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Sunday, November 1, 1964

The Flight From Reality: 2. Symptoms of the Flight

Dr. Carson is Professor of American History at Grove City College, Pennsylvania. Among his earlier writings in THE FREEMAN were his series on The Fateful Turn and The Ameri­can Tradition, both of which are now avail­able as books.

Anyone who announced to an academic audience that he was going to do a work on “The Flight from Reality” might expect that the first questions he would be asked would go something like the following: “What is reality?” Or, “What do you mean by reality?” That such questions would almost certainly be asked may be itself the leading sign of the flight from reality. The questions are impor­tant, of course, and will require answers, but for the moment that can be deferred to deal with their implications.

Indications are that few people in academic circles would consider it strange that the question of what constitutes reality should be raised. In a contemporary work on the history of Western philosophy—a book which traces thought from Thales in ancient Greece to Bertrand Russell in modern Brit­ain—the scholar concludes with these observations, among others:

So far we have tried to suggest that, even though they are not eter­nally true, the answers philosophy gives are useful and significant in terms of their cultural context. Now we must point out that, valuable as philosophy’s answers are, they are not as important as the questions philosophy asks. In fact, we may say that the chief function of philosophy is to ask questions, rather than to answer them. Its function is to re­buff all forms of dogmatism and in­tolerance, to keep before the mind a sense of possibilities unrealized…. Thus the real utility of philosophy lies precisely in what seems to some its futility. Its especial competence lies in its seeming incompetence—in the way in which it discourages too definitive conclusions and too neat solutions.1

In short, it appears that philos­ophy succeeds to just that extent that it fails to answer the ques­tions that it raises. But lest this state of affairs be supposed to be restricted to philosophy, the writer assures us that the matter is otherwise.

The “incompetence” of philosophy is… not a peculiarity of philosophy. None of the sciences has attained an eternal truth. Consider what rela­tivity has done to Newtonian phys­ics…. Or consider what the dis­covery of the non-Euclidian geome­tries has done to mathematics.2

Professors and Patrons and the Quest for Truth

One might suppose, then, that intellectuals, scholars, and teach­ers would be found in sackcloth and ashes, repenting their impos­tures upon society or praying for guidance that they might find some truth. Obviously, such is not the case. They make a virtue of the failure to attain truth and belabor those who would proclaim truth as “intolerant” and “presumptuous.”

We might expect, at the least, that the clients and patrons of such education would withdraw their support. On the contrary, as is well known, intellectuals, schol­ars, and teachers have never be­fore enjoyed such influence and affluence as they do today. Bil­lions of dollars are poured into education; students come forth in ever greater numbers to educa­tional institutions; research re­ceives bountiful support from gov­ernments and industries, philan­thropists and politicians. The fail­ure to attain truth does not appear to inhibit men from “professing” it and students from purchasing whatever it is they have to teach. If the value lies only, or even pre­dominantly, in the quest, one won­ders why so many should choose the academic endeavor. Why not, instead, “quest” for a lower golf score? At least there are stand­ards by which improvements in a golf game can be measured.

There is much more to the story of contemporary education, how­ever, as will become clear later. But on the face of it, such atti­tudes as the above surely consti­tute symptoms of a flight from reality, both by professors and patrons.

The Central Problem: What Is Real?

The matter cuts deeper, too. It is true that the study of philos­ophy has been in somewhat of a decline for a good many years. This would appear to be a realistic response to the bankruptcy of phi­losophy, understandable and even commendable. Actually, no such interpretation can be allowed. If philosophy is indeed bankrupt, we cannot know whether the giving up of the quest for truth by way of philosophy is realistic or not. For we do not know what is real. The central problem of philosophy is the determination of what is real. If philosophers have not ar­rived at truth in this regard, it should be obvious that truth can­not be attested in any other area of thought. The possibility of illu­sion in all matters would be ever present, and no means for separat­ing the illusory from the real would exist. Reason would be of no use, for reason is only as valid as the premises upon which it rests, and the premises must be referable to some reality.

