All Commentary
Friday, January 1, 1965

The Great Difference


Variety is much more than the spice of life. It also is the bread and butter of life, the meat and potatoes. A gray sameness is the hue of death, not life.

This is common knowledge. Yet, many of us today are so preoccu­pied with the search for common causes, common interests, and common denominators that the variety among human beings upon which our lives and livelihoods de­pend is threatened with oblitera­tion. We forget that our differ­ences, not our likenesses, afford the only reasons there are to asso­ciate and cooperate with one an­other.

Could any one, or any possible combination of us, help any other if all of us were in every way the same? And in that event, even if we agreed to do one another’s laundry, what could be the point? It would all be the same in the end, and no one would have gained anything by reason of such ex­changes.

So, perhaps we need to remind ourselves and one another of our individual natures, our differences, our variable abilities, and our variable needs if we would con­tinue to develop our respective lives in the company of others. Instead of seeking sameness from the cradle to the grave, let us ex­plore and exploit the differences by which we live.

“Human equality” is not a working formula of the Creator; it is a technical term of limited political application.’ Our manifest and manifold inequalities ex­tend to every facet of our beings, from the tiniest of our physical features to the highest powers of our intellects and spirits, includ­ing all the goods and services and products and all the other results toward which human thought and action are directed. No two indi­viduals are equally motivated to any given end nor equally endowed to achieve it; nor are the economic, political, and moral circumstances of any one’s environment precisely the same as for any other.

It may be argued in this con­nection that persons can and do cooperate or combine their similar qualities in a joint venture, as do the oarsmen of a college crew, or the “Rockettes” at Radio City Music Hall, or the helpful neigh­bors at a barn raising. But it should be remembered that col­lege crew racing remains a popu­lar sport precisely because oars­men are different rather than identical; otherwise, no crew ever could win or lose a race. The pre­cision dancing of the “Rockettes” does not reveal the divergent rea­sons why each girl dances, or the reasons why customers pay to view the performance. Each man straining to hoist the side of a neighbor’s barn will have in his mind’s eye the help he expects on his own pet project when the time comes.

Through different eyes we see different worlds against which to match our different scales of values. And by what human stand­ard can anyone attest that this is not the way things are or ought to be?

Whether or not we like it, this is the competitive nature of our world. Every moment for every living thing is a continuing strug­gle to bring its differences into harmony with an ever-changing environment. The living is in the struggle and the competition. The individual living entity loses its identity—dies—when it ceases to compete, when it lets itself be fully merged into another body or or­ganism or group or system, becom­ing as an atom in a stone rather than a dynamic self-motivated being.

Competition the Life of Trade

From memory, if not from un­derstanding, we know that com­petition is the life of trade. This simply is another way of saying that all economic relationships, as conducted in the open market, are based upon our differences. As we survey scarce resources through our different scales of value and respective consumer tastes, we find opportunities for specialized production and voluntary ex­change, to the advantage and satisfaction of everyone involved.

Each party to every voluntary ex­change must necessarily gain, giv­ing up what he values less in order to get what he values more, else he would not freely enter the trade.

Now, it is true that many pros­pective buyers may be competing for every available unit of an eco­nomic good, and this competition may seem to drive up the price that must be paid for the unit. But consider for a moment what price one might have to pay if he were the only person in the world who wanted a 1965 Cadillac—and the manufacturer knew in advance that this was going to be the de­mand situation! The cost would be fantastic. Competition among buy­ers does not necessarily mean higher priced merchandise. The fact that several prospective buy­ers are in the market affords the opportunity for lower unit costs through mass production.

Also, there is likely to be com­petition among prospective sup­pliers or sellers of any given item and of various substitutes for it. Such competition to sell is the buyer’s insurance that prices will be reasonable. It also affords each manufacturer or supplier a check of his own methods and operations and his finished products against those of competitors, so that any improvements and efficiencies in­troduced by any one of them will soon be copied and in turn im­proved upon by others in the busi­ness. Competition also lets a man know promptly when he fails while there is yet time to try his hand elsewhere.

