All Commentary
Monday, June 1, 1998

The Mainspring of Human Progress

The Individual Is Central in American Business

William Peterson, an adjunct scholar at the Heritage Foundation, is the Distinguished Lundy Professor Emeritus of business philosophy at Campbell University in North Carolina.

“There can be no progress except through the more effective use of our individual energies.”

The emblazonment of this quotation on the front cover of the new edition of Henry Grady Weaver’s classic is timely. For the thought gets to the heart of the Austrian concept of methodological individualism, a counterpoint to the Keynesian macroeconomic approach that requires national planners in Washington to manage our economy. That approach ignores the role of creative, risk-taking individuals who are the mainspring of human progress. They are the subject of this welcome book.

Henry Grady Weaver (1889–1949), a General Motors marketing executive who made the cover of Time in 1938, saw the role of the individual as central in American business. That role can be highly constructive, cautioned Weaver, only if two conditions are met—limited government and people who adhered to an ethical code. He hailed the concept of natural law and extolled the Founders’ political structure because it “unleashed the creative energies of millions of men and women by leaving them free to work out their own affairs—not under the lash of coercive authority, but through voluntary cooperation and moral responsibility.”

Weaver did his homework well in this historical examination of the ideas and people who built the American dream. This edition, with a two-page preface by FEE founder Leonard E. Read, features a new and most perceptive ten-page introduction by John Hood, president of the John Locke Foundation and author of The Heroic Enterprise. Hood notes the ongoing assault on the American business system, from the American historians’ putdown of “robber barons” such as J.P. Morgan and John D. Rockefeller, to more contemporary putdowns of such supposedly representative entrepreneur-villains as TV’s J.R. Ewing and Hollywood’s Gordon Gekko. Hood applauds Weaver for setting the record of the American business system straight.

That record would not have been possible, Weaver argues, without the basic legal framework of private-property rights and tightly constrained government. Nor would it have been possible without a moral framework of respect for the rights of others. Freedom cannot be separated from personal accountability. The Ten Commandments and the biblical injunctions against covetousness, and to “love thy neighbor as thyself” go far to explain the triumph of laissez-faire capitalism. As Weaver wrote: “Your natural freedom—your control over your own life-energy—was born in you along with life itself. It is a part of life itself. No one can give it to you, nor can you give it to someone else. Nor can you hold any other person responsible for your acts. Control simply can’t be separated from responsibility; control is responsibility.”

There is a whiff of Hayek’s spontaneous order idea here. Weaver came out strongly for “unplanned planning” as the secret of American economic success. Free men and women have the opportunity to live their lives, plan their own activity, work with one another, pursue their own happiness—all without any overriding forced authority of government. Unplanned planning worked.

But Weaver is writing about much more than just the United States. What makes this book so powerful is its historical sweep. Progress occurs whenever you have the ingredients previously mentioned. One of his most remarkable chapters is on the success of the Saracens, whose moral code and minimal government produced a prosperous and peaceful civilization while Europe suffered through the Dark Ages. Freedom has always and everywhere been the mainspring of human progress.

Weaver credits Frederic Bastiat for his free-market ideas and two equally remarkable women who also guided his thinking, Isabel Paterson, author of The God of the Machine, and Rose Wilder Lane, author of The Discovery of Freedom.

  • William H. Peterson (1921-2012) was an economist, businessman and author who wrote extensively on Austrian Economics. He completed his PhD at New York University in 1952 under the supervision of Ludwig von Mises.