All Commentary
Saturday, June 1, 1974

The Great Objective of a Free People

Dr. Prochnow is former President of the First National Bank of Chicago and Deputy Undersecretary of State.

Once when I was visiting Asia, I received a cable from the Department of State asking if I would speak to an audience of business and professional people in Calcutta. This was an unusual opportunity to speak on what private enterprise had meant to the American economy. With political liberty and the incentives of private enterprise, our people have experienced a remarkable improvement in their economic well-being.

When I had finished speaking, a highly respected member of the audience arose and asked this question, “With the great economic progress the United States has had, do you believe that the people of your country are any happier than they were before?” This seemingly innocent question was almost certainly intended to destroy the merit of the entire philosophy which I had expressed. If people are no happier, why is economic progress important? If the people of India would be no happier with higher standards of living, what difference does increased economic well-being make?

For a moment I was not certain how to answer this question briefly and convincingly. I do not believe that happiness is the real measure of a nation’s progress. However, I decided to accept the test he had chosen.

I was in a country with widespread starvation and malnutrition, a country in which the life span is far less than in the United States. I was in a country in which a large percentage of the people are illiterate. Within the boundaries of that country, which is two-fifths as large as the continental United States and has over 500 million people, there is widespread poverty, starvation and illiteracy.

I then said, “You and I can agree that man does not live by bread alone. However, a nation with substantial economic progress creates wealth, and with wealth come grade schools, high schools, universities, and hospitals. With wealth and economic progress come public utilities which supply electricity, gas, sanitation facilities and pure drinking water.” I then asked this member of the audience, “Do you think a father would be happier if he knew his children could have pure drinking water instead of their being ill repeatedly because of impure water? Do you think parents would be happier if they knew their children had schools and were not going to grow up illiterate? Do you think men and women would be happier if there were medical schools and doctors and hospitals so that their life expectancy might be greatly increased? Do you think men and women would be happier if tens of millions did not suffer from malnutrition and starvation?” I could have added, “Do you think that the people of this city would be happier if the thousands who slept on the sidewalks last night because they have no homes could find at least modest places for shelter?”

I do not know whether the questioner found this answer helpful. However, I know that for the first time I saw more clearly what our people have sought to achieve with their economic progress. This is not, as the critics say, simply a money-grubbing nation, a raw, materialistic society. We make mistakes. We sometimes produce unwisely. We make products at times that serve little good. We consume some resources wastefully. But these are part of the price men and women in a society pay for freedom of choice. This is a small price to pay for such freedom.

Human Dignity Affirmed

I saw more clearly what the entire economic system is all about. I saw the meaning of a hundred million cars and trucks, tens of thousands of miles of railroads and pipelines, thousands of factories, stores, farms, banks, office buildings, airports, and utilities. As we produce and save and invest, we give man food and shelter. We give him hospitals for his health, and schools to free him from ignorance. We give him goods and services to improve his economic well-being. What we are really doing is to reaffirm our deep faith in the dignity of man and in his worth as a human being. We reaffirm that man was created by Providence.

In the humdrum of our daily activities, we sometimes fail to recognize the spirituality of secular affairs. We are so involved in the day’s work, in driving trucks, constructing buildings and highways, running freight trains, laying pipelines, operating computers, plowing fields, dictating letters, maintaining office records, and attending meetings that we lose sight of the great objective of a society of free men and women. Reaffirming the dignity of man, his worth as a human being and as a creature of Providence — this is the noble purpose for which we strive. This is the deep underlying purpose that runs through our society. This is the foundation of a nation’s greatness.