Had Napoleon been asked to sit atop the Cosmos and manage everything in interstellar space, probably he would have demurred on the grounds that such an assignment was beyond his competence. Yet, he unhesitatingly strove for a role no less pretentious: managing millions of human beings, each of whom is as phenomenal as the Cosmos itself. A master at his specialization—coercion—he was grossly ignorant of the limits of his wisdom. Knowing so much in so narrow an area, and being unaware of his limitations, led him to assume a role for which no man—not even a Napoleon—has any competence whatsoever.
Napoleon was a “macro.” Historically, he and his ilk have been the exceptions. Most people have been “micros.” While victimized by authoritarianism, they have nevertheless been content to wrestle with social problems of the micro sort. That’s the way the past reads to me.
Solving Other People’s Problems
But the picture changes! Millions upon millions of people are now presuming to settle problems that are over their heads—macro problems. This accounts, in no small measure, for our headlong return to coercive collectivism. At least, this is my thesis.
A typical case in point: A noted geneticist, extrapolating population trends, predicts that there will be one billion billion of us on earth no further in the future than the Norman Conquest is in the past—“some 120 persons per square yard of the earth’s surface. . . .”1 This, of course, is a horrendous statistic! But the nub of the matter is that this scientist has taken on a problem that’s over his head. Such would be the case even were he limiting himself to the problems of our nation at the present moment. This scientist, however, takes on the social problem of the whole world, and some centuries hence! Now, how does this biting off more of a problem than one can chew lead to coercive collectivism? Listen to one of the several suggested remedies:
A program in which everyone is temporarily sterilized (perhaps with a substance added to water supplies or staple foods) will be necessary. This would make positive action, in applying for and taking an antidote, necessary before reproduction.
Mass sterilization! The only way to have a baby is to apply for an antidote, a drug that will restore fertility. Who is to possess this permit-granting authority? Not the scientist; he won’t be here. The answer is that a government official will decide who is or is not to be born. Would an Abe Lincoln be given dispensation of life by this political god? Booker T. Washington? Sam Goldwyn? You? I? The geneticist himself? Shades of 1984!2
The above, while somewhat startling and sensational, is no more far-fetched than millions of Joe Doakeses who now take on social problems bigger than they are and then turn the problems over to government for solution. Joe Doakes, who votes in favor of a resolution for the government to finance the local hospital, is in exactly the same category as the geneticist—each trying to focus on a problem that is beyond his competence.
We Inhabit a Shrinking World
What has brought on this rash of macro addicts? Nearly everyone trying to solve problems bigger than the would-be problem solvers? Perhaps we can put our finger on the cause of this.
Reflect on my farmer grandfather. The social problems he dealt with—welfare, security, prosperity—were of a size befitting his mentality; he thought in micro terms—that is, he did his thinking in terms of the few individuals with whom he was acquainted and whose needs could be personally judged. Grandfather operated, for the most part, within an orbit of 7-10 miles radius; a trip to “the city,” some 50 miles away, was as much of an occasion as one of my trips to London. Frankly, Grandfather didn’t know of any “need” except what he personally scanned. His communication with and vision of the nation or the world never went beyond a stint in the Civil War, a macro event. Unless a neighbor’s barn were on fire, in which case everyone within seeing distance lent a hand, “need” wasn’t much in evidence except for the now-and-then peripatetic beggar or hobo. In his micro-vision orbit just about every family looked out for itself; self-reliance Was in the driver’s seat. These people knew each other too intimately to fool one another. Pretense seldom reared its head.
What we should keep in mind is the fact that America’s era of micro vision broke all the world’s records for security, welfare, prosperity. Governor Bradