All Commentary
Sunday, January 1, 1961

Rats, Fleas and Falacies

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 Waterloo.” Indeed, Simpson suggested abol­ishing hospitals altogether!

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 August 12, 1865. His technique was simple. He steril­ized his instruments with carbolic acid and had an assistant spray the air above the incision with more of the same. The wound healed clean without infection. The long reign of “laudable pus” was drawing to a close, and a new era of health and well-being was soon to be ushered in. It took time. There was the usual bitter opposition, but the new method finally won out—at least in the­ory—in advanced countries, al­though more than enough people die prematurely and needlessly even here. Yet there are vast areas today where the blessings of modern sanitation are all but un­known, and people go on dying as they did in the hills of Scotland in the days of Adam Smith.

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. Rome was taken over by the Caesars only after democracy had failed utterly and the Roman world was reduced to chaos. By and large the Romans were gen­uinely relieved when a man like Augustus took over the manage­ment, too.

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.