Sunday, January 20, 2013

The Human Situation

The current preoccupation with man-made spaceships, orbital flights, putting men on the moon—with all the attendant costs, inflationary and otherwise—may be no more than a childish escapade. Science fiction taken seriously as a means of running away from some very practical problems arising on a remarkable spaceship, Mother Earth! For, after all, our home planet is on the rim of a galactic wheel traveling through space at the rate of 10,000,000 miles a day!

    The danger is that we look away too long from the task at hand, which is to keep our equilibrium in time and space aboard the planet that bears us. After all, we need a clearer view of what is going on, for we are moving at a giddy pace and know not what lies ahead. . . . This is the Earth we have to come to terms with, which has produced us, and where our future lies.1

  Conceivably, Mother Earth is spaceship enough for us. For truly, we “know not what lies ahead.”

  Indeed, we know very little of what has gone on in the past, and perhaps even less of what is going on now. And when it comes to “what lies ahead,” that is pure speculation. The English philosopher, C. E. M. Joad, helps us to a proper perspective:

    There is no reason, at least I know of none, why the universe should necessarily be intelligible to the mind of a twentieth-century human being, and I take leave to remind him how late a comer he is upon the cosmic scene and how recently he has begun to think.2

  Yet, neophytes that we are, we must do our best to “come to terms [with the Earth] which has produced us, and where our future lies.” To ignore these terms is to risk another of those catastrophic declines and falls of nations and societies which have with wearisome regularity punctuated the historic record. There is a human destiny, if we can discern it, which brooks no monkey business; sternly it decrees: Stay on course or start over again! In a word, the more accurately we can fathom Creation’s Design for mankind, the more easily can we keep on course and know the difference between right and wrong. To be practical in a down-to-earth sense, we have no choice, ever, but to make the effort.

  A Theory to Be Tested

  If what lies ahead—our human destiny—is pure speculation, what, then, is speculative man to do? It seems that he has four choices: (1) take somebody else’s word for it, (2) indulge in wild guessing himself, (3) respond to superstition or (4) pose what appears to be a sound hypothesis and then test its validity by whatever reasoning and evidence he can muster. Obviously, it is the last method that I prefer.

  A hypothesis to be sound must not affront reason. Mine, concerning the Cosmic Design for mankind, began with a reflection on immortality. No, not of the Hereafter kind; that has not been revealed to me. I refer to the here-and-now brand, earthly immortality. For we do in fact immortalize certain individuals who, relative to the rest of us, outstandingly distinguish themselves by the light they give: the Socrateses, the Shakespeares, the Beethovens, for instance. The point is, we can come no closer to discerning the Cosmic Design than to observe those exceptional human qualities which we choose to study, revere, esteem—in a word, immortalize.

  As to earthly immortality, few human beings make the grade; only a tiny fraction of the world’s billions ever find mention in the fine print obituary columns. Then there are the much smaller numbers who are granted headlines in the news, most of whom are out of memory by the time tomorrow’s daily is printed. The billions of humanity, with but rare exceptions, return to the good earth no more immortalized than autumn’s fallen leaves.

  But now and then a star appears among us, one who lights the way not merely for his contemporaries but for countless millions in unnumbered centuries to follow. The seeking of their tutorship, the turning to their light, is our way of immortalizing them. It is neither shallow fame nor notoriety that induces us to seek and heed; it is their light—the creative qualities which others might hope to develop and expand as their own.3

  Thus, I infer—hypothesize—that the Design calls for each individual to rise to his potentialities, ardently pursuing those creative qualities which are peculiar to his own person, emerging, evolving, growing, developing, “hatching,” ascending along that distinctive line marked by his uniqueness. The fact that no two of us are remotely similar makes it plain that any enforcement of conformity, sameness, herd-likeness, and the status quo is contrary to the Design. If the emergence of ever and ever higher-type individuals be the Cosmic Design, and if we could see some substantial realization of it, we would get the picture not of a static humanity but of a rapidly expanding variation in talents and virtues. Differentiation!

  So much for the hypothesis. All those who seek light from the human stars of today and yesteryear do, in fact, immortalize them and, by so doing, lend credence to this speculation; or so it seems to me.

  A Calendar of Life on Earth

  But the most convincing support for this concept of human destiny is derived from constructing a calendar of life on this earth, collapsing eons of time into a single year, reducing the life scene to a magnitude most of us can comprehend and mentally manage.


