All Commentary
Saturday, September 1, 1973

Hobson’s Choice

Mr. Breese has taught Industrial Management at Georgia Tech and headed the Department of Humanities at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical Institute in Florida. At present he is a free-lance writer.

In spite of all the hopes and the fears, the planning and the hard work, the promises and rationalizations — it really doesn’t matter who they call the winner in November of a Presidential election year.

This isn’t an attempt to be cynical about the reliability or the intent of party platforms or campaign promises. We’re used to taking these with tongue in cheek. We don’t really expect a winning candidate to do what he said he would do.

This time though, let’s assume that A and B held radically different views and that both men honestly believe what they say and are determined and dedicated to make those views a part of our domestic and foreign policies.

Go even a step further and assume that each candidate has managed to convert to his views a considerable segment of the people who voted for him. He has, then, a following of true believers in the general public, including some politicians, some very capable men, and some zealots.

When the dust clears in November, our man A is on his way to the White House; and B, who held totally different views on practically all issues, is out.

Why, then, do I say that the voters have had Hobson’s Choice? A government—any government — can be called a “body politic.” Like the physical body, it has a head, brain, heart, circulatory system, arms and legs, internal organs and so on right down to cells and atoms. In our case the head can be the President, the blood which nourishes the body is the flow of tax money in and out, and so right down to a buck private in the army, a sweeper in the Treasury building, or a trusty in one of our Federal Prisons.

The trouble, when it comes to “reform” or even a simple change, is that the body politic resembles in fact the body physical in that the head does not really control very much in either case. Decide that you would like to be two inches taller, for instance, or have brown eyes instead of blue, and you’ll see what I mean.

Uncontrolled Bureaucracy

The body politic is like that. Call the President and his personal appointees at top level the head —and its effective span of control extends barely as far as the chin. Down at the extremities — hands and feet — the bureaucracy goes on behaving exactly as it always has done no matter who sits in the White House.

The head of the independent executive agency gets his top level directive and files it neatly. He may even pay it a fair measure of lip service. Out in the field offices throughout the fifty states the staff pays little or no attention. Each office goes on building itself up (in the face, let’s say, of a directive to economize) because that’s what it considers to be its purpose.

In practice, a Presidential Directive is like a brick dropped into a barrel of molasses. By the time it gets toward the bottom, it moves slowly and disturbs very little.

So, there isn’t really anything significant to either cheer or deplore after the votes are counted. Does that mean there’s no hope at all of changing things and really getting at some of the major problems we face today? Of course not. It just means we have to change our notions about how to go about it. Instead of thinking we can elect a “Leader” who can or will do the job for us, we have to start tackling the problems on an individual basis, at the level where each of us has an effective span of control.

Instead of looking to government for a capsule solution to inflation, each man and woman can start a personal program of living within his means and without a subsidy at taxpayer expense.

Instead of deploring corruption in high places, I can start practicing personal honesty and integrity in my own life.

On the surface, of course, the people in high places today find themselves immune to any effective control by us. They control courts and legislatures and make the laws to suit themselves. It looks like a sure thing — but it isn’t. When enough people put a high priority value on integrity, the whole system of “robbing Peter to pay Paul” breaks down.

Not even the “body politic” itself is immortal or invulnerable, despite surface appearances. Like the body physical it is subject to and under the control of natural laws. Like certain of the seemingly invincible dinosaurs, it can grow too big to function. Like a victim of malaria, it can be brought down by mosquito bites. There are those who claim that the Roman empire fell because the humble mosquito destroyed its system of agriculture through weakening and killing off the slave gangs on the latifundia.

Let’s look at that again. The empire of the Caesars and the legions brought down by a mosquito? Yes — because the mosquito changed the economy of the empire adversely, and the State was actually an economic rather than a political creation. The “body politic” should have been called a “body economic” all along.

Tolstoy said much the same thing in different words in his War and Peace when he told us that the great political figures of history have not led — but only ridden the crests of waves which they did not and could not control.

This is and has to be just as true in our day as in those of Hadrian or Napoleon.

The government — that is, the formal, legal government and the bureaucracy — will essentially be controlled not by itself but by the economic system of which it is a part.

The operations of a free economy will set viable prices for goods and services, if it is allowed to operate. In all the history of control or socialism of any sort, a workable substitute for market pricing has never been found, for even a short period.

The system of control of the economy by a government or authority has a built-in self-destruct. The larger the social (or political) unit and the more involved and advanced the technology, the more quickly and surely will the self-destruct begin to operate.

On the other hand, the control of the government is determined inevitably by the nature of the economy in which it operates. A study of the records of social history will show that this has been so from the earliest times — and there is no reason to think the rule has been suspended.

Just as a free economy sets up an economic competition leading to the advancement of the fittest individuals, firms, technologies, and market entrepreneurs and creates a maximum opportunity for the individual — so also it has always created a political climate in which only the simplest and most efficient systems of government can survive.

So, the comparative absence of political controls among the settlers of America and the limitless opportunity provided by a wide open continent bred first a Mayflower Compact and then societies of economically free and politically independent men who inevitably wrote the American Constitution.

A Vote for Freedom

In our own days, then, there is still a way that you and I can cast a meaningful vote in the shaping of our own lives and the governments — local, state and national —within which we live. It is a very important vote — a very real vote — and if cast by enough of us in our own lives and businesses or professions it will accomplish everything we desire.

This is to opt for a free rather than a regulated economy, and to embody these principles in our thoughts, our actions, and in the examples we set to those about us.

Here is a mandate of the people which no bureaucracy can long ignore or effectively sabotage.

Control does not come from the top — which is why the election of even the best of political leaders (or, fortunately, of even the worst of the lot) can really change very little.

I’m not saying here that we should not vote or take an active part as individuals in the functioning of that body politic of which we find ourselves a part. Of course, that is important. We must realize, however, that the final determinant will be economic rather than political.

In the economic field each one of us has a “span of control” in the way in which he makes and spends his income. In even the most controlled economy, the individual — as a consumer — has some choice and some effective control. Add together all those individual control spans and the result must be an irresistible economic — and political — force.

In the balloting booth we may indeed have been offered only Hobson’s Choice. As I’ve pointed out, this can be so even when the men we elect honestly agree with our ideas and try to put them into action.

In the market place, however, you and I — everyone of us — has an entirely different sort of vote, not to be cast just once every four years. This is a vote that has to be cast every day, sometimes many times a day. It’s effect may be slow and cumulative rather than dramatic and sudden — but it is nonetheless sure.

When enough of us live and believe and think and act as free men, we will have the sort of government which free men can and will produce. A tyrannous government cannot survive the association of free men in a free economy. 

  • Mr. Breese has taught Industrial Management at Georgia Tech and headed the Department of Humanities at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical Institute in Florida. At present he is a free-lance writer.