All Commentary
Saturday, June 1, 1963

With Time to Spare


Mr. Sparks is a business executive in Canton, Ohio.

The subject of the church-spon­sored area conference was auto­mation and its relation to the church and society. I was invited to present the viewpoint of man­agement, others on the panel be­ing a union leader, a professional churchman, and an educator.

A film, prepared by the church denomination’s professional social action staff, probed the problems of automation and set the stage for the panel discussion. The pur­pose of the conference was to pre­pare the conferees, chiefly clergy­men and local church social action committee members, to guide the thinking on this subject in their respective churches.

The conference was conducted as an educational meeting and generated no resolutions or repre­sentations of majority opinion. This, I believe, is commendable church social action policy, for it may lead toward understanding while avoiding the all-too-frequent misrepresentation of issues involv­ing man in society.

Not everything about the con­ference was encouraging, however. There was a disconcerting naiveté about basic economic matters evi­denced by many of the partici­pants as well as in the film. With­out previous thought and study of automation, one could easily have concluded from the conference that automation was a serious problem to mankind rather than a blessing — a tragedy rather than an opportunity. There was genu­ine concern that automation had fallen upon the people, as an ill; therefore, the church had to be­come a leader of some sort to help correct the situation. And most eyes obviously were looking in the direction of social legislation. One suggestion offered for con­sideration was the enforcement of a shorter work week. Another idea was to distribute the “great sur­pluses” produced by automation on some basis other than the pur­chasing power of the would-be consumer. My interpretation of the church’s role in the “problem” of automation differed greatly from the foregoing.

A Long Stick

Automation is a term now used to describe an allegedly new phe­nomenon. Yet the first primitive man, who found that a long branch broken from a tree would enable him to knock wild fruit to the ground, was a pioneer in the field of automation. It saved him time. And time to him was of great value, for he used every daylight hour and some of the night to put together barely enough food, scant clothing, and crude shelter to keep him and his family alive. There were not enough hours to keep his body satisfactorily, let alone time to reflect upon his soul.

If primitive man succeeded in his hunt for this bare subsistence, and if he successfully beat off wild animals and robbers, he could then hope to live to the ripe old age of thirty. So time saved meant much to him. He could spend it improv­ing his material lot or, maybe, re­flecting upon himself in a crudely philosophical or spiritual manner. Or, he could waste his time with some of his fellow long-branch fruit knockers lying along the riverbank consuming fermented berries.

Labor-saving devices — I like to call them human-burden-saving devices — have been a God-send to mankind, whether the device was a long branch broken from a tree, a crude hammer, a shovel, ferti­lizer, books, trucks, telephones, air­planes, electrical appliances, won­der drugs, or automatic presses. There is no distinction between a long stick and an automatic press, except in degree. And we should thank God for that wide degree of difference. Without the accumu­lation of tools and machines and the discovery of electricity and other energy-producing elements throughout all time, man would not have evolved one degree be­yond the primitive condition of his ancient ancestors — either ma­terially or spiritually. Further­more, there would be fewer hu­man souls to concern the church, since the geographic area of the United States would not likely support more than one million peo­ple if primitive conditions pre­vailed as in the time of the Amer­ican Indians. Thus, one might con­clude that the present population of the United States includes 179 million of us who would not exist at all — except for tools, machi­nery, automation, and the essen­tial recognition of ownership that allows these human-burden-saving devices to be created and used. This thought should give pause to any person or institution interested primarily in the cultivation and salvation of human souls.

During the colonial period in America, nine out of ten persons were required to produce enough food for themselves and for one other. Upon that “one other per­son,” the food producers were de­pendent for their ready-made clothing, crude hardware, oil lamps, buckets, textiles, and horse carriages — as well as doctors, ministers, writers, and lawyers. The “one-out-of-ten” was spread mighty thin. The products and services from these nonfood pro­ducers naturally were scarce and expensive. And there were few available to invent, or to conduct scientific experiments, or to re­search into the field of medicine.

Time-Saving Devices

Today, our food is produced by not more than one person out of ten (positions reversed). And this ratio could drop further if the federal government would stop its farm subsidies and other interfer­ence in the market place. Never­theless, this leaves nine persons out of ten to produce all the mod­ern material conveniences we as­sociate with our high level of liv­ing. As a result, a housewife may wash the dinner dishes and the family clothes and at the same time read a thoughtful book, or a trashy novel. Her husband can complete his forty-hour-a-week job and have at least as many hours left over for other construc­tive ends, including thought-pro­voking discussions and reading in regard to man’s purpose; or, he may subject himself to the brain-numbing continuity of one TV program after another. Like his primitive ancestor, modern man has a choice between improving himself or wasting the time made available to him through the human-burden-saving devices we call automation. In addition, life expectancy has increased, so that besides the extra hours every day of his existence, man also has more years added on top!

