All Commentary
Friday, June 1, 1973

Sisyphus


Sisyphus in Greek mythology was condemned, as a punishment for his wickedness in this life, to roll a stone from the bottom to the top of a hill. Whenever the stone reached the top it rolled down again. Thus, his task was never ending.

The wickedness of Sisyphus was not a case of politico economic intrigue. But Frederic Bastiat, the eminent French economist, philosopher, and statesman of well over a century ago, dubbed all people sisyphists who, by restrictive measures, tend to make the tasks of life unending.

Let us peek into the nature and extent of present day sisyphists if only to create a desire among ourselves to reread some of the works of the great Bastiat and again to profit by his clarity of thought and simplicity of expression.¹ His fascinating parables could hardly have been more appropriate in his time than in ours.

The progress of human beings from a state of general impoverishment toward one of relative abundance is impeded by a series of obstacles. People who really serve society contribute to the overcoming of these obstacles, thereby creating abundance. Is it not precisely this kind of service whereby we may judge whether a business or a labor union or a government policy or official is social or antisocial?

People who perpetuate obstacles in order to maintain conditions of scarcity in their own line of production, thus keeping their efforts profitable at the expense of others, and who make the task of achiev­ing abundance an endless one are, in Bastiat’s estimation, sisyphists.

“There isn’t work enough in our line for all you fellows wanting in. Keep out! By closed shops, closed unions, and closed associations we can create prosperity for our­selves and make our tasks in these enterprises unending.” Selfish sisyphists!

“Slow down on this job, fel­lows, and take more vacations, so our work will last longer.” Lazy sisyphists!

“Competition is ruining our business. Let’s put a stop to it and keep prices up by embargoes and trade barriers. If these don’t work we have political power enough to get legislation that will impose discriminatory taxes on our competitors. And failing this we can always command a govern­ment subsidy for ourselves.” Power-crazed sisyphists!

“Let’s have Federal aid for projects to which we are unwil­ling to devote our own resources.” Wasteful sisyphists!

“Let us have national unem­ployment compensation so, even if we do no work, we can get paid anyway.” Money-mad sisyphists!

“Let us have wage, price, pro­duction, and exchange controls —eliminate market pricing as a guide to production and consump­tion — so that all may labor for­ever at posts assigned by govern­ment.” Slavish sisyphists!

Enough of this. Each of us should make it his game to spot these persons who would magnify the effort required for a given result. They are to be found every­where — on the farms, in pulpits and classrooms, in labor unions, in private offices, in governments and, alas, too often in the mirror. They are the friends of scarcity and the enemies of abundance. Antisocial sisyphists!

Let’s make sisyphism a part of our mythology instead of our na­tional policy!

 

***

To Each, His Own

My faith in the proposition that each man should do precisely as he pleases with all which is exclusively his own lies at the founda­tion of the sense of justice there is in me. I extend the principle to communities of men as well as to individuals. I so extend it be­cause it is politically wise, as well as naturally just: politically wise in saving us from broils about matters which do not concern US.

ABRAHAM LINCOLN Speech at Peoria, III., Oct. 16, 1854 


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