Nor can the scholar take refuge in methods and quests. The man who claims that he is concerned only with imparting a method may be making an honest statement, but he is evading the central ques­tion about his labors. How does he know that his method is of any value? The method can only be of use in arriving at truth if it is related to reality in such a way as to discover truth. The employ­ment of a method or an endless quest for the unattainable may have subjective personal value, of course, just as mountain climbing may have, but this can only con­cern the individual involved, not the public at large.

That philosophers should blithely announce the futility of their quest, that scholars should ignore the consequent absence of underpinnings in their endeavors, that the public should provide sup­port for research that has not been carefully related to some truth, that students should spend years learning methods which may have no applicability to the achievement of their ends, and that hardly anyone in a vast establishment should bother to mention the matter, should cer­tainly be construed as a symptom of the flight from reality. Indeed, the lack of concern about first things that is involved in the state of philosophical thought comes very close to being the flight from reality itself.

But let us stick with symptoms at this point in the study. There are a great many of these. Only a few can be given, and the ones chosen as examples should dem­onstrate that the flight is widespread, that the intellectuals have succeeded in drawing much of the populace, or at least policymakers, into the web of their illusion. The next two examples will be drawn from economics.

Monetary Manipulation

One of the most pronounced symptoms of the flight in eco­nomics is the handling of mone­tary matters by governments. Specifically, governments virtu­ally everywhere engage in mone­tary manipulation. They engage in deficit spending, public works programs to revive sagging econ­omies, issuance of fiat money by banks under their control, the establishment of minimum wages, and so on. In order to be able to do this, governments make one of the simplest flights from reality: they cease to make payments in specie—that is, gold or silver. Fol­lowing this, their flights become much more imaginative and com­plex.

The justifications for monetary manipulation are numerous and ingenious. Money is identified with “purchasing power,” and apologists propose to increase “purchasing power” by increasing the amount of money in circula­tion. Monetary manipulation is used as a method of spurring in­vestment. Consumer spending is promoted by government expenditures which will place money in the hands of consumers.

Such practices, and the justifi­cations offered, are founded upon misunderstandings about the na­ture of money, if we assume that the apologies are seriously made. Money is a medium of exchange. It is that through which an ex­change of goods and services is effected. Transfers of commodities from one owner to another are made by the use of money. The “purchasing power” resides in the commodities, however, not in the money. (Money may, of course, be a commodity itself, as when some precious metal is used. In this case, it would have “purchasing power,” which would derive from its commodity value.) The fact that people will turn over goods and services to others in return for money creates an illusion that money has “purchasing power.”

Governments, presumably oper­ating under the sway of this illu­sion, increase the amount of cur­rency in circulation. By so doing, they do not increase the “purchas­ing power” of the citizenry. In­stead, they reduce the amount of goods which will be turned over for a given amount of money, re­duce it in proportion to the amount of the monetary increase. Since what money will purchase depends upon the amount of goods and services available, the only way to increase the “purchasing power” of the citizenry is to in­crease the amount of those goods and services. If the amount of goods are increased and if the amount of currency remains the same, a given amount of money will, in effect, command more goods.

While an increase in the supply of money does not increase “pur­chasing power,” it does have con­sequences. By increasing the amount of money in circulation, governments confiscate a portion of the value of the money which anyone happens to hold or have due him at the time of the in­crease. Governments also can and do redistribute this confiscated wealth by spending programs and by other devices. In short, pro­grams which are advanced as stim­ulants to the economy are, in effect, programs for the redistri­bution of the wealth.

It is difficult to determine whether inflationary programs are symptoms of a flight from reality by those who advance them or by the general public which accepts them. The United States govern­ment has had economic advisers in influential positions for years. These have consistently advanced inflationary policies. They are either ignorant of the conse­quences of such actions or they are guilty of making surreptitious proposals for the redistribution of the wealth.

Foreign Aid

Another symptom can also be given from the economic sphere. This one has to do with economic assistance given by the United States to other countries since World War II. As is well known, the United States government has spent huge sums of money on for­eign aid. This aid has taken many forms: outright grants, technical assistance, “mutual” assistance, loans, and so forth. The aid has been justified on many grounds: the responsibility for aiding allies in postwar reconstruction, the con­tainment of communism, national self-interest, humanitarianism, among others.

Let us restrict our discussion to the economic and humanitarian justifications, however. The hu­manitarian argument usually goes something like this: There is great suffering in the world, occa­sioned by hunger, malnutrition, and disease. The United States is a wealthy nation, and it should share its bounty with those in need. The two statements which follow are based mainly on these premises. The first one was made by a representative of the Na­tional Council of Churches of Christ in the U. S. A., and on its behalf:

We believe human life is sacred, being of primary value, so mutual aid is indispensable as it literally makes the difference between life and death for some people, and im­proves living for millions of others.3

The second is from a statement made for the Society of Friends:

United States policy should be de­signed to help that part of the hu­man race, about two-thirds of whom are sick or illiterate or politically or economically disadvantaged, develop their God-given potentialities. It means primarily helping others help themselves to do the things they want to do toward our joint com­munity aspirations and ideals. This kind of program must express both a deep, passionate concern for peo­ple and a determination that they need not suffer from conditions which are not their fault. We should settle into this task on a long-range basis.4

It is understandable and even commendable that men should be concerned with suffering and de­privation in distant lands. Let it be noted, too, that American policy was (and is) responsible to some indeterminate degree. This re­sponsibility was not, however, hu­manitarian; it was economic, though there might well be hu­manitarian grounds for objecting to the economic policy which fos­tered suffering. To understand American responsibility for for­eign deprivation, it is necessary to know something about how for­eign trade is conducted. Presum­ably, foreigners suffered to some extent because they could not pur­chase goods which Americans had for sale. They could not purchase these goods because Americans could not (or would not) spend or invest comparable amounts abroad.

We can back into an explanation of this state of affairs by stating the reason for it in this way: For­eign goods were more expensive than their equivalent in American goods. Therefore, Americans bought mainly goods of domestic manufacture. In consequence, for­eigners could not buy the needed goods from America.

The Obstacle to Exchange

The solution to this problem should have been rather simple, economically speaking. The people in a foreign land who needed American goods should have de­voted themselves to producing those items which could be sold cheaper in America than the ones of domestic origin. This would have provided the wherewithal to purchase American goods. So they might, and probably would, have done if the matter had been left in the economic sphere. It was not. Instead, political interference had made economic solutions virtually impossible. Indeed, such responsi­bility as Americans bore for the situation could be ascribed to po­litical interference, though it should be kept in mind that coun­tries in which there was suffering contributed to their own condition quite often by domestic political interference.

To be more specific, the main obstacles to international trade in the postwar period, so far as American action affected it, were tariffs and subsidies. Protective tariffs kept foreigners from being able to undersell American prod­ucts quite often. If some foreign land were able to overcome even this handicap, a clamor would arise from the domestic interest involved for higher tariffs or quotas, or both.

The other great difficulty was that American food products were quite often too high to be sold abroad or to effect a general lowering of food prices in the world. This was directly related to hunger and starvation. Ameri­can prices were kept high by allot­ments, parity payments, and other subsidies. It should be kept in mind that foreign governments aggravated the situation by their own subsidies, price supports, minimum wages, and import quo­tas. Many governments scared away investors by nationalization and confiscation of property, thus creating “underdevelopment” and then clamoring for government-to government loans to take up the slack.

Solution Creates More Problems

It should be axiomatic that when political interference has caused a problem, the solution to the problem would be the removal of the political interference. It should be, but it is not today. In­stead, the attempt was made to solve problems created by political action by additional political in­tervention. By and large, govern­ments continued their tariffs, sub­sidies, regulations, and nationali­zations. America granted and loaned money so that other coun­tries could buy goods from America, hire technical assistants, and make capital investments.

The problems that this course of development has created are legion. Foreign countries became dependent upon the United States; the aid was quite often used to bolster corrupt regimes; nations spent huge sums upon prestigious items such as steel mills (though it cost them much more to produce steel than they could have bought it for on the world market) and airlines; and Americans have be­come busily engaged in interfer­ing in the internal affairs of coun­tries around the world. The debil­itating effects of these develop­ments upon the independence and strength of the countries involved need not be dwelt upon here. The economic distortions produced by progressive intervention are mani­fold.