To whatever one might attri­bute the increase in the level of liv­ing, the increase in the number of human lives and souls, the in­crease in life span, the increase in wealth devoted to churches, schools, hospitals, research cen­ters, and similar beneficial ends that we tally on the side of better and higher quality living — none could have happened without au­tomation, mechanization, tools, or that long branch from a tree.

A Challenge

Automation makes possible a general, widespread good, allow­ing life to be physically com­fortable with automatic heating, air-conditioning, and other home appliances, and fast, pleasant transportation. But it also spills abundance into the educational and religious areas. Herein lies an exciting, king-sized part to be played, created out of automation. Remember, our primitive ancestor had little time to reflect on the higher life, the spiritual, the cul­tural — out of which springs man­kind’s real leadership. But with automation providing material wants in fewer hours, today’s man has time to spare.

The church, therefore, has a big challenge confronting its profes­sional and lay leaders — thanks to automation. The word “thanks” is used intentionally, in appreciation for an opportunity to lead con­temporary man, who now has time to spare, into an area of deeper spiritual insight. A religious or philosophical break-through, equivalent to that achieved in the physical sciences, may be in the offing if we will but train our sights on this goal. Ideally, man needs two legs of the same length to make him well-balanced and whole. Our material leg has out­grown our spiritual leg. An op­portunity exists. Church leaders should recognize it, rather than view automation as a “curse” or burden on the backs of men.

Is there danger that church leadership will fail to comprehend the deep significance of automa­tion? At the conference I attended, economic understanding probably was no more lacking than among the general public; but misunder­standing in this instance is more critical, since many church leaders are prone to make public state­ments on economic matters. Social action positions are taken by large church organizations, and pro­nouncements of national church policy are made to the public.

Danger of Overproduction

A recurring fallacy during the discussions concerned the danger of overproduction: more goods will be produced by automation than people can afford to buy. As a well-known union official once put it, he was unconcerned about automatic machines not paying union dues, but he was concerned that automatic machines could not buy automobiles. A similar com­ment referred to a certain steel mill working at only 50 per cent capacity; automation was blamed for the layoff, causing more steel to be produced than people needed. I have yet to meet a person without desire for more material goods. Is there a woman who would not like another dress or pair of shoes, or new draperies for the living room; or a man who has no desire for one item more of material wealth? Is there a hospital that could not use an additional piece of equipment, or a college not in need of a new wing? Our material wealth comes from production; and the more usable, desirable goods produced, the higher is our material level of living. Until everyone is fully satisfied materially — probably an impossible condition — there is no logic in the assertion that auto­mation produces more than people can consume and that we are building great surpluses.

Surpluses occur only when un­wanted products are produced. A private producer cannot long en­dure the economic losses of such poor business judgment. Only gov­ernment seems able to “afford” to waste economic resources, as in subsidy programs causing wheat, cotton, and other agricultural products to be produced in excess of economic demand. This action encourages marginal farmers to raise unneeded crops instead of turning their efforts to the pro­duction of goods and services wanted for better living. Subsi­dized marginal farmers contribute nothing to the market place; like parasites, they sap the strength and livelihood of real producers.

Is Competition Christian?

Another fallacy was posed in the question, “Can competition be Christian?” In other words, are competitive relationships in a freemarket consistent with Christian principles? Certainly the laws of God uphold the right of owner­ship. Ownership, in turn, implies the right to trade — that is, to of­fer one’s property in exchange for another’s. In a free market, ex­change takes place between two parties, without coercion — each feeling he has gained in the trans­action. Why else would they agree to trade?

This is not to say that every­one who competes in the free mar­ket is religiously in accord with his God. But if he is not, the free market system is not to be held responsible for his moral or spir­itual shortcomings. Similarly, one may not logically infer that, be­cause baseball is a wholesome sport, all players are saints.

But the lack of competition is another matter. Here, one is cer­tain to find unchristian acts, for lack of competition means an in­fringement upon the God-given right of each man to own that which he creates. Ownership is basic to the competitive free mar­ket system, and all persons seek to use or trade their goods and services most advantageously to themselves. The lack of competi­tion must denote a situation of non-ownership or eroded owner­ship rights.

Competition enables those per­sons best qualified to perform in their respective occupations —surely a spiritual objective. This is the most simple and efficient way whereby each and all of us may best serve ourselves and one another. Without competition, such direction would have to come through authoritarian dictate —removing the God-given right of man to decide for himself.

Competition is not unchristian; it reflects high principles con­sistent with God’s laws. But the lack of competition is, without a doubt, unchristian.

Cooperation

Another popular error was re­flected in this half question, half statement: “If the free market can perform such wonders as pro­fessed by its advocates through competition, then think how much more could be accomplished if co­operation were substituted for competition !”

The false implication is that co­operation does not exist in the competitive system of free market exchange. Yet how does one ex­plain the glass of orange juice I drank this morning? Common sense tells us there had to be co­operative effort all along the line in order to bring a glass of orange juice from Florida to Ohio. The owner of an orange grove had to cultivate, fertilize, irrigate, fight insects, protect against frost, and finally harvest the oranges. After sorting, some of the oranges were transported to a cannery, pro­cessed into juice, then canned and frozen. Refrigerated transporta­tion facilities carried the frozen juice northward across the country to Ohio. After being temporarily stocked in the wholesaler’s ware­house, part of the canned juice was trucked to the supermarket my wife patronized yesterday. Clerks placed the cans on display — my wife brought one home. This morning she opened it and made orange juice for our breakfast. My glass of juice cost me four cents.

Cooperation? More than I will ever be able to describe ade­quately. Automation? All along the line, including the electric can opener used near the end of the process.

Competition? My wife shops for food bargains at three supermar­kets and several smaller grocery stores in our area. The favored supermarket in this case sells three brands of orange juice. My wife chose one. Why? I suppose price, quality, and taste entered into her selection. This brand is supplied by several wholesale companies. The manufacturer also competed —to buy fruit, to obtain as many of the best workmen available at the wages he could afford to pay, to process the fruit efficiently, to retain a capable advertising agency, to sell and distribute orange juice — and thereby to win sufficient acceptance in the market places of the nation to leave his company a profit. Competition? Ask any owner or manager. Each proces­sor fervently wishes his competi­tors were less capable. Fortunately for everyone, strong competition is the discipline that results in better service, better products, and lower prices. And it is only in his role as a supplier of an economic good that any of us wishes he had no competition.

Cooperation and competition go hand in hand. The cooperation found in the competitive system is of the highest order — each per­son and each business firm, from the original source of the raw ma­terial to the final consumer, gives the best he can for the lowest price offered in the bargaining before the exchange was consummated —all without any enforcement ex­cept the invisible discipline of the market place.

Although several other false economic notions were voiced at the conference, only one more will be discussed: the contention that automation should bring about a rationing of work. Suggestions in­cluded an enforced shorter work week and legal bars against “moon­lighting” — the practice of holding down an extra job.

The same error persists: less production and less effort is better for man than more production and more effort. How can we seriously entertain such a delusion? Surely, no historian can substantiate that any era of the past or any society ever thrived under this false idea. Surely, no moral philosophy con­dones this as a method for human development. Yet, there is real danger that many professional re­ligious leaders today are being lured into this trap.

They are not alone. Embracing economic fallacy is quite common, but this neither excuses us nor the men dedicated to spiritual leadership. Nor will misguided sincerity protect their flocks from the unhappy consequences of un­sound social legislation.

A Golden Opportunity for Spiritual Growth

What attitude should the church have toward automation? Automation contributes an abundance of tangible and intan­gible wealth for everyone, includ­ing the church institution. Auto­mation allows men more time to think and to reflect. It enables larger populations to come into ex­istence, thus producing an abund­ance of human souls. Automa­tion’s priceless gifts are time, hu­man lives, and material comforts. The stage thus is set to achieve deeper spiritual insight, the church’s primary leadership and research function. Can its attitude logically be anything but warm welcome of automation? Hardly. This is the church’s proper role. This is its exciting challenge.

With time to spare, thanks to automation, each man has the golden opportunity to use that saved time to help move him nearer his destiny. Whether or not spiritual institutions will seize upon the chance to provide real guidance does not alleviate each person’s individual responsibility to use well the time he has been spared.


  • 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.