Dr. Coleson is Professor of Economics at Huntington College, Indiana.
The end of all flesh was at hand. Europe and the world were dying and there was no one to bury the dead. Ghost ships drifted aimlessly at sea, for all the crew had perished. A goose girl found herself mistress of the manor with its gowns and jewels. Only she survived. Wolves took up their abode in the tenantless homes of the people. This was the Black Death of 1348, a mighty scourge that swept away perhaps half the population of the world. When the foremost doctor of the age was asked to explain the catastrophe, he answered: "The grand conjunction of the three superior planets, Saturn, Jupiter, and Mars, in the sign of Aquarius, produced the Black Death." More recently men were to learn that the plague was rather due to a malign conjunction of microbes, rats, and fleas. In the meantime the pestilence that walked in the darkness of ignorance could not be controlled.
The Root of the Difficulty
The rise of scientific medicine has been one of the seven wonders of the modern world and certainly one of the foremost. A century ago the use of anesthetics was scarcely more than a dozen years old, a revolutionary technique that stilled the anguished cries of the patients who had formerly suffered the tortures of the knife while strapped to the operating table. Now the surgeon could operate in peace, but he was wholly helpless against the awful spread of infection which regularly carried away most, if not all, of his patients. Incisions were well-nigh universally infected and doctors expected what they called "laudable pus" to develop in the wound. Those were the days when the patient was supposed to get worse before he got better but few ever lived to recover. James Young Simpson, who discovered the anesthetic properties of chloroform, lamented that "a man laid on the operating table in one of our surgical hospitals is exposed to more chances of death than the English soldier on the field of
Nor were the folks who escaped the surgeon’s knife much better off. Adam Smith remarked in the Wealth of Nations: "It is not uncommon… in the Highlands of Scotland for a mother who has borne twenty children not to have two alive." What passed for cities at the time had such a tragically high mortality in spite of the high birth rate that they were only able to maintain themselves by the constant influx of folks from the country. The notorious White Man’s Grave of West Africa could hardly have been more unhealthful.
About a century ago a French chemist by the name of Louis Pasteur was doing a bit of industrial consulting. The wine industry of France was sick, and Pasteur who had been working on the problem of fermentation was called in to diagnose the difficulty. Out of this study grew Pasteurization so familiar in the dairy industry today. Hearing of his work, a Scottish surgeon, Joseph Lister, decided that perhaps those strange microorganisms with which Pasteur had been struggling might be the cause of the pestilence which stalked the wards of the hospitals and made them a literal pesthole of infection. Lister’s first antiseptic operation was performed
One of the writer’s vivid recollections of West Africa is that of a newborn infant writhing in the last stages of tetanus, because the native midwife had never heard what caused infection. The baby was dead by morning as millions of others have died and will continue to die for years to come, and all so needlessly. The Europeans in West Africa largely banished the curse of the White Man’s Grave for themselves years ago by boiling their drinking water, screening their homes, and taking antimalarial regularly—simple precautions upon which they have no monopoly and which they have been trying for years to share with the native people. The latter are catching on to the new techniques, if belatedly and slowly. But then, it is well to recall that even the most able doctors in the world didn’t know what caused infection a hundred years ago.
The Triumph and Failure of the Twentieth Century
The writer once heard a doctor boast how the medical profession had banished the ills of mankind. He quoted statistics to prove that such former scourges as smallpox and diphtheria were well-nigh conquered and great gains were being made in most other areas. He assured us that if the rest of us had succeeded as well in solving the great problems of mankind—war, crime, poverty, and depressions—that we would have gone a long way in ushering in that Golden Age for which men have always yearned.
The doctor’s lament is a common one. It is quite customary for science students to speak derisively of the chaotic state of the world which they like to contrast with the precise and ordered realm of mathematics or physics. They somehow seem to think that they are absolved from any blame for the crisis of our time; the responsibility must lie with the "specialists" in social science, philosophy, or religion. Such an attitude reveals a wholly fallacious "world view" in the mind of the "scientist," and indicates that he, too, is part of the problem rather than a start on the solution. There are some pretty important differences between pure science as such and the realm of human affairs.
Social Science Versus the Physical Sciences
It is a favorite notion of our time that the physical scientist follows the path of truth with unerring instinct, never misses his way, and always instantly recognizes a good idea when he sees one. The social scientist, on the other hand, is pictured as a Paleolithic medicine man who has not yet gotten himself clear of the jungle. Man’s struggle to find the proper center for his solar system, which took a couple thousand years, should indicate that this is hardly true. Many other examples from the physical sciences could be cited—the development of our ideas of the nature of matter from the air-fire-earth-and-water notions of the Greeks through John Dalton’s atomic theory to nuclear reactors, the fumbling attempts to discover the true nature of combustion, the feud over the germ theory of disease within the century, and so on—to prove that it takes the natural scientist time to "catch on," too. The search after truth is an arduous one in any line of human endeavor. The physical scientist, however, has the great advantage that ordinary people are not emotionally involved in his experimental efforts to the extent they are in the social sciences. No one ever got excited over Archimedes’ Principle—except Archimedes. Men have never been asked to give their lives for the Theorem of Pythagoras.
