All Commentary
Sunday, May 1, 2005

A Sparks Sampler

The Free Market Is the Best Problem-Solver

Editor’s Note: John C. Sparks, who died on March 27, 2005, served on the board of trustees of the Foundation for Economic Education for many years. In the mid-1980s, following his retirement from business, he served a term as FEE’s president. In memory of this friend of FEE, we reproduce some of what he wrote for The Freeman over the years.

“If Men Were Free to Try,” February 1977

(Originally published by FEE in 1954)

. . . Let us suppose you had lived in 1900 and some­how were confronted with the problem of seeking a solution to any one of the following problems:

  1. To build and maintain roads adequate for use of conveyances, their operators, and passengers.
  2. To increase the average span of life by 30 years.
  3. To convey instantly the sound of a voice speaking at one place to any other point or any number of points around the world.
  4. To convey instantly the visual replica of an action, such as a presidential inauguration, to men and women in their living rooms all over America.
  5. To develop a medical preventive against death from pneumonia.
  6. To transport physically a person from Los Angeles to New York in less than four hours.
  7. To build a horseless carriage of the qualities and capabilities described in the latest advertising fold­er of any automobile manufacturer.

Without much doubt you would have selected the first problem as the one easiest of solution. In fact, the other problems would have seemed fantastic and quite likely would have been rejected as the figments of someone’s wild imagination.

Now, let us see which of these problems has been solved to date. Has the easiest problem been solved? No. Have the seemingly fantastic problems been solved? Yes, and we hardly give them a second thought.

It is not accidental that solutions have been found wherever the atmosphere of freedom and private ownership has prevailed wherein men could try out their ideas and succeed or fail on their own worthiness. Nor is it accidental that the coercive force of govern­ment—when hooked up to a creative field such as transportation—has been slow, plodding, and unimag­inative in maintaining and replacing its facilities. . . .

How could roads be built and operated privately? I do not know. This is a subject to which none of us directs his creative attention. We never do think cre­atively on any activity pre-empted by government. It is not until an activity has been freed from monopoly that creative thought comes into play. . . .

“Zoned or Owned?” June 1964

It is natural for a man to attempt to maintain the value of his property. His efforts to accomplish this may run in either of two separate directions. One is the attitude that a law––zoning or urban renewal planning––will preserve the relative status quo of businessmen and property owners within a communi­ty, at which point certain men may be quite well satisfied. They want nothing to disrupt their current set of circumstances; they are apprehensive of change because this means work to keep abreast of it. So anx­ious are they to preserve their present status that they fail to see the zoning action itself brings about an immobilization of full economic motivations. A sub­sequent decline in values can be expected. This attitude, then, is unreliable, producing the opposite effect desired. . . .

The second attitude is the recognition that real retention of economic values means maintaining the same relative position in a dynamic, moving market. One must swim to keep up with the economic stream.

The “game” never ends. Tomorrow is a new day with new economic decisions based upon a satisfaction of tomorrow’s wants. Acceptance of this attitude is the key to maintaining one’s economic rank.

And happily, the competitive road of freedom of choice leads toward the good and vibrant life, and away from economic senility.

Regardless of the logic and wis­dom of the second attitude, we are lured by the promise of “protection” through zoning laws, not realizing the strong probability that zoning already has contributed substantially to the economic decline of cities. Then absurdity is added to absurdity as misdirected government adopts more error to cure the problem caused by its first error. The fallacy of zoning is sure­ly the forerunner of its bigger evil, the fallacy of government urban renewal. Zoning and owning are incompatible. Since the former is an interference with ownership, zoning at best is a “respectable” mid-twentieth century form of theft of an owner’s right to own. Whenever the right to own is removed, restrict­ed, or eroded in any manner, society inclines toward a lower level of economic goods that is matched by a lower level of spiritual and moral values.

“Who Shall Carry My Load?” February 1980

The free market seems to be gaining economic and political favor. But if this is to be more than a pass­ing fad, the full implications of the term must be clearly grasped.

Those who will learn to understand the workings of a free market will find that it can exist to its fullest material advantage only in a society of individual independence and responsibility. A deeper penetra­tion of the subject also brings recognition that any infringement of independent decision-making is not only unproductive in a material sense but is also immoral. It is immoral to place the load one is responsible for on the back of another without his willing consent.

Contrasting pictures emerge. One is an unfree, governmental-interfer­ence type of society. This is a society where each is required by government to carry on his back the load of all others—an awkward, nonproduc­tive, and painful way to function. Particularly is it nonproductive when those who are able and willing to pro­duce the most in goods and services for themselves and for others are allotted the heaviest burdens, thus restricting their efforts.

On the other hand, a free market society is one in which each is solely responsible for his own load. Only insofar as his own judgment and conscience dictate does he share the burden of another. Unhampered, he finds that his expanded production can benefit himself only as it benefits others—a mighty important, but key difference—since his per­sonal consumption is very minimal compared with the improved quality of life his production brings to all others.

In selecting which society I prefer, I may well ask, “Who shall carry my load?”

When measured by the most productivity for the benefit of all, the answer must be that of a free market society—no one, but me!

When measured by the moral principle of assuming my own responsibility, the answer must be that of a free market society—no one, but me!

Both demand that I carry my own load. To start, let me remove from others any of the burden of my respon­sibility now carried by them.

  • John C. Sparks, who died on March 27, 2005, served on the board of trustees of the Foundation for Economic Education for many years. In the mid-1980s, following his retirement from business, Mr. Sparks served a term as FEE’s president.