All Commentary
Thursday, July 1, 1965

If I had Power

Mr. Sparks is a businessman in Canton, Ohio.

A classroom discussion con­cerned a successful and wealthy industrial leader who had donated most generously to parks, muse­ums, educational institutions, and other worthy endeavors during his lifetime, while expanding his com­pany and the local job opportuni­ties in the community at the same time. Then the teacher posed an interesting question to his high school students. How would the students have spent this man’s wealth if they had had the op­portunity; and further, was it proper that the spending of such a great amount of wealth should have been decided by one man? Written answers were requested.

There were a few exceptions, but generally the students failed to acknowledge the hard work, long hours, and ingenious ideas that were required over so many years to create the wealth now theoretically in the hands of each student. Instead, only the second half of the old saying, “easy come, easy go,” was evident in the imag­inative spending spree. Unaware of the responsibility of creating wealth, they also lacked an aware­ness of the responsibility of us­ing it. Obviously, most of the students thought they could have “spread” his wealth in a manner that would have accomplished more than the good achieved by the industrialist. Many suggested that the government could better have spent his wealth than he did.

One student, however, whose wisdom belied her years, wrote that the wealthy leader, who had built up such a successful com­pany, produced good jobs, and amassed a substantial fortune, evi­dently knew better than others how to use his wealth. Besides, she added, no matter what others thought about his use of his rich­es, it was no concern of theirs. It was his property, and he alone had the right to decide its use.

At one time or another, most of us doubtless have daydreamed about what we could do with a million dollars—not how we would study, learn, work, sweat, labor, and save to create the for­tune—but only how we would spend it if we were suddenly to come into possession of it.

If I were king—if I were pres­ident—if I were rich—if I were manager of the Yankees baseball team—if I were calling the plays for the Cleveland Browns’ profes­sional football team…. What self-entertainment it is to specu­late in this manner!

While it may be tempting to imagine oneself qualified to as­sume one of these positions of honor, it is convenient to forget that one has not paid the exacting toll to get there; and further, that one is not actually responsible for the consequences of decisions made only in fantasy.

Dividing the Pie

In a similar fashion, the gov­ernment interventionist (socialist, collectivist) tries to enter the pic­ture, at the top, after the goods have been produced by others. In this case, the speculation is not innocent, passive fun but a vicious form of covetousness that would project the “if-I-had-the-power” ideas into reality.

These advocates of compulsory collectivism seldom find fault with the productive prowess emanating from a private-ownership, free enterprise economy. There is no suggestion from them how the owners of factories can produce more. No idea is presented that will improve quality, lower costs, and shorten production time. Not one of them comes up with the plan that encourages a worker to make his actual output equal the potential of his ability and effort.

The collectivist has no objection to the unbelievably huge quanti­ties and varieties of material goods and services pouring out of the factories and into the mar­ket places of the nation every day. Compared with the quality and quantity of a century ago, or even a decade ago, he will concede the fantastic abundance flowing from a free economy. This is not his quarrel. More than likely, how­ever, it is his attraction. A nation of great wealth has greater at­traction to the collectivist than a poor nation where little is available to divide. Given a choice between two pies of different sizes, he prefers to divide the larger pie. Not at all concerned with making the pie larger, he wants only to divide it in a manner he thinks just; and the bigger the pie, the more powerful and important he feels.

All Were Failures

One might wonder why the modern twentieth-century collecti­vist does not try to introduce his ideals to his fellow men by pro­viding true-life illustrations of the wonders of collectivism in ex­perimental communities. Almost any up-to-date manufacturing company that develops a new prod­uct will first test the product and its acceptance by the public in a limited number of marketing areas before attempting to sell it on a nationwide scale. Failure had best be ascertained sooner rather than later if disastrous losses are to be avoided by the company. On the other hand, successful pro­motion can better be planned for national introduction after expe­riencing satisfactory results in the test markets. The only sen­sible way, according to these man­ufacturing leaders, is to test the product on a small scale first.

Not for the modern collectivists, however! Collectivism, wherein the individual is pushed aside for the common good, has been tried repeatedly over the centuries in great variety—monarchies, em­pires, socialist states, welfare states, fascism, people’s democ­racies—to name a few of the forms of political despotism that have repeatedly deprived man of his full heritage of freedom. To­day’s collectivist is not about to show his wares in anything re­sembling a test market. And with good reason. The collectivist is bored with the hard facts of eco­nomic life. He does not want the responsibility to create abundance. Production tires him, and well it might, because the collectivist principle—from each according to ability, to each according to need—is not an incentive for anyone to work harder or strive for the bet­ter idea or the method that will produce more material goods.

During the nineteenth century, numerous voluntary experimental collectivist communities were tried, and failed. Many of these experiments in the United States were primarily religious in na­ture, including the earlier Ply­mouth Colony. The economic as­pect was usually secondary and of concern only as a means to fulfill the spiritual objectives of the members of these societies. Never­theless, after initial zeal, the good producers soon tired of being ill-fed. They left. They chose not to be responsible for feeding those who would rather be idle. In those communities where the experi­ment was primarily economic rather than religious, the communes folded after only two or three years.

It should be remembered that under these experiments of volun­tary collectivism, no walls or cur­tains of iron prevented the skill­ful and ambitious producers from packing up their families and leav­ing. No guards stood armed to shoot those who had enough of collectivism. They simply left. The collectivist officials, the zealous members, the idlers, and the un­skilled who remained thus were faced with a choice—collectivism and poverty on one hand, to which the older members sometimes did not object, or a return to individ­ual ownership and responsibility.

Two Reasons Why the Local Experiments Could Not Succeed

It would be pointless for the modern collectivist to attempt to prove the glowing dreams derived from a voluntary experimental community, because none has worked successfully in the past and none will work in the future—for two reasons. Membership in such an experimental commun­ity is voluntary. A member can dissociate himself with the mini­mum of inconvenience. And if he is worth his salt, he will. Obvious­ly then, the modern collectivist cannot afford to permit any liber­ty to choose. Too few would pre­fer collectivism if they actually understood the system. Therefore, the people who do not like it can­not be allowed to quit the national program. Good producers must produce for the benefit of the un­skilled, indolent, and lazy—as well as for those administrating the entire system.

The other reason why the ex­perimental collectivist communi­ties folded was the ready compari­son between the results of collec­tivism and the results of private ownership, as seen in neighboring towns and cities perhaps only a few miles away. This detrimental comparison can be avoided only when the collectivist principle is adopted nationwide on a compul­sory basis. The collectivist cannot afford to let the public see the re­sults of his ideas at work, com­pared side-by-side with the results of private ownership and individ­ual initiative. The comparison would reveal the collectivist short­comings all too quickly. There­fore, collectivist laws must be adopted throughout the nation so that no comparisons exist.

People Can Be Misled

It seems unlikely that any peo­ple would accept a form of gov­ernment in their communities that embraced collectivist principles. Would the populace of any civil­ized nation accede willingly and knowingly to despotism and regimentation, particularly after hav­ing tasted freedom? One would expect them to be on guard, es­pecially against any tendency to drift in that direction. Yet, para­doxically, what is impossible for the collectivist to achieve on a small scale in an experiment seems to be more readily attainable on the broad scale of an entire na­tion. This does not mean that col­lectivism can successfully bring about an abundant, happy, crea­tive life. It cannot any more do this on the larger national scale than on the smaller community scale. But the public can be misled into it, especially when no com­parison is readily available to show up the defects in a nation of complete collectivism.

This is freedom’s great danger. This is collectivism’s peculiar op­portunity. Persons are attracted by the paternalistic-government promises even though they are not achievable.

Strangely enough, many of the advocates of these programs are not schemers or conspirators at­tempting to hoodwink the people, but sincere persons with the best of intentions. They honestly be­lieve their system of compulsion will benefit mankind. They are frightened by the imagined “chaos” of millions of people, each one making hundreds of decisions every day of his life.

Let us once more be reminded that the collectivist does not like comparisons. Even in a country such as ours that suffers a milder case of the collectivist disease, the comparison of a government en­terprise with a private enterprise of like nature will be carefully rigged to favor the former. For example, TVA electric power is represented as being less costly to produce than the electricity of private companies, although the TVA pays few, if any, of the tax costs for governmental “services.” Low-interest or interest-free fi­nancing are simply ignored in the comparisons.

Eliminating Competition

The next step beyond a “rigged” government – private comparison, is the elimination by law of the private method altogether. The post office is an example. Only the government postal system is law­ful; none other is permitted to deliver mail. Government educa­tion has not yet reached this point, although there have been sugges­tions to ban private education be­low the college level. In certain states, private insurance com­panies are prohibited from sup­plying workman’s compensation insurance to employers. Only the state insurance “company” is per­mitted to operate.

Thus, no one can justifiably accuse a collectivist of being a good sport. He wants the rules of the game rigged so that no others can show up collectivism as the weak, incapable, unproductive, and im­moral system it is. The system he advocates will not permit a contest on neutral ground and un­der uniform rules if it can be helped. The collectivist wants four strikes, while he restricts the pri­vate ownership competitor to two strikes, or one, or preferably none! It is not surprising then that no comparison at all is the preferred position. After six years of Castro, some Cubans are losing the sense of comparison. One Cu­ban parent says: “Despite what we parents tell them, the young people are beginning to forget what life was like before 1959. They don’t remember what it’s like to live well—or what freedom really means.”¹

In order to guard against col­lectivism, it must be revealed for what it is, a system that removes freedom of individual choice, that gives great power to a group of despots, that erodes the mind of accurate historical experience, and that will cause mankind to de­generate rather than climb toward greater material and spiritual levels.

Politically – elected officials in their government capacities can­not produce abundance. The most powerful political office of the world is incapable of producing a high level of material wealth, or of waging successfully a so-called war on poverty. Yet people, like sheep, are still swallowing these absurd claims of the political med­icine man.

Increased productivity is the only antidote for poverty. To achieve such increase, all men must be free to be creative with their ideas and efforts. The free market stands ever ready to re­ward and provide the incentive to any who would achieve power—purchasing power—by the honest sweat of his brow and the inven­tiveness of his mind.




No society can rightly offer less than equality before the law; but there can be no equality of condition between youth and age or between the sexes; there cannot be equality even between friends. The rule is that each shall act where he is strong; the assignment of identical roles produces first confusion and then alienation, as we have increasing opportunity to observe.

Richard m. Weaver, Ideas Have Consequences

Foot Notes

1 “What Castro Is Doing to Cuba,” U.S. News &World Report, LVIII (March 1, 1965), 70.

  • 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.