Much more could be said about these matters, but enough has been said to make the point. Un­der the guise of humanitarianism and defense, Americans have been drawn into a web of intertwined interventionism. Foreign aid has often forestalled the economic con­sequences of intervention for for­eign countries (such as bolstering the Labor Government in England in the late 1940′s), but it could not solve the problems, for it was re­lated to the causes only in the sense that it was like them. Inter­vening to solve problems caused by intervention can be likened to breaking the other leg of a man who already has one broken leg in order to get him back on his feet. The fact that Americans have been pursuing such policies rather consistently is another symptom of the flight from reality.

Identity of Government with People

Let us take an example now from the area of political theory. The most fruitful field for discov­ering some flight in the contem­porary world would be theories concerning democracy. The myths about democracy are so numerous that to select one is necessarily to neglect a great many others. Per­haps the central one, however, can be phrased this way: In a democ­racy the government is the people. A complete identification exists between the government and the people. According to this view, government in a democracy man­ages to catch up, congeal, and utilize the whole being of a peo­ple. More than a hundred years ago, the American historian, George Bancroft, suggested some such notion in the following words:

Thus the opinion which we respect is, indeed, not the opinion of one or of a few, but the sagacity of the many. It is hard for the pride of cultivated philosophy to put its ear to the ground and listen reverently to the voice of lowly humanity; yet the people collectively are wiser than the most gifted individual, for all his wisdom constitutes but a part of theirs…. It is when the multitude give counsel that right purposes find safety; theirs is the fixedness that cannot be shaken; theirs is the un­derstanding which exceeds in wis­dom; theirs is the heart of which the largeness is as the sand on the seashore.5

Whatever this passage may mean, it is certainly intended as a justification of democracy. And, so far as it is, it suggests that a complete identity of people and government occurs. Of course, Bancroft actually assumes such an identity and is bent upon argu­ing the superiority of decisions reached by the people collectively. Our concern, however, is not with the contention but with the as­sumption.

Public Debt No Problem

All sorts of conclusions are regularly drawn from this sup­posed identity of the government with the people. For example, some say that there is no need to worry about the public debt. After all, they say, we owe it to our­selves. Others impute morality to government because of its iden­tity with the people. The foreign aid, discussed above, was sup­ported on moral grounds, and this was made to appear logical by assumptions about democracy. Some would hold the American people individually and collec­tively responsible for the actions of the government in a democracy. It has been alleged, fur ex­ample, that the American people bore such guilt as there may have been for the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. Again, the identification theory tends to validate such an allega­tion.

Let us set this assumption beside political realities in Amer­ica, since it is commonly held that the United States is a democracy. Is, or could, such an identification be effected by the political proces­ses now employed? The most com­mon procedure followed by the citizenry to participate in govern­ment is by voting. By voting the citizen marks an “X” or pulls a lever beside the name of the can­didate for whom he votes. He has chosen one name from among two or more, if the office was con­tested. If a majority of those vot­ing chose the name, he has helped to select the man who will serve, if the vote was in the general election. If his candidate was not elected, he has participated in the election, but only to a most lim­ited extent in the governmental actions that stem from the man elected.

But, to keep matters simple, let us suppose that his candidate won. Does this mean that there is a complete identity between the voter and the man elected? Hard­ly. The voter may have known nothing of any of the candidates and have marked his ballot for the one who headed the list. On the other hand, he may have care­fully considered the positions of the men on a number of issues and voted for the man who fa­vored a preponderance of those he favored. The voter would not have been unusual, however, if he had voted against the man he dis­liked by voting for the other can­didate. Quite possibly, none of the candidates suited him, but he voted for the one he considered the lesser of the evils.

In any case, so far as the elected official represents the government, so far as voting coincides with participation, no complete identifi­cation has been made between the people and the government. By participating in the election, the citizen may have given his tacit approval to the electoral system. By failing to revolt, he may even have given tacit approval to the government. By voting for the candidates of one political party rather than those of another, he may have some effect on general policies to be pursued.

But there is no way to stretch the cloth of the present political process to make a suit that will fit the notion of complete identifica­tion between the people and the government. Since no such identi­fication has been vouchsafed, all programs based upon the premise of identity are insecurely based. In fact, they have no real base or foundation. In short, American acceptance, so far as it exists, of the belief, that the public debt poses no problem because we owe it to ourselves, that governments can act morally, that there is a collective responsibility for all government action in a democracy, should be taken as another symp­tom of the flight from reality.

