­sorbing most of the funds available for teaching, the state effectively keeps most parents from sending their children to church-supported schools. The result is a forced sec­ularization of young minds—which leads to a general inculcation that the state itself is God. To be "neu­tral" on the religious question, then, the state has no more business in running schools than it has in pre­scribing an official mode of worship.

Mr. Read finds support in the most unlikely places. As a chef and gourmet, he has enjoyed dining in Bresse, where he savored Poularde de Bresse en Creme, one of Brillat

Savarin’s best recipes. He was de­lighted to discover that Brillat­Savarin, as a supporter of the French Revolutionary orator Mirabeau, called attention to the natural law that subjected the paper assignats to rapid depreciation. It tickles Mr. Read to think that it takes a good cook to know about money.



by B. Bruce-Briggs

(E. P. Dutton, 201 Park Ave., S.,

New York, New York 10003)

244 pages

Reviewed by Allan C. Brownfeld

Slowly, it has become clear that a key element in the fight of the envi­ronmentalists, the ecologists, and others against the growth of the American economy is essentially an elitist effort to stop things where they are—with those calling for such a stoppage simply being those already at the top. In a sense, such elitists constitute an American "new class" not radically different from the one in Communist states de­scribed so well by Milovan Djilas.

Among the crusades being entered into by this new class is a mounting battle against the Ameri­can automobile.

It is charged that the auto-highway system discriminates against the poor, minority groups, and the elderly. It is said that high­ways have destroyed American cities, that cars have created conges­tion, and that the automobile is un­safe. Beyond this, it has been said that auto exhausts are poisoning us, that Detroit deliberately murdered mass transportation and that the auto is devouring irreplaceable energy resources.

This is, of course, a serious indictment—and it is used by those who urge the federal government to fund mass transit systems and who have sponsored legislation which has altered automobile manufactur­ing in a number of serious—and expensive—ways. Such critics, if they have their way, would sharply curtail ownership of cars in the United States. Individual freedom, some declare, does not involve the freedom to own and drive such a vehicle.

Against this indictment, B. Bruce-Briggs, an historian, ur­banologist and policy analyst who has served with the Hudson Insti­tute, has provided a thoughtful and effective response. Beyond this, he counterattacks, arguing that what is at the root of the hostility to the automobile is an elitism which seeks to "rationally plan" the entire American transportation system. The individual charges against the automobile, he states, are just rationalizations for the real pur­poses of the assault.

"The war against the automobile," the author declares, "and the myths of mass transportation are merely one campaign in an upper-class struggle against the standard of liv­ing, individual freedom, and pride of the great mass of the American peo­ple."

Americans use the automobile rather than some other form of transportation, Mr. Bruce-Briggs writes, because it best fits their needs. He notes that, "The commu­ter railroad, the elevated railroad, the subway, the trolley, the bicycle, the motorcycle, and the bus all fought in head-to-head competition with the automobile, and all lost. The reason is not at all difficult to understand—the automobile was the superior system. No one planned that the car should dominate. . . . The automobile is, so far, the most perfect method of intraurban per­sonal transportation yet devised .. . by the criteria of economy, speed, comfort, convenience, and always most important of all, point-to-point delivery, the automobile was, is, and will be far superior."

Americans also like the auto­mobile because it permits them to maximize their individual freedom—complete with all of the eccentricities which such freedom permits, a notion which is always anathema to those who seek ra­tional homogenization of society rather than the "chaos" which re­sults without it. The author writes: "In the automobile, you go where you want when you want, you stop when you want, you eat when you want . . . and select your own route. . . . All costs considered, the car is cheaper than train or bus. . . . It gives personalized flexibility . . . you have control over your own mobility. There are few things in our society, and fewer with each passing year, that offer us so much individual freedom."

