All Commentary
Friday, April 1, 1960

Scientific Free Enterprise

Dr. Coleson is Professor of Economics at Taylor University, Upland, Indiana.


A lot of so-called liberals have talked about “scientific socialism” so long now that the world has well-nigh fallen for the delusion that socialism is, indeed, scientific. While certainly a number of scien­tists, engineers, and technicians have had a distressing affinity for socialist and communist causes along with a number of other shortcomings and vices which they share with the general popu­lation, it simply is not true that pure science as such has a pro-collectivist bias. In fact, when it seemed that everyone else was going “liberal” back in the New Deal days, it was the insights of science coupled with an elementary course in economics which helped to hold the writer steady when the issues were not clear or well un­derstood. Some things simply could not be true by the very nature of the world even if everyone ap­proved, and I found myself a lone­some minority of one. At least this has saved me the embarrassment that many a well-meaning indi­vidual has experienced who must now make his painful way back from a bankrupt utopia, like the Prodigal Son returning from the swine pen of the Far Country.

Economic Perpetual Motion

Actually, New Dealism, the bright hope of multiplied millions of Americans in the 1930′s, had a strangely familiar ring to one brought up on science and mathe­matics. We used to have that trouble in engineering, too. A num­ber of craftsmen, long on mechani­cal skill but short on theory, have wasted their lives trying to rig ingenious machines that would achieve perpetual motion, or sim­ply, something for nothing.

Although there are doubtless as many schemes as individuals, the following example may suffice to illustrate what is meant. Having grown weary of buying gas for the family car, we invent an elec­tric automobile. It is all very sim­ple. We mount a generator and a motor side by side with each run­ning the other as in Figure 1. We assume, of course, that there will be a considerable “unearned in­crement” of energy that can be used to drive the automobile down the road. We need a push to get it started, but then the “multiplier” takes over, and we have an abun­dance of power—and all for noth­ing—until we put on the brakes at the end of the way. It is a very good scheme, except it won’t work.

The motor and generator might be coaxed to very nearly run each other but, since there is friction, a little outside power would need to be added to keep them both going. If any work is demanded of the combination, there must be an additional input of electricity com­mensurate with the task to be per­formed.

Our Persistent Politicians

Most everyone in the sciences quit looking for something for nothing quite a while ago, but the politicians are still at it in full force with no indications even yet that they sense even vaguely that the whole business is impossible. Our whole Operation Bootstraps by which we tried to lift ourselves out of the Great Depression under the New Deal reeked with per­petual motionism, as did certain popular private schemes as the chain letter craze and the Town­send Plan. They never worked and business stagnated all during the 1930′s. Having learned nothing and forgotten nothing in the in­tervening years, we are still trying those same outworn schemes. We have a principle in science, which is used to discourage such hopeless endeavor, called the Law of Con­servation of Mass and Energy. In plain English, it says you can’t get something for nothing.

Frictional Losses Lead to Poverty

Now there are better and worse ways of doing things. Suppose we want to lift a 450-pound barrel up and set it on a shipping dock three feet high as illustrated in Figure 2. It will require a minimum of3 x 450 or 1,350 foot pounds of work to lift it up there. Given the size of the task, nothing on earth can reduce the figure below 1,350 foot pounds. Since we can’t lift 450 pounds directly, we may whittle the task down to size by pushing it up the ramp. In this case we exert a lesser force over a longer distance, but nothing will reduce the minimum figure. If we use a jack screw, an electric hoist, or a stick of dynamite, the force required is the same. If we ladle the contents up with a teaspoon into another container and lift the empty barrel up later, we have gotten out of nothing. Indeed, we most certainly have wasted a con­siderable amount of additional effort to no purpose.

The engineer of today has long since given up trying to get some­thing for nothing: he is earnestly striving to get as close to 100 per cent efficiency as possible—the irreducible minimum of effort neces­sary to perform the task. Fric­tional losses are still high; a steam engine wastes 80 to 85 per cent of its power input, and an automobile as much as 75 per cent. Diesels do somewhat better and, recently, re­action engines (rockets or jets) have been developed which are very nearly as efficient as our older engines were wasteful. Still we aren’t getting something for noth­ing. Indeed, we are only beginning to get our money’s worth.

To Discipline the Mind

All of these calculations may seem irrelevant and uninteresting to the person not trained in science and mathematics. However, these rigorous disciplines do something to one’s mind. It simply is not possible to tell many of us that the government can give without first taking. It is sheer rubbish that there are all sorts of colossal tasks—education, roads, housing, care of the poor and aged, besides sub­sidizing every group you can think of—jobs that the states simply cannot do but which Uncle Sam can easily handle. Nor can you tell us that inefficiency adds up to pros­perity. John Maynard Keynes might convince well-nigh the whole world that pyramid building made ancient Egypt prosperous and two were twice as good as one, but make-work schemes are fric­tional losses, and reduce the stand­ard of living.

A person who spends his life trying to invent and devise more efficient ways of doing the world’s work in industry, or striving to produce enough food on the farm to at least meet mankind’s mini­mum needs, necessarily bitterly resents deliberate efforts in the opposite direction, disguised to confuse the issue in the public mind. We are rapidly coming to the state described by Thomas Jefferson a century and a half ago:

If we run into such debts, as that we must be taxed in our meat and in our drink, in our necessaries and our comforts, in our labors and our amusements… as the people of England are, our people, like them, must come to labor sixteen hours in the twenty-four, give the earnings of fifteen of these to the government for their debts and daily expenses; and the sixteenth being insufficient to afford us bread, we must… be glad to obtain subsistence by hiring our­selves (to the government) to rivet their chains on the necks of our fellow-sufferers.

To several million American farmers who can scarcely make a go of it when they work eight hours a day in a shop in town and as many or more on the land, Jef­ferson‘s words will seem ominously prophetic.

The Logic of Laissez Faire

The old laissez-faire’ doctrine of a self-regulating economy man­aged by the “invisible hand” is re­markably like the science of ecol­ogy, which insists that Nature bal­ances the budget, gives everyone his due, and keeps the myriad forms of life in check as long as man does not upset the natural scheme of things. The disastrous results of human interference are well known, as for example, the story of how the timid rabbit well nigh took over the continent of Australia because of a lack of “checks and balances.”

Professor Pavlov, the noted Rus­sian physiologist, also found in the workings of the body examples of how artificial inhibitions wrought havoc. These he compared with the paralysis produced by the com­munist system of national plan­ning. He should have known.

Of course, it can be argued that such analogies drawn from mathe­matics, mechanics, and biology do not prove that the free system is appropriate in economics and that the fantastic schemes of the na­tional planners lead only to misery and ruin. But as Winston Smith says in Orwell’s 1984: “If two and two are four, the rest follows.”


¹ Laissez faire is here used, not in the sense of doing as one wills regardless of how that might infringe upon the rights of others, but in the classical sense of freedom to produce, exchange, travel, and the like according to one’s own in­terest within the bounds of due respect for the lives and property of others.




Ideas on


Criticism Founded on Fact

One word “education” is a misnomer. We are not educating; we are domesticating. To educate is to develop latent capabili­ties so that one may be strong to overcome the hampering obstacles of prejudice and environment in reaching out for truth. To domesticate is to train one to accept the prejudices, and to obey the conventions, of his environment. To educate is to develop free activity. To domesticate is to train to a pre­scribed end for a prescribed purpose. The domesticated animal, whether a biped or a quadruped, believes what he is made to believe, and does what he is made to do. The educated being believes what appeals to his reason, and thinks for himself. To educate is to teach people how to think; to domesticate is to teach people what to think. The processes of domestication, toward which we are drifting, make for small, narrow, and prejudiced minds.

THOMAS S. CLARKE, from a Symposium in The Rotarian.