"Involved in Mankind"
The social scientist by contrast is inevitably "involved in mankind." He cannot go into his laboratory like the chemist, perform his experiments, however tedious they may be, and then release his results when he is ready. The great "social experiments" of our time—socialism, communism, Square Deals, New Deals and Fair Deals, Social Security, and the rest—may involve ultimately the whole of mankind for better or worse. We might take some island way out in the Pacific—pity the people—and try all the new social, political, economic, and educational ideas there before releasing them for use on the rest of the folks. It won’t be done, however much suffering it might save the human family. Also, in a social situation it is ordinarily impossible to hold all known factors constant except one as we attempt to do in physics. Worst of all, the experiments often cannot be repeated and checked. Maybe no one would want to. If only we could take the history of the last half-century and run it through again, but –
The Moving Finger writes; and having writ,
Moves on; nor all your Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all your Tears wash out a word of it.
Since they are so inextricably interwoven with the institutions men live by, the social sciences are not nearly as autonomous as the physical sciences. The physicists "run" physics, the astronomers, astronomy, and the like; and outsiders ordinarily stay discreetly on the outside, which is what is expected of them. A man who knows so little science that he thinks HCl is the high cost of living will not presume to intrude into the laboratory. He’d be afraid of blowing himself up. Yet he knows just how the country ought to be run, and will not be at all backward about expressing his opinion, however ignorant he may be of the question under consideration. But men do not instinctively have the wisdom to make proper choices involving the welfare of mankind without study and thought which should be abundantly evident by now. The ages that are past and gone have something to teach. Principles that have been laid down by diligent study and careful thought have value, even if they leave something to be desired at times, which is also true in chemistry or physics.
A Question of Management
It was said during the Great Depression that perhaps one person in ten thousand knew enough economics and understood the history of the recent past well enough to have much notion about what caused the disaster. Should that one-hundredth of one per cent of the population take over the management of the country because they alone qualify to do it? And who is going to choose the specialists since there will be many offering their services? Obviously, leaving all decisions involving the application of the social sciences to the ordering of our lives and government in the hands of a few self-styled experts might well mean tyranny of the grossest sort, and few of us would care to take the chance. Nor would it be democracy. Yet, we cannot have multitudes of people organized in diverse pressure groups, insisting on assorted policies that are wholly unrealistic and mutually exclusive, if not utterly unworkable. Then, when problems become intolerably complicated, people throw up their hands in despair and look around for a good dictator.
But perhaps there is still a greater problem than people’s emotional involvement in social science or even the fact that every man is an "expert" in the field. It has been the history of the world that even when people know what they ought to do, they just plain won’t do it. The human "cussedness" factor is much more significant in the realm of human relations than in the physical sciences. Furthermore, the temptations and opportunities to subvert, confuse, and propagandize are vastly greater than in the more impersonal aspects of life. Small wonder then that the social studies field often ends up as a battleground, especially in these times when people in general are confused and not at all sure in which direction they want to move.
Inflation Through the Ages
It is fascinating, although disheartening, to note how ancient problems, which men once thought they had solved, arise again and again to plague mankind. Take, for instance, the simple problem of inflation. That’s an old one, but "modern" man in the Space Age seems to be completely mystified by the upward push of the "consumer index," although many of the old-timers who had no index knew what was causing the trouble. Inflation is a chronic disorder of economic life, often becoming acute, for the simple reason that the powers-that-be just can’t resist the temptation to multiply the effective monetary stock—what passes for money—whenever they are hard pressed for funds to promote another vote catching scheme to please the rest of us. Obviously, if we are going to have fiscal responsibility, there must be an effective check on both the politician and the voters who keep him in power, which is a powerful argument for keeping our tax dollars and control over them at home. We, the people, pay all the bills anyway, so we can’t lose by doing so directly through local government or private agencies which supply the needed services. Furthermore, the folks back home can’t print money arbitrarily as central governments are prone to do.
Inflation is an interesting phenomenon, too, aside from the fact that it is presumably the No. 1 problem today. For one thing, the cause and symptoms have been clearly recognized for a long time, literally ages before man understood the cause of infection or the secrets of the atom. The Caesars did more than their share of debasing the coinage until money passed from hand to hand in bags without opening, because it didn’t pay to take the time to count the worthless stuff. Marco Polo observed that the Mongols had discovered the secret of alchemy "in perfection" by making paper money from the inner bark of the mulberry trees. The Khan over-issued it, too, until it "wasn’t worth a continental." It was just too easy to make more. Polo estimated that the Khan’s annual addition to the monetary stock "must equal in amount all the treasure in the world." David Hume was aware back in 1752 what a calamity it would be if "all the money of Great Britain were multiplied fivefold in a night."
