The Beetle and the Centipede

Dr. Paton is Professor Emeritus of Accounting and of Economics, School of Business Adminis­tration. University of Michigan.

In the cool of the evening, so the story goes, Mr. Beetle and Miss Centipede came out from under the rocks and started to do a bit of gossiping as was the practice among such creatures in the old days.

"Good evening, my dear Miss Centipede," said Mr. Beetle, in his best voice, and "Good evening to you, Mr. Beetle," the lady replied in sprightly fashion.

After some discussion of the weather, the food supply, and the hazards recently encountered, the conversation slowed down and in an effort to keep the visit going Mr. Beetle hit upon a new topic.

"Miss Centipede," he said, "the part of your anatomy that has in­trigued me most for a long time—although I don’t think I’ve men­tioned it before—is your beautiful array of legs, and I’m also greatly impressed by the marvelous skill you display in manipulating them as you scurry about. I have only six legs to keep track of, but I don’t move very briskly and am regarded as rather awkward by all my friends. You, on the other hand, with fifty legs on the wind­ward and fifty more on the lee, han­dle all this equipment with no ap­parent difficulty, and travel with speed, and most gracefully, in any direction you choose to go, and change your course as you wish without the slightest hesitation. Tell me, my dear Miss Centipede, how in the world do you do it ?"

On hearing this little speech Miss Centipede tossed her head and rolled her eyes coquettishly (the reader may need to use a lit­tle imagination right here), and replied:

"Good Mr. Beetle, you make far too much of something that is really quite simple. I get about smoothly and gracefully—I admit it, you see—because it is actually very easy for me to keep my legs in order and have them respond to my wishes."

Mr. Beetle was not satisfied. "It may seem easy to you," he said, "but your pedal apparatus looks very complicated to me, and I don’t see how you can keep from getting tangled up—getting your wires crossed, so to speak—at least occasionally. I wish you’d tell me how you really go about it. Suppose, for example, that you want to move the sixteenth leg on your left side, just how do you issue the proper instructions to accomplish this ?"

"There’s nothing to it," she said jauntily; "I’ll show you." Miss Centipede then tackled the prescribed chore. She twisted and squirmed, went through all sorts of contortions, got up quite a sweat in fact, and all without achieving the desired result. Finally, instead of moving the sixteenth leg on the left she man­aged a pitiful little twitch of the eleventh leg (counting from the front) on the right.

Mr. Beetle now realized that he had started something that should have been left alone, and as Miss Centipede continued her struggle he became genuinely alarmed.

"Please, Miss Centipede," he begged, "don’t bother your pretty head any longer with my silly in­quiry. The matter is of no con­sequence and I’m afraid you are making yourself ill. We can dis­cuss this some other time."

But Miss Centipede had her back up and according to all the accounts of the episode she kept on trying desperately for an hour or so until she was completely ex­hausted. But this wasn’t the worst of it. When she finally gave up she had become so confused that she couldn’t move at all! One writer introduces a dab of verse in telling about this unhappy outcome, somewhat as follows according to my hazy recollection:

She wrought herself to such a pitch She stretched out, helpless, in the ditch.

And the poor creature was per­manently paralyzed thereafter, from all fifty waists down, and finally died of starvation.

This tale has a moral for these days—one that is fairly evident to anyone familiar with and con­cerned about the impact of the tide of government intervention upon the intricate mechanism of the free market. Among the won­ders of human society—perhaps the greatest of them all—is our network of exchange activities and the accompanying mosaic of prices. It is this instrument which has fostered and imple­mented a truly astonishing de­gree of specialization in production, and has made available an almost countless array of con­sumer goods and services. Oper­ating through the price structure, the market acknowledges and in­tegrates the inclinations and choices of millions of individuals, and the system promptly reflects the constantly changing attitudes and circumstances of the host of participants. It is in this connec­tion that the term "miracle" has often been applied to describe the functioning of the free compet­itive market. Without directives, without government intervention, without central planning, the im­personal forces of the market, acting automatically, direct the allocation of resources, appraise the contributions of the produc­tive factors, and distribute the product. But this marvelous mech­anism, not anyone’s invention but the very essence of economic de­velopment and activity, can un­doubtedly be crippled and finally wrecked altogether by conscious interference and tinkering. Left alone, with the power of the state confined to checking predatory actions, the market performs won­ders in guiding economic conduct; loaded with price fixing, govern­ment regulation, bureaucratic in­tervention and planning, the mar­ket apparatus falters and eventu­ally becomes ineffective. In his classes years ago Fred M. Taylor laid great stress on the need for a hands-off policy if the price system were to be effective in directing economic activity, and his favorite admonition in this connection was: "Don’t monkey with the thermo­stat."

The bad results of present-day interference with the market are everywhere apparent, but there are few signs of any abatement of the socialist trend. The planners are twisting and squirming, like Miss Centipede, and each additional ef­fort to control the economy sets up a chain of new contortions and dis­locations. But the dedicated inter­ventionists who are now in the saddle don’t seem to be afraid of the stagnation and paralysis await­ing them—and the rest of us, un­fortunately—at the end of the road.



Ideas on Liberty

Stanley Yankus

I am not a joiner by nature; I prefer to stand alone. If I were asked to draw a picture of an organization, I would show two men—one of them speaking and holding his hand over the mouth of the other.