All Commentary
Sunday, April 1, 1973

Pilot Errors

It was year’s end, December 31, 1972. One of my journal entries for the day:

The New York Sunday Times reports as a disaster the crash of a jumbo jet in the Florida Everglades. and on the same page a mere announcement that “the President is willing to name union men to all Federal departments.” In my judgment, the latter is by far the greater disaster in the long run. The jet crash, I suspect, was due to pilot error; naming union men to all Federal departments, I am certain, is also pilot error.

I have no respect for organizations as such — be they labor unions, chambers of commerce, organized religions, educational organizations, governments, or whatever. Respect can be extended only to individual persons who uphold and practice the several virtues. A person’s membership in this organization or that may reveal much or nothing.

An organization is analogous to a book defined as an assemblage of pages bound between two covers. Books, as such, do not merit respect; it is the content that counts. Books range all the way from filth and pornography to intellectual and spiritual enlightenment as found in the Bible or in The Wealth of Nations. The vices and virtues between the covers of organizations are no less diverse. The content of each must be examined.

Why do we not witness the political pilot’s willingness to name chamber of commerce men to all Federal departments? Or members of the Women’s Liberation movement? Or Catholics, Lutherans, Episcopalians, Holy Rollers? Or corporate executives? Or Farm Bureau members? Or certified accountants? Or physicians? Why single out union members? From the standpoint of good government, there is no more logic in naming the latter than the others. There is, of course, a “reason.”

And the “reason” is not that union members are distinguished beyond all others in the population for their statesmanship; they do not exhibit devotion to a common, across-the-board justice, free market and private ownership understanding and practice, or a disdain of special privilege! The real reason? Labor unions, more than any other labeled segment of the population, dictate what governments — Federal, state and local — shall and shall not do. Naming union men to all Federal departments is but an acknowledgment of their overpowering influence. It is a resignation to a political fact and I believe that this resignation, in itself, is a disaster. Find, if you will, any other reason for this “if you can’t lick’em, jine’em” attitude!

In Search of Power

Before assaying the disastrous effects of resignation, let us reflect on the policies we are giving in to, admitting helplessness before, accepting as fait accompli.

Union men, by and large — or their officials, at least — sincerely believe in gaining political power, in “running the show.” They regard this as a proper aspiration and, in this respect, are not to be distinguished from most of their opponents — the losers — the ones who also seek political power but with their men in the driver’s seat rather than unionists. Virtually all contestants in the political arena are striving to get themselves in a position from which they can run the show. There is little attention to the philosophical issue: domineering versus freedom; the contest is which side shall have the dictatorial say-so. Most people who criticize union men should hark to Cicero’s advice: “Everything you reprove in another, you must carefully avoid in yourself.”

Very well! Having agreed that union men differ little from the mill run of humanity over the ages, let us now have a look at the policies they espouse.

A Cartel Backed by Force

A cartel is defined as “an association of industrialists for establishing a monopoly by price fixing, etc.” Labor unions are no less cartels than are some industrial combines. They are price fixers; this is their chief claim to fame. They fix prices not by voluntary agreement but by edict backed by violence. Monopolists? Try to become a 747 Captain for less than $57,000 a year or a plumber in Westchester County for less than $15.80 an hour plus the contractor’s percentage.

All above-market wage rates forcibly exacted by labor unions cause unemployment precisely as $20 for a pound of cheese would cause its unemployment at the table. How is this unemployment catastrophe covered up? Labor unions, using their political power, get the government to pick up the tab: public housing, urban renewal, the Gateway Arch, moon shots, and thousands of other pyramids — “make work” projects to employ resources which have been coercively excluded from the market.’

These “make work” projects cost billions upon billions annually. How does government pay these enormous bills? First, by direct taxation — all the voters will tolerate. This, however, is far from adequate. How make up the difference? Increase the money supply: inflation! The result? The dollar becomes worth less and less. It has lost nearly 70 per cent of its purchasing value in the past 33 years. As one perceptive wit phrases it: “Nothing can replace the American dollar — and it practically has.”

Reflect on this problem realistically. If it were generally believed that these tactics of labor unions were leading us to disaster, citizens would have none of them. Indeed, union men themselves would not be a party to what they now applaud.

“The New Economics” — a Primitive Lust for Power

But the general belief is to the contrary. Tactics such as these comprise “the new economics” and they are given prestige by such celebrated characters as Lord John Maynard Keynes, as well as by thousands of so-called economists spawned by them. These tactics are now believed to lead not to disaster but to prosperity and social welfare. Old fogeys may still frown on wage rates fixed above the market by violence, with government taxation and inflation to pick up the tab for the resulting unemployment; but why fret when assured that the consequence is all to the good! So goes the “reasoning.”

As if “the new economics” were really new! Actually, all of this is an inheritance from our barbaric ancestors. It rests on the primitive notion that these self-appointed rulers are capable of running the lives of others beneficially. The fact? No person who has ever lived has such a capability over any single individual, let alone over millions. All wielders of this kind of power resemble the rest of us in knowing substantially nothing, but they are unaware of how little they know. All of “the new economics” is old hat.

I am trying to suggest that beliefs are here at issue. And at stake is the overthrow of the newest and most enlightening thoughts in human history, that is, as pertaining to political economy: free, voluntary exchange, private ownership, and limited government concepts. Were we to collapse life on this earth into a calendar year, these ideas have been perceived during the last 3½ seconds before midnight of December 31. However, as Ortega points out, it is always the latest and highest acquisitions of the mind that are the least stable and the first to be abandoned whenever crisis threatens. The new, the wonderful — individual freedom —is now being abandoned in favor of the old, the primitive, the domineering way of life.

Sound economics is about as simple as this: Were the price of cheese to be coercively fixed at, say, $20 per pound, there would be no consumption. And were it coercively fixed at, say, 2t per pound, there would be no production. I say to all political rigging, “Cheese it!”

Even if the political pilot gives in to “the new economics” by expressing a willingness that union men be named to all Federal departments, and even if millions of others evidence such resignation, I must hold out for freedom though I may seem to stand alone. My faith tells me, however, that there are thousands of others — The Remnant — who are determined to do the same.



1 The so-called Full Employment Act of 1946 authorizes governmental spending and relief programs to employ overpriced labor and other resources for purposes for which there are no willing customers. For further discussion see Henry Hazlitt, The Failure of the “New Economics,” Princeton, N. J., 1959, pp. 399-408.



On Power

Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority. There is no worse heresy than that the office sanctifies the holder of it.


In letter to Creighton, April 5, ¹887 

  • Leonard E. Read (1898-1983) was the founder of FEE, and the author of 29 works, including the classic parable “I, Pencil.”