Cheap Money Policies of the Past
The consequence of cheap money policies was well understood a thousand years before the Caesars started multiplying the denarii to provide a "Roman holiday." Lycurgus, founder of the Spartan state, knew perfectly well how to reduce his countrymen to the state of abject poverty he thought would be good for them. He decreed that they use iron money so that it would be nearly worthless. It was; trade languished; and it cannot be denied that he succeeded very well in accomplishing his purpose. What mystifies the thoughtful citizen today is how our contemporaries hope to build "an affluent society" on the basis of "easy money" with less intrinsic value than old Lycurgus’ iron standard. Can we hope that our luck will be better than the multitude of others who have tried the same scheme with the same results, down through history?
Now, of course it is true, once people have gotten used to a representative money—paper backed by gold—that one can quietly pull the gold out from under the paper without any noticeable effects in the short run; and, if the responsible authorities can resist the pressures and temptations to expand the supply, the system may work a long time without any difficulties. But that’s the rub! There must be effective restraints, checks and balances, before any monetary system will work for long. Also, the arrangement must be simple enough so that ordinary people can understand it, and know if their money has been tampered with. That may sound like an impossible ideal but Adam Smith stated that:
When king John of France, in order to pay his debts, adulterated his coin, all the officers of his mint were sworn to secrecy. [Even then the fraud]… could never be concealed very long… [and] the coin… after the greatest adulterations… has almost always been brought back to its former fineness. It has scarce ever happened that the fury and indignation of the people could otherwise be appeased.
It is significant that democratic governments today regularly resort to what Smith called that "juggling trick" of debasing the monetary standard, something that even a tyrant couldn’t get by with then. It is an ominous trend, too, when one recalls Lenin’s suggestion that the way to destroy capitalism is to debauch the currency.
If, in this scientific age, we put any confidence in the experimental method, few things have been tried more often or have more uniformly come out the same way than the experiment in inflation upon which we seem to be embarked at present. It has been proven again and again that a currency or coinage tends to drop to the intrinsic value of the material of which it is made. Obviously, it can’t fall farther or the money would be taken out of circulation for its scrap value; but as long as it is overvalued, there will be pressure to make more. Surely, Boyle’s Law is no more solidly substantiated.
A Sound Money Depends on Sound Economic Policies
But there is more to achieving monetary stability than simply returning to gold. We wouldn’t stay on gold—you recall we didn’t—unless we quit trying to do a lot of things which are inconsistent with the workings of a gold standard or any stable monetary system. The thing that is destroying the value of our money, and our nation along with it, is our endless round of perpetual-motionschemes—something for nothing—economic witchcraft that doesn’t go well with the atomic and jet age. If our money hasn’t dropped yet to the price of wastepaper, this does not deny we are headed in that direction. At a yearly inflation rate which approximates normal interest charges, it shouldn’t take more than a generation or two to get there. In the meantime we’ll suffer the fate of France, which, said Dickens, in the opening page of the Tale of Two Cities, "rolled with exceeding smoothness down hill, making paper money and spending it."
Our persisting blunders in the social realm, as compared with our success in science, is particularly striking when one recalls that Copernicus suggested to his contemporaries how to get back to sound money more than twenty years before he published his great work which reordered the universe. There was the usual delay in getting people to change their astronomical concepts, which seems to distress us greatly. We are most uncharitable with Galileo’s tormentors nearly a century later, who had not yet caught up with the Copernican revolution in astronomy. But we have not yet learned the simple lesson in economics which Copernicus tried to teach before he took up his larger assignment in outer space. Science we learn slowly, but economics— that we do not learn!
This incredible lag is intolerable. Adam Smith published the Wealth of Nations in 1776. It had its limitations, but it was a tremendous step forward. John Dalton proposed the basis of modern atomic theory a generation later. His ideas were inadequate, too, but a real milestone in human progress, and the reader cannot help knowing something of the enormous strides we have made, for good or ill, in the last century and a half.
In the economic realm we made great progress for a time, but have since reverted to sixteenth century mercantilism with all its maladjustments, frustrations, and inevitable tendencies toward war.
As Bastiat said more than a hundred years ago: "When goods don’t cross frontiers, armies will." Tensions mount hourly and, too often, technological advances are canceled out by more mercantilist restrictions, or are devoted to mankind’s destruction.
If we were only back with John Dalton and his harmless atom of 1803! The tragedy of our age is that we have gotten so far ahead of John Dalton but have failed to catch up with Adam Smith—or with Moses and the Moral Law, for sound economics and good ethics are one and the same. The great unfinished task of the twentieth century is to rid our economic and moral philosophy of rats, fleas, and fallacies.