This competition among manu­facturers and suppliers activates and stimulates the markets for labor and raw materials. The raw materials will be drawn from farms and forests and mines, slowly or rapidly as the market forces may signal, but always with an eye to the conservation of scarce resources and the substitu­tion therefore of less expensive and more plentiful alternative factors of production.

Labor, of course, is one of those always-scarce factors of produc­tion which the unhampered mar­ket strives to conserve and use sparingly, competitors constantly weighing the comparative costs of additional tools and mechanization versus extra men on a given job. Competition among employers bids wage rates up to the limits the market will allow at any given time and place. And competition among workers encourages each to move toward the best job oppor­tunities available to match his par­ticular skills and aptitudes.

In every open and unhampered market economy or society there is constant competition among those who want to utilize available goods and services, whether they be ultimate consumers of food, clothing, medical care, shelter, and the like, or whether they be indus­trialists seeking additional capital, raw materials, goods and services, to be used in the further output of producer and consumer goods. The same open market serves us all, and serves very well indeed if free to do so—that is, if it is not restricted by artificial man-made barriers to trade and by interfer­ence with the voluntary movement of capital and labor. The free mar­ket recognizes and respects our manifold differences and affords each individual the maximum op­portunity to express his individ­uality and to pursue his own in­terests by serving others.

Perhaps a reminder is in order at this point, the reminder that our individualities, our different interests, and our abilities to achieve them, extend beyond our persons—our physical bodies—and include the private property each has earned and owns. A man’s property is the extension of his life, a part of his means of liveli­hood, which he may consume or sell or give away or save or use in whatever manner seems to him to best serve his own interests. Thus, property—in land or buildings or tools or consumer items or what­ever form—tends to take upon it­self the characteristics of each owner and thus to reflect the dif­ferences and the infinite varia­bility to be found among human beings.

Privately owned property is by no means the same as that which is supposedly owned in common and therefore belongs to no one. Private ownership, like personal freedom of choice, is essential if there is to be voluntary exchange or any other act of peaceful co­operation among individuals. In other words, we trade upon our differences, not our sameness; and our differences extend to and through the property each owns.

The Unhappy Alternatives

To more fully appreciate the blessings of competition and trade through which our differences are exercised to everyone’s best ad­vantage, let us now consider some of the alternative concepts and plans that always have stood in the way of the slow progress of man toward becoming human.

The modern extension of pov­erty in India under the successive “Plans” of the Nehru government affords a sad illustration of the failure of compulsory equalization among men. The years of effort to industrialize the economy of India, aided and abetted by gifts and loans through the governments of other nations, have so disturbed her traditional agricultural pro­duction that serious famine and mass starvation now seem certain. Heavy taxes have tended to drain from agricultural uses the little capital that might otherwise have been available. Land reform meas­ures have taken management re­sponsibilities from the more ca­pable and transferred the task to those less able to manage. Price control and rationing programs have precluded any progress the free market might have afforded in conserving scarce resources and encouraging further production of those most needed items.

The basic premise behind Nehru’s plans was that all Indians either are, or ought to be, alike. And whether recognized or not, this has to be the premise for all schemes of compulsory equaliza­tion. There is no more respect for the individual dignity of those to be aided than for the individual rights to life and property of those compelled to render the aid. Dif­ferences among men are to be ob­literated; and if this is accom­plished, then to that extent are wiped away the reasons men have for trading, cooperating, volun­tarily helping one another. And with this destruction of mutual re­spect goes the loss of self-respect. This is the great problem of India today, and it is the inevitable con­sequence of compulsory equaliza­tion, all over the world, whenever and wherever it is undertaken.

American Experiments

Countless other examples could be cited from abroad, but the sad fact is that we already have the counterpart of all of them right here on our own doorstep in the United States.

After more than a generation of heavily subsidized agriculture, which presumably should have improved the economic status of farmers and given an abundance of food for all consumers, we are now told by the master planners that millions of U. S. citizens go to bed hungry each night and that additional Federal aid is needed for farmers.

