All Commentary
Tuesday, November 1, 1983

On Improving the World

First published in 1960.

A friend of ours—call him John—born at the turn of the century, was associated with big affairs as far back as college days. A natural leader, he became president of one of the country’s most successful corporations during the early thirties.

Devoted to private enterprise, he saw sooner than most men the fallacies in NIRA and a host of other political interventions. And he actively participated in program after program to alter the country’s lunge into political, social, and financial disaster. He contributed generously to plans designed to educate “the masses who had the votes.” Yet, nothing seemed to come of all this.

John served as a director of—and helped finance—all sorts of business organizations which passed resolutions strongly condemning interventionist policy. But no one, least of all those in political power, appeared to be moved by these criticisms. Time passed. Interventionism continued to grow. The national debt, coupled with the accrued liability of the federal government on various unfunded promises, slipped almost unnoticed beyond the trillion dollar mark. The dollar, as a result, progressively lost value in terms of what it would purchase. Labor union power kept growing into an awesome form of dictatorial government. To add insult to injury, the ranks of the staunch opposition steadily thinned.

Meanwhile, plans aimed at setting things straight were offered in endless profusion. For instance, projects were set in motion, with John’s support, to educate the youth of the land after a poll of high school students showed that they knew no more about private enterprise and capitalism than could reasonably have been expected of Russian students. But such corrective efforts had no discernible effect.

Recently, came this unusually appealing proposal: Put the “right people” in public office; and, to accomplish this, organize “right down to the precinct level.” John’s company paid a lot of lip service to this one, going so far as to encourage their young executives to “get into politics.” Yet, nothing seemed to come of it. The “right people,” as it turned out, had a few of the correct economic and political predilections, but little else in the way of qualifications. With several notable exceptions, they were not firmly anchored in private enterprise principles and thus were little better than the politicians they hoped to replace.

Next to managing the corporation, the problem uppermost in John’s mind all of his adult life had been how best to achieve private enterprise in its ideal form. He had given thousands of hours of thought and many hundreds of thousands of dollars to what he affectionately termed “the cause.” Lately, however, he has virtually conceded defeat—given up the ghost. In spite of his efforts over the years, the opposite point of view grew stronger day by day. He had explored every avenue known to him, with no more to show for his pains than socialism—under its various labels—still on the march.

But the other day, in a reflective mood, John realized for the first time that every effort of his, all of his energies, all of these schemes, had been aimed at the utterly fruitless task of reforming others—a method that only put in motion the latent errors so widely entertained. It was like fanning dust—the more you fan, the more you fill the air with it. No wonder “the cause” was losing its enthusiasts. The method was woefully at fault.

Right method? As simple as a-b-c, just as anything is simple, once it is known. It is one thing to organize an army or police force to inhibit others or compel conformity to dictatorial decrees. But the practice of freedom cannot depend on coercion. When it comes to influencing another to think and act creatively, to help advance another’s understanding, one is limited to the power of attraction. Let anyone acquire mastery of any subject, and others will hunger for his counsel. This is a common fact, in evidence on every hand.

Once he had grasped the profound importance of right method, John gave up every thought of reforming or making over others. Though vastly ahead of most people—even business leaders—in his understanding of private enterprise and his ability to explain its principles, he realized how incompetent he was, not by comparison with others but compared to his own potentialities. He turned his sights inward toward his own fulfillment instead of focusing his efforts upon others. It was as if he had escaped from a dungeon on a tiny ray of light into an openness as expansive as the Cosmos itself. No longer was every effort futile. Instead, every effort had its reward in personal upgrading, opportunities without end. He wrote a friend:

What a wonderful new life I have been introduced to. Never before have I realized the great power of the mind . . . it actually has changed my whole concept of living.

Before, John had “buttonholed” others. Now, others came to him. Previously, others ran away from his preachments. Lately, they were drawn toward his wisdom. Where he had sought, uselessly, to reform others, they now managed to reform themselves. An axiom learned in high school came to mind: “The whole is equal to the sum of its parts.” John forgot the whole and concentrated on the improvement of a part. As a result, John’s part of the world was changed, and thus the whole world improved.

While self-improvement—learning the freedom philosophy and how to explain it—is generally conceded to be the sound approach, it is often rejected as being too slow. “We have to act now; time is of the essence.” Caution! Premature action is pointless at best, and to hurry with anything but the sound approach may be damaging. If I am working as intelligently, diligently, and rapidly on my own improvement as is within my power, the balance of the problem is in the hand of God. He did not commission me to manage the world, or the United States of America, or my neighbor. Further, I am unaware that any person has been so endowed or empowered.

* * *

Man tends to follow the lines of least resistance to satisfy his desires. He will stoop for the property of others if the government encourages him, and will stoop for power over the lives of others if the government grants him that special privilege. Remove these appeals to man’s avarice and, having nothing to stoop for, he will stand upright.

  • The Foundation for Economic Education, founded 1946, works for a free and prosperous world.