Government and Birth Control

One other symptom may be in order. There is much professed concern today about what is known as the population explosion. Dire predictions are made about what life will be like if the population increase continues as it has in re­cent decades. They may be right, but what do they propose to do about it? Most proposals have had to do with birth control. An effort has been made to get the United States government to make avail­able information and perhaps de­vices for birth control. How much and to what extent governments could or should effect birth control is, of course, highly controversial. But, if government action is taken, it should be noted that govern­ments will be discouraging with one hand what they have been en­couraging with the other.

Surely, one of the greatest rational deterrents to having chil­dren is the considerable financial responsibility involved. When par­ents are responsible for feeding, clothing, educating, innoculating, and entertaining their children, they will be most likely to have second thoughts about large fami­lies. Modern governments have, however, taken over a considerable part of these activities. Presum­ably, the same people who favor government propagation of infor­mation about birth control would favor an extension of govern­mental activities in education, in building parks, playgrounds, and zoos, and in providing medical care. They would thus favor re­lieving parents of responsibilities which they still have. Moreover, tax exemptions for children would seem to promote the bearing of children, if government action af­fects the matter at all. In short, proposals are made that govern­ment facilitate child bearing on the one hand and promote birth control on the other.

No one, to my knowledge, has pointed out these inconsistencies. The fact that they are not gener­ally recognized as inconsistencies is yet another symptom of the flight.

Other Signs

Many other examples could be given of the symptoms of the flight from reality. They could be taken from developments in the arts, in religion, in international relations, in the use of technology, and so on. But perhaps the point has been made. There are wide­spread indications that programs, policies, studies, and actions are not being checked against any reality. Philosophers proclaim that they cannot determine what is real. Economists sanction pro­grams which bear only a tangen­tial relation to any discernible economic reality. Political theo­rists concoct relationships that can by no stretch of the imagina­tion be induced from the facts. School building goes on apace and students multiply; yet many pro­fessors are in the position of not being able to decide whether edu­cation deals with reality or not. These must be signs of a flight from reality.

Sky Hook Systems

Now it is not my contention that no system of ideas would support the programs and actions described. On the contrary, it is my belief that there is a vast ideological edifice being used as a launching pad for the flight from reality. My point will be, however, that this launching pad is suspended in mid-air, hanging from a sky hook, as it were. To be more literal, the systems of ideas which are supposed to sup­port the programs are themselves not founded in reality.

The proof of this assertion must be made in connection with a conception of reality, however. Until that is set forth, the above are largely examples of incon­sistencies, evidence of a wide­spread disparity between an­nounced aims and the methods used to arrive at the aims. Incon­sistencies are symptoms, not the thing itself. Diagnostically, symp­toms tell us something is amiss, in this case that departures have been made from reality. Such a conclusion in the realm of ideas is roughly equivalent to a medi­cal conclusion that the patient is ill. What is wanted, in both cases, is to know what the specific cause of the trouble is. To adjudge the character and content of a flight from reality, it must be viewed from the vantage point of reality.

The next article in this series will concern “The Nature of Reality.”



1 W. T. Jones, A History of Western Philosophy (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1952), p. 995. Italics mine.

2 Ibid., p. 997.the failure to attain truth and belabor those who would proclaim truth as “intolerant” and “pre­sumptuous.”

3 Waldo Chamberlin, “Statement on Behalf of the National Council of Churches of Christ in the U. S. A.,” United States Foreign Aid, DeVere E. Penton y, ed. (San Francisco: Howard Chandler, 1960), p. 48.

4 Edward F. Snyder, “Statement on Behalf of the Friends Committee on National Legislation,” in Ibid., pp. 50-51.

5 George Bancroft, “The Office of the People in Art, Government and Reli­gion,” Social Theories of Jacksonian Democracy, Joseph L. Blau, ed. (New York: Liberal Arts Press, 1954), p. 269.

  • Clarence Carson (1926-2003) was a historian who taught at Eaton College, Grove City College, and Hillsdale College. His primary publication venue was the Foundation for Economic Education. Among his many works is the six-volume A Basic History of the United States.