No less acute is the housing crisis following years of rent con­trol, public housing, and urban renewal programs designed to eliminate differences and bring about greater equality in the en­joyment of housing facilities. The more the government intervenes in this area, the greater the cry for further intervention because landlords and tenants can no longer find a reasonable basis for volun­tary exchange, because prospec­tive home builders and prospec­tive home buyers are finding more and more barriers in the tradi­tional market lines of communica­tion with one another.

Government intervention by way of the Wagner Act and subse­quent labor legislation has all but destroyed the opportunity for com­petitive bargaining and peaceful exchange between employers and employees. The higher the govern­ment-enforced minimum wage rates and unemployment benefit payments, the more serious be­comes the problem of caring for the unemployed. When the law sanctions union practices that tend to equalize the output of workers and the wages they re­ceive, regardless of performance, this compulsory elimination of dif­ferences among men denies them the opportunity to cooperate and trade voluntarily. “Collective bar­gaining” and “arbitration” have come to be synonyms for coercion.

After 25 years of taxing and coddling the aged under compul­sory social security, the oldsters have largely lost the capacity or the will to care for themselves, and it is difficult to see how a self-betrayed older generation can command the respect of the young­sters expected to support them.

The problems of education in­crease in direct proportion to the extent of state and Federal aid and government control over edu­cation.

There is every reason to expect that electrical services may be­come as unreliable and inefficient as the postal service if the govern­ment moves further toward mo­nopoly of the power and light busi­ness. The compulsory elimination of competition is the ultimate in equalization, after which neither love nor money will enable a cus­tomer to obtain anything better than the mediocre.

Enough examples; the evidence is all about us that our lives de­pend upon our differences, that variety is the essence of life, com­petition the life of trade. To the extent that we compose our differ­ences by force, we diminish our­selves and each other—and we die.

Let us cultivate and exploit our individualities and our differences, for this way points the upward path of human progress—econom­ically, socially, spiritually—the path of peaceful cooperation among men.

Let us face… the bleakness of the modern world: admit that religion and philosophy are projections of the mind, and set about the betterment of man’s condition.

         JOH N BOW LE on Auguste Comte

Foot Notes

1 We acknowledge that men should be “equal under the law.” Civilized co­existence requires certain minimum rules such as mutual respect for life and property. Penalties are to be as­sessed impartially against any violator of these basic rules.

1 W. T. Jones, A History of Western Philosophy (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1952), p. 753.

2 Quoted in Ibid., p. 758.

3 Eugene G. Bewkes, J. Calvin Keene, et al., The Western Heritage of Faith and Reason (New York: Harper & Row, 1963), p. 574.

4 For an exposition of this develop­ment, see Etiene Gilson and Thomas Langan, Modern Philosophy (New York: Random House, 1963), pp. 428-35.

5 Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, J. M. D. Meiklejohn, tr. (New York: Dutton, Everyman’s Library, 1934), p. 168. Italics mine.

6 Ibid., p. 480.

7 Ibid., p. 481.

8 Immanual Kant, Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals, Lewis W. Beck, tr. (New York: Bobbs Merrill, 1959), p. 81.

9 See Gilson and Langan, op. cit., p. 417.

¹ºJohn H. Randall, Jr., The Making of the Modern Mind (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1954. rev. ed.), p. 389.

11 Eugen Weber, The Western Tradi­tion (Boston: D. C. Heath, 1959), p. 504.

12 Ibid., p. 506.

13 Ibid., p. 507.

14 Quoted in R. R. Palmer with Joel Colton, A History of the Modern World (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2nd ed. rev., 19581, p. 392.

15 Quoted in Louis L. Snyder, The Age of Reason (Princeton: D. Van Nostrand, Anvil Book, 1955), pp. 150-51.

16 Ralph W. Emerson, “The Poet,” Collected Works of Ralph Waldo Emer­son (New York : Greystone Press, n. d.), p. 137.


  • Paul L. Poirot was a long-time member of the staff of the Foundation for Economic Education and editor of its journal, The Freeman, from 1956 to 1987.