      Traces of life

      Local deposits of coal


      Traces of worms




      First Ganoid Fish

      Marine plants




      First ferns

      Insects appear





      First mammals

      DECEMBER, TO 7:00 P.M. OF THE 31st

      First snakes

      Flowering plants






      First man

      Glacial period


      Cro-Magnon man


      Beginning of recorded history


      First civilization (Sumer)


      Athens in her glory


      Christ is born


      Fall of Roman Empire


      Florence in her glory
      Columbus discovers America


      Declaration of Independence
      The Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith appears
      The Industrial Revolution begins


      Constitution and Bill of Rights


      Eli Whitney invents cotton gin


      Bastiat clarifies freedom in transactions


      Menger and others discover one of the most important points in economic theory: the marginal utility theory of value




      Commercial aviation


      Television reaches the market
      The atom bomb


      Jet air travel begins in the U.S.A.


      If anything, the giddy pace accelerates during these last 13/100ths of a second.

This calendar, aimed at improving our perspective of the human situation, devotes more space to the last minute than to the previous 525,599 minutes, a diverting factor. But one needs only to think of the twelve months drawing to a close; it’s New Year’s Eve, our TV sets are tuned into the merriment at Times Square; there are only 60 seconds to go!

  It’s in these last 60 seconds of a long year that man has begun to think in abstract terms and that the qualities we regard as distinctively human have shown forth to any significant extent. All of the human qualities we would immortalize have manifested themselves during these moments. The last minute has witnessed the dark ages and the renaissance periods, flare-ups of freedom and human slavery, as well as the decline and fall of empires and civilizations. Viewed in this perspective, these last 60 seconds appear as a veritable explosion. Indeed, “how late a comer on the cosmic scene” is man! Little wonder that his “giddy pace” is presenting problems faster than he can comprehend, let alone solve. Can we not now sense the force in Berrill’s calm observation, “This is the Earth we have to come to terms with, which has produced us, and where our future lies”?

  Man Must Keep Growing

  Countless conclusions can be drawn from a projection such as the above. Two seem particularly relevant to those of us interested in the human situation and political economy.

  First, if the evolutionary thrust is toward an ever-expanding variation, an individual emergence in consciousness, awareness, perception, then it follows that “staying put,” retirement, ease, basking in one’s accomplishments is contrary to the Cosmic Intent. Indeed, such relaxed behavior is at odds with the immortality we earthlings confer. The thrust of life, so conceived, is not comfortable; keep on the move, grow, grow, grow, even if painful, is its dictum.

  Except for those who can find happiness in growth—how else can happiness be found?—the evolutionary thrust is anathema. In a word, the security-seeking man rebels against his own evolution. This accounts, in some measure, for the general tendency to collectivize, to seek the guaranteed life through socialization. It is quite possible that the roots of communism, socialism, authoritarianism are to be found not in the Kremlin or in a political party but in a stunted or arrested concept of human destiny. If this supposition be valid, it suggests that probing deep enough reveals causes to be other than what they seem on the surface.

  For the second conclusion, look again at the collapsed calendar, especially beginning at 11:59:15 P.M., just 45 seconds before midnight. Listed are samples of events that appear to have set the stage for the current giddy pace. The greatest truths of all time were pronounced during these last moments. These truths, together with a remarkable emergence of the intuitive mind, resulted in periods of enlightenment punctuated now and then by the decline and fall of a nation—costly penalties for not heeding the highest moral insights of our seers. Live by the best that is known or start all over again! That seems to be the message.

  But the feature of these moments I wish to highlight has to do with the politico-economic situation. Most of us, had we lived right up until 3 1/2 seconds ago, would have been serfs and vassals. Lords of the manor—special privilege posts—were few and far between simply because there was so little pelf to dispense. Individual liberty was the exception; life at the subsistence level was the rule. While we would have been dependent on others, it would have been far more a political than an economic dependency, for economic survival rested mostly on self-dependence. Specialization and exchange were truly primitive by present standards and, thus, a high percentage of children never reached adulthood; those who survived were condemned to poverty. Economically speaking, humanity, as we know it, hadn’t even moved off the drawing board.5

  To continue the dramatization: from 11:59:15 P.M. to 11:59:56.6 P.M. was but preparation for the politico-economic take-off. During this interval nothing happened in the way of economic betterment because there existed no fuel with sufficient power to put us into economic orbit. Then, 3 1/2 seconds ago, discoveries in fuel improvement began. Specialization was hit upon and, simultaneously, political and economic liberty. The former without the latter would have been wholly lacking in power. But combine specialization with a release of enormous quantities of creative energy—freed by merely removing the political obstacles that had always stood against its release—in a word, liberty, and an unimaginable thrust results. There followed refinements that multiplied the thrust a hundredfold or more: liberté des transactions, as Bastiat phrased it, and, of equal importance, the discovery that the value of any good or service is what others will give for it in willing exchange (liberty). What a fuel! And what a thrust!

