All Commentary
Wednesday, February 1, 1978

Through the Eyes of a Connecticut Yankee

Mr. Sparks, now Chairman of the Board of Trustees of The Foundation for Economic Education, is an executive of an Ohio manufacturing company.

The great storyteller, Mark Twain, describes a nineteenth-century Yankee from Connecticut who suddenly and unaccountably finds himself back in the time of the legendary King Arthur some 1400 years earlier. But the Yankee retains his knowledge and experience from the nineteenth century.

The story relates his frustrations when he realizes he is living in an environment without benefit of the knowledge and development of more than a dozen centuries yet to come. His personal “advanced” intellectual plane, however, enables him to become the major magician of King Arthur’s court, surpassing the legendary Merlin. The situations are intriguing and humorous, as only Mark Twain could make them.

If Mark Twain had lived to write his story today, the Connecticut Yankee would have had a much bigger bag of tricks—a whole century of added knowledge in the various fields of science, medicine, construction, engineering, electronics and all the arts and crafts.

Whatever Twain’s underlying purpose in weaving the fascinating and humorous tale, we certainly can use his method to compare our lives with the lives of our ancestors in order to learn what has caused the differences.

Imagine yourself, say a modern businessman, suddenly turned back a century in time. You are not a scientist, but you have a good layman’s knowledge of many scientific developments in tools, drugs and medical-surgical procedures. You have enjoyed the electronic accumulation and communication of data for decision-making in your business. You know about automotive and jet air travel, have watched television, have vacationed with your family at a variety of the world’s interesting places.

Without warning, and armed with nothing but the memory of your prior existence, you awaken one morning in some mid-western U.S. city in the 1870′s.

Months go by as you undergo a sequence of unusual and exasperating experiences. At first you want to tell everyone what the 1970′s are going to be like. But then, how could you convincingly describe television to your new acquaintances? And your wild tales of a heart transplant and corrective eye glasses that are worn on the eyeballs merely bring laughter. The description you try to convey of an airplane—a machine that will fly and transport four hundred people from New York to Miami in less than three hours—may gain you comparison with another dreamer, Jules Verne. But Jules Verne at least acknowledged he was dreaming of the future, while you claim to have stepped back out of that future.

Wisdom suggests that you keep to yourself your knowledge of the late twentieth-century ways of doing things. But the frustration only grows. You miss the comfort of so many “taken-for-granted” modern conveniences not yet invented or developed in the 1870′s. An infection that could have been cured quickly by a simple antibiotic shelves you for weeks. A new friend’s wife dies of smallpox, common then, but almost unknown a hundred years later. The hours of hard physical labor and tedious mental effort leave little time for recreation. Sanitation measures are primitive at best. Hot summer days are without air-conditioned relief, winter a time of illness due to the prolonged and bitter chill. The crude lighting discourages evening work or even reading. How you miss the ring of a telephone, the spot news by radio, the family car for business and pleasure.

Missed most of all are your family and friends of that future which you’ve vacated. That, plus the realization that you will never again enjoy the conveniences and comforts you had known in the late twentieth century.

In your loneliness you speculate as to these differences in lifestyle. Are they just a matter of time? You recall the history of civilizations in decay, while others were growing or advancing. And most vivid in your mind is the twentieth-century decline of England as a world power—the high taxation, government ownership of certain resources and services, government medical services, and other coercive interventions in the lives and affairs of the people. You would recall discussions of the danger of following in the United States the path taken by the United Kingdom. You conclude that time alone is not the key to the rise or fall of civilization. And it occurs to you that enormous power vested in the hands of ruling bodies—even with the best intentions—produces tragic results.

You try again to explain how life might be (was) one hundred years hence, but none will believe. You try to produce the twentieth-century wonders you have known, but you lack the tools, the skilled workers, the capital, the market demand and marketing facilities, the means of transport and communication. In short, you lack the accumulated saving and investment and the technology for an advanced industrial economy with its miraculous specialization and division of labor.

It finally dawns on you that freedom is your return ticket to the twentieth century. Freedom of people to act peacefully and to receive and own the fruits of success—and to personally suffer the consequences of failure—will produce a society of enormous visible progress, both material and non-material.

You note that there are some entrenched customs and laws peculiar to the nineteenth century that have a depressing effect on personal freedom. But the seeming paradox is that the nineteenth-century curbs on personal freedom are far less numerous than you had known in the U.S.A. in the late twentieth century. So you begin to see that while freedom is the key, it is not an instantaneous provider of the good life.

The removal of a tyrant and the proclamation of individual freedom does not change the horse and buggy to a new Chevrolet overnight. It takes time in a climate of freedom for individuals to develop their creative talents, with the resultant material and peripheral benefits. No one can lay a measuring stick alongside a civilization and observe: “It takes twenty-three and one-half years of freedom to produce an electric refrigerator, or fifty-six years for black and white television.” No one can program in advance precisely what a free individual will do. But given an atmosphere of freedom, and with no more government than needed to keep the peace, there is every reason to anticipate fantastic material results. There can be no reasonable doubt of the direct correlation in the U.S.A. between the minimal government interference of the nineteenth century and the explosion of material progress of the twentieth century.

It is important to avoid confusion. It is the atmosphere of freedom that unleashes man’s ingenuity when he learns that he can reap increasing rewards as he better serves the desires of his fellow man. It is not the transferring of wealth by government force from those who produce it to those who do not; that destroys incentive. Do not credit unemployment payments, social security benefits, compulsory unionization, or progressive income taxes for the progress of the twentieth century. For it is not these government restrictions and compulsory welfare programs that bring about a high level of living; theirs is quite the opposite effect.

So let us further consider this twentieth-century paradox in the U.S.A.—a higher level of living than known throughout recorded history, even though individual freedom has been on the wane. But this is not so strange when one considers that neither the new presence nor the new absence of freedom will bring about instantaneous changes. We do not sufficiently understand the miracle of freedom to create it out of nothing in an instant. Nor have we yet managed the total destruction of its manifold blessings. And the great question is: Are we living on borrowed time? Or perhaps the even greater question is this: What am I to do in my time?

It should be clear by now that we have the knowledge and the means to transport ourselves and our posterity as far backwards through the centuries as we’re willing to go with coercive governmental regulation and control over every aspect of our lives.

Or, we can try freedom, in the faith that the Yankee ingenuity inherent in every individual can lead to a higher level of civilization than man has yet dreamed. 

  • John C. Sparks, who died on March 27, 2005, served on the board of trustees of the Foundation for Economic Education for many years. In the mid-1980s, following his retirement from business, Mr. Sparks served a term as FEE’s president.