To the charge by Ralph Nader and others that auto makers have been indifferent to safety, Mr. Bruce-Briggs responds that, "Detroit has not talked much about safety, to be sure . . . but their engineers and de­signers have been continuously im­proving the safety of their products. . . . The windshield improved visibil­ity, as did the windshield wiper and washer. Headlights are an obvious safety device, as are running lights, brake lights, and turn signals. So are effective suspension systems that permit the driver to retain con­trol in emergency conditions, and brakes, which have been steadily improved. The best safety devices are those that prevent accidents .. . but most safety ‘experts’ have concentrated on reducing injury after an accident has occurred."

Concerning Mr. Nader’s much discussed volume, Unsafe at Any Speed, the author states that, "not even its most devoted apologist would describe it as a serious work. It is a polemic against the au­tomobile expressed in demagogic language. . . . The bias of Nader’s book is apparent from his omission of obviously important facts—that the fatality rate had been steadily declining and that several auto manufacturers had attempted safety campaigns to sell cars (Kaiser in 1952 and Ford in 1956), and these efforts had flopped. . . . Perhaps the most revealing aspect of Nader’s ap­proach to automobile safety was his claim that the Corvair was more dangerous than other cars. Yet he did not present one scrap of com­parative data indicating this was so."

Washington, beginning in the early 1960s, began a serious effort to reverse the choice of individual Americans for the auto and to get people out of their private cars and back into collective "public" trans­portation. This has involved huge outlays for federal aid to mass transportation which, once con­structed, as in San Francisco, re­mains largely unused.

Mr. Bruce-Briggs does not blame the government bureaucracy: "Even had they been the most creative and competent analysts and managers, their efforts were doomed to failure. By undertaking to get the public out of cars . . . they sought to turn back history. . . What BART [San Fran­cisco mass transit] has done is to substitute an incredibly expensive and inefficient rail transportation system for a relatively cheap and efficient bus transit system . . . citi­zens have paid $2 billion down and $300 million a year—just to transfer 100,000 prosperous commuters from buses to BART. . . . The alleged benefits of mass transportation are specious. The federal government has spent $6.5 billion on ‘mass transportation’ in the last 15 years, an amount more than matched by state and local government. Conges­tion has not been relieved, pollution has not been alleviated, mobility has not been improved."

It is not the excesses of the au­tomobile which its critics oppose, but the automobile itself. The offi­cial who wrote New York City’s transportation control plan stated: "My plan was a tool for social change. Very few people grasped that. My crusade is not air pollution: it’s the automobile. . . ." And Ralph Nader clearly stated that, "Fm in favor of zero automobile growth." Mr. Bruce-Briggs also charges that "new class" elitists have been joined in their war upon the automobile by "downtown business interests" in some cities. He writes that, "While their fiscal and economic difficulties are grossly exaggerated . . . the problems are real, and these cities are no longer as healthy as their suburban areas. There are vast vested interests in these cities—in banks, in real estate, and depart­ment stores; ‘suburban sprawl’ threatens these investments. . . . Small wonder that newspapers howl about the evils of suburbanization and its vehicle, the automobile—after all, it is obvious that the move to the suburbs has been made possi­ble by automobiles and highways. . . . Among these decaying northeast­ern cities are Boston, the academic capital of the country; New York, the media capital; and Washington, the political capital. The problems and interests of these cities are thus imposed upon the nation."

The elite which condemns the au­tomobile charges the car with using too much energy. Yet, this same group urges a policy in the energy field which would prevent the de­velopment of new coal, natural gas, and petroleum resources. They are on top, the author argues, and care little for the fate of the classes below—classes they believe they have been ordained to control through the making of government policy—"for their own good."

Mr. Bruce-Briggs understands the forces at work in the American soci­ety all too well. In this book, he has carefully examined the current crusade against the American au­tomobile, and has placed it in its proper perspective. Perhaps if we understand the motivation of the enemies of economic growth and the free market we will be in a position to better counter their political crusades. In this sense, the current volume is invaluable.