  Observe what has happened in the last 3 1/2 seconds as this fuel increased in thrust-power. Beginning with the Industrial Revolution, and at an accelerating pace ever since, has been specialization and technology so great that description is next to impossible. Yet, it is absolutely necessary to appreciate how dependent we now are on the new specializations and on the free, uninhibited exchanges thereof. It is a lack of this understanding that makes the term “giddy pace” relevant to the human situation.

  One among countless examples: man-made electrical energy. Had every last watt of it been stricken from the earth less than two seconds ago, the event would have been no more disastrous than the removal today of electric can openers. We were not then dependent on that bit of technology. But cut it off now—all of it—and every American would perish except the very few who could exist by foraging. Think of it: no telephones, radios, telegraphs, ships, trucks, tractors, planes, automobiles. The horses and wagons have gone; people are urbanized; businesses by the thousands are computerized. There could be no distribution of gas or coal or food or medicine. Factories, farms, stores, schools, hospitals would shut down, and worse, there would be no one around to reopen them. What a blackout!

  Or, take another example of a relatively new specialization: airplanes. Had all aircraft been grounded one second ago, most people would have exclaimed, “good riddance!” But note our growing dependence on this form of transportation and the havoc wrought by the coercive grounding (destruction of liberty) of five airlines. Millions of people were adversely affected.

  We Depend on One Another

  The above examples are sufficient to suggest that specialization and technology are on an enormous scale. While self-reliance has not diminished in importance, a new dependency has been ushered in and added: every individual’s dependency on others. Were I condemned to live on only that which I produce, I would perish! In short, let others go awry and I am lost. Free exchange of our numerous specializations is an absolute must if we are to survive.6

  It is plain enough that technology—specialization—as it grows, puts an ever-increasing load on the transmission line: the free exchange mechanism. And as the load becomes greater, more and more of us are increasingly at the mercy of those who, for whatever reason, interfere with the flow.

  I, for one, would have no concern whatsoever about the extent of specialization could I be certain of free exchange, of economic and political liberty, that is, if willing exchange were allowed full play.

  In a society where self-subsistence predominates, freedom in transactions plays an insignificant role. Plundering—feathering one’s own nest at the expense of others—is as unprofitable as it is mean, for there is nothing to rob beyond the trivia owned by the poor, and the taking has to be from one poor family at a time. The temptation to indulge in this base trade is so minor that few people yield to it, and those who do are confronted by the owners; it’s a person-to-person plunder. If the thief doesn’t pay with his life, he certainly will with his reputation: he’ll be branded a horse thief and a crook!

  The Necessity for Freedom

  But when a society becomes highly specialized, the picture changes so radically that economic liberty is a requisite to survival: self-subsistence disappears, dependence on others dramatically appears, and freedom in transactions (liberty) becomes not only important but absolutely necessary. Why necessary? The choice is simple: exchange or perish. This is self-evident.

  But in this specialized or division-of-labor situation, dependent as it is on exchange, the exchange mechanism can no longer be barter, that is, the direct exchange of goods and services for goods and services. Instead, all goods and services are and must be translated into and committed to an economic circulatory system: money and credit, in a word and in our case, dollars. These dollars, the current in the transmission line, are purchase orders on everyone’s goods and services.

  The wealth that each of us possesses—our services, goods, savings—are inextricably in the current. To repeat, the ingredients of this economic flow—dollars—are real wealth in the sense that they are purchase orders on real wealth. And our possessions, whatever they are, can be extracted from us by anyone who can tap or otherwise impair the current at almost any point in the whole world-wide transmission line. To take our savings, for instance, no longer requires of the taker that he enter our premises and take our horse or pig or whatever. He can now be an unknown a thousand miles from home and take much that we own by merely tapping or impairing the current.

In a division-of-labor society, there is one other ingredient, along with our items of wealth, which we automatically toss into and commit to the current: our liberty. For freedom of speech, of assembly, of the press, of religion is impossible when economic freedom is lacking.8 Thus, any person or combination of persons, in or out of government, who can tap the current or impair its flow, can gain access to our goods and services no less than a successful thief, and also take command of our liberty as effectively as any dictator.

  So here we are in economic flight, well into orbit and at a giddy pace, with all of our wealth and all of our freedom translated into and committed to the economic circulatory system, that is, to the medium of exchange: money! The total wealth and freedom committed to this flowing current is far too great for any mind to comprehend; yet, we must understand how its very magnitude and its easy availability to predators—innocent or malicious—sets up a temptation that few can resist. Let us assess this changed situation.

  Fame! Fortune! Power! “These things,” when achieved ideally, are but aftermaths of excellence. Men with no thought of fortune have enormous wealth freely and willingly conferred upon them for rendering superior services. And others achieve power or positions of influence because their wisdom is sought and their counsel heeded. Fame, fortune, power are, under these circumstances, conferments by others rather than coercive acquisitions by self.

