All Commentary
Sunday, September 17, 2023

Lessons from The Mainspring of Human Progress by Henry Grady Weaver

Reflecting on a timeless classic.

Image Credit: Michael Kauer - Pixabay

Have you ever seriously thought about how far those who wish to dictate to everyone else are willing to go when it comes to energy? The question is essential, because all forms of productive behavior are complements to energy. Emerging dictators are always claiming crises which justify further extending government power over energy. They want to ban some forms of energy or regulate them out of existence. They limit the ability to discover, develop, produce, and transport forms they don’t like. They want to mandate other forms of energy or heavily subsidize them, both directly and indirectly through the tax code. They want to force the phase outs of some forms of energy and the phase ins of others well into the future whenever they can put together some current majority, however fleeting, to pass legislation or, increasingly, whenever the President wants to issue an Executive Order or an executive agency decides to impose more burdensome restrictions.

But despite politicians and their self-interested backers’ extensive efforts in that area, even more extensive are their efforts to dictate something that every such form of energy is complementary to—human energy, which is the motive force behind all our actions. Unfortunately for their quest, however, displacing individuals’ efforts from what they would choose for themselves, and replacing them with government dictation, reduces what we can accomplish.

This recognition brings to mind a book undeservedly relegated to “the dustheap of history” by many today—Henry Grady Weaver’s 1947 book, The Mainspring of Human Progress. The Ludwig von Mises Institute’s website calls this book “the true story of progress for the human race with acute understanding of the fundamental cause: freedom itself,” and notes that “several generations count this book as the very one that started an intellectual revolution.”

Weaver’s book drew heavily from Rose Wilder Lane’s 1943 The Discovery of Freedom: Mans’s Struggle Against Authority. Discovery had become a very influential book, ranking 67th in a 1999 Modern Library reader’s poll of the best nonfiction books. But Lane was not satisfied with it, so despite continuing interest, she refused to allow it to be reprinted, even though only 1000 copies had been printed. That interest led Weaver to ask Lane’s consent to use her ideas, but retell the story in his own way, adding material from his experiences and other sources, which she granted. Ironically, even though Mainspring was what John Hood called “an amateur’s paean to freedom and individual ingenuity,” it ranked 48th in the same poll.

Reader comments about Mainspring have included, “Nothing I say will adequately describe how awesome this book is,” and, “If I ever gave a list of books people needed to read before they die, this would be in the top three.” Its power convinced Leonard Read to distribute hundreds of thousands of copies of it over decades, through his Foundation for Economic Education. And at the center of its insights is the need for each individual to control their own human energy to make the most effective use of it, discovered only very slowly through history because of the tendency to assume someone else must be in control of it. That is an insight worth careful consideration at a time when most political considerations are aimed to override it.

Here are just some of the standout passages from this great work.

Using our energy to better meet our needs

The thin defenses of civilization tend to obscure the stark realities; but men and women survive on this earth only because their energies constantly convert other forms of energy to satisfy human needs.

There can be no progress except through the more effective use of our individual energies, personal initiatives, and imaginative abilities.

It all comes back to the effective use of human energy; and human energy… works only under its own natural control.

Nothing but new and better ways of using human energy can raise a scale of living…[and] it must come from the efforts of an individual person to make something that does not now exist.

The source of American exceptionalism

What is the human purpose in society?…benefiting yourself by getting something you desire from another person who, at the same time, benefits himself by getting something that he desires from you…the peaceful exchange of benefits, mutual aid, co-operation—for each person’s gain. The incalculable sum of all these meetings is human society.

We are not endowed with any superior energy—mental or physical—but it is a fact that we, in the United States of America, have made more effective use of our human energies than have any other people on the face of the globe—anywhere or at any time.

In America, to a greater degree than in any other country, there has been the opportunity for self-expression, self-development, and advancement on the basis of merit.

Freedom, control, and responsibility

Human energy operates very differently from any other energy.

Human energies simply do not function in the manner of the bee swarm, and any attempt to govern the actions of multitudes of men always results in oppressive power being placed in the hands of the few.

A man…has the power of reason, the power of imagination, the ability to capitalize on the experiences of the past and the present as bearing on the problems of the future. He has the ability to…progress and to keep on progressing.

Your natural freedom—your control over your own life-energy…is a part of life itself. No one can give it to you, nor can you give it to someone else. Nor can you hold any other person responsible for your acts. Control simply can’t be separated from responsibility; control is responsibility.

Freedom and the creation of a better world

Individual freedom is the natural heritage of each living person.

The kind of world in which men and women naturally want to live…is the kind of world they begin to create when they are free to use their individual energies and are free to cooperate among themselves—voluntarily.

Your freedom of action may be forbidden, restricted, or prevented by force…But the fact remains that no amount of force can make you act unless you agree—perhaps with hesitation and regret—to do so.

The decision to act and the action itself are always under your own control.

Free minds are inventive minds.

When creative workers find themselves entangled in artificial restrictions and bureaucratic red tape—in addition to the natural, normal, and unavoidable difficulties surrounding their work—much of the potential talent will die on the vine.

Human energy cannot operate effectively except when men are free to act and to be responsible for their actions. But liberty does not mean license; for no one has a right to infringe upon the rights of others.

Understanding human energy means understanding human freedom

Freedom…is the individual person’s inherent, inalienable self-control…Man is endowed with liberty by the Creator, just as he is endowed with life and with the power of reason.

There has never been but one real revolution…the revolution for human freedom.

It all comes back to the matter of individual freedom.

The only human development is the self-development of the individual person.

You can’t order a person to have an inspiration. Creative ideas spring from within; they can’t be forced from without.

In America…Free men were to have an opportunity to live their lives, plan their own affairs, and work with one another—not under the lash of coercive authority but under the discipline of enlightened self-interest and moral responsibility.

Americans had no overall plan. They had something more important. They had personal freedom to plan their own affairs; and the avalanche of human energy resulting from that freedom swept from the Atlantic to the Pacific, from the Great Lakes to the Rio Grande.

Human freedom is a personal matter…Nothing on earth is more valuable than the person who knows that all men are free and who accepts the responsibilities that go with freedom.

Human energy, human freedom, and government

This country has [in the past] been covered by…a tumultuous multitude of free men…living under the weakest government in all the world. The people who had been left to shift for themselves—who had learned the lessons of realism…were creating a new world.

The individual’s life, liberty, and property rights are to be held secure against unjust acts, not only on the part of other individuals, but also on the part of the government itself.

Centralized control or overriding authority to govern all human energies as a unit…has a strong appeal because lurking beneath it is the alluring assumption that the right kind of authority would direct the affairs of all mankind in harmony with the individual’s own personal views—thus relieving him of the trouble and responsibility of making his own ideas work…cling[ing] to the ancient superstition that they are not self-controlling and not responsible for their own acts.

It is highly presumptuous of any mortal man to assume that he is endowed with such fantastic ability that he can run the affairs of all his fellowmen better than they, as individuals, can run their own personal affairs.

Overlords develop their ambitious plans…always at the expense of individual initiative; they always result in oppression.

Unrestrained majority rule always destroys freedom, puts the minority at the mercy of the mob, and works at cross-purposes to the effective use of human energy and individual initiative.

Henry Grady Weaver’s The Mainspring of Human Progress laid out how poverty had been virtually everyone’s fate throughout world history until the evolution/revolution of respect for individual rights put us in charge of our own choices and our own energy, making capitalism, and hence real civilization, possible. That is a lesson well worth remembering, particularly in a period of massive backsliding from the principles that created America and made it great, because as Weaver put it: “One of the best ways to ensure future progress is to keep clearly in mind the things which have been responsible for our past progress, as well as the things which may have kept America from being as great as it might have been.”

The Mainspring of Human Progress is available for free on FEE’s website.


  • Gary M. Galles is a Professor of Economics at Pepperdine University and a member of the Foundation for Economic Education faculty network.

    In addition to his new book, Pathways to Policy Failures (2020), his books include Lines of Liberty (2016), Faulty Premises, Faulty Policies (2014), and Apostle of Peace (2013).