  But note how those with no especial goodness, or who render no distinguished service, or who have no extraordinary wisdom to impart, covet “these things”! To millions of ungifted people fame, fortune, power become ends in themselves as if they were the aims of life rather than the dividends.

  To repeat, in a self-subsistence, barter-type economy, the covetous can do little more than nurse their envy; there is no way of gratifying it. To mix the metaphors, feathering one’s own nest at the expense of others is unrewarding and, if resorted to, ends in disrepute and disrespect. The temptation is, by and large, uninviting and only the weakest characters yield to it.

  Organized Covetousness

  But now, in a highly specialized economy, with all of everyone’s wealth and most of everyone’s liberty in the flowing current, feathering one’s nest at the expense of others dramatically changes in several respects:

  1. That which can be plucked is not merely a hen, pig, or bag of corn but may be an amount of purchase orders good for millions of hens, pigs, bags of corn. And the wealth that’s there for the plucking isn’t all. There’s also power. When the people’s wealth is siphoned off, so is their liberty to use the wealth. The liberties belonging to everyone, when taken, are converted into the power of the plucker. Successful tapping of the current means wealth and power, and with these go fame. The temptation is so powerful that the “best” people yield to it.

  2. This near irresistible temptation has its allies. This process of tapping the current depersonalizes the act of living off the goods and services of others. They who in this manner take our wealth and liberty are unknown to us; they never confront us; they are far away and anonymous and, for this reason, incur no shame as does a small-scale house thief. Further, they have no awareness of having done anything harmful to any one of us personally. We, as they, are hidden in anonymity. Thus, they can carry on their sullen trade with impunity.

  But more than with impunity. So little understood is this tapping of the current that approval attends the hocus-pocus; they become known not only as humanitarians but as the benefactors of mankind.

  It is easy to see how humanity, once in economic orbit, makes undeserved fortunes, fame, power available to manipulators, be they innocent or malicious, and with enhancement rather than loss of reputation. Never has chicanery been so attractive or so universally practiced. Two examples, among thousands, will serve to identify tapping and impairing of the current.

  The head of a corporation and chairman of a private hospital remarked, “But I must appeal for Federal aid; we’re short of beds.” This is how the current is tapped. When asked, “Would you personally use force to collect funds from others?” he replied, “Of course not; I’m no crook.” Here is innocence, for this man thinks of himself as a humanitarian and benefactor.

  Long, drawn-out strikes illustrate both impairment and tapping. The unions, having been granted coercive powers by government, forbid free exchange of purchase orders for services. Their dictum, in effect: “Take only us—no one else—at our price, or shut down.” That’s impairment of the current, pure and simple. And while on strike they often receive unemployment insurance—purchase orders on the goods and services of the rest of us, the ones injured by this impairment. That’s tapping not only our wealth but our liberty as well.

  It should be plain to any thoughtful person that when all of us have committed our lives and livelihood to the flowing current—an exchange device absolutely essential to a specialized economy—everyone’s best interest is served by the protection of the current against all siphoning, plucking, tapping, impairment of flow. This protection is the role of society’s formal, legal agency—government—this and nothing else. This is what is meant by invoking a common justice, inhibiting and penalizing all fraud and violence, keeping the peace. This can be phrased in other terms: let government try, as best it can, to prevent all unwilling exchange. If successful, all then that remains is willing exchange. In a word, do away with all infringements of liberty, and what is released is human liberty.

  Needed, A New Line of Defense

  That’s all there is to the device of liberty. It’s simple; it doesn’t have to be invented; it merely awaits our use of it. We are in economic orbit; specialization proliferates at an unimaginable, giddy pace. Nationally, society-wise, where is this taking us? We can only speculate. But of two things I feel certain:

  1. If we are to avoid becoming “space trash,” man must be at liberty to live and grow, and to engage in uninhibited, willing exchange—as long as it’s peaceful.

  2. As the taking of private property is now far more by anonymous predators than by personal thieves, so must the defenses be altered against predation. A shot gun and a dog, or a good police force, served to scare off horse thieves. But these physical defenses are useless against the new predation. Nothing less than an advanced understanding and practice of difficult human virtues can possibly serve us now. Our exploding specialization and exchange with its increasing interdependence can be protected by nothing less than a pronounced display of sound economic and moral principles. If we are to remain on course, and avoid starting all over again, perfections of the intellect must replace the outmoded physical ramparts. This is the imperative, the price, and the flower of any meaningful growth.

    The reader will note that I repeatedly employ the term willing exchange, though it is not in common use today. Let me now explain, and you also may wish to adopt it as a means of clarifying what you want to say. . . .

Deeper Than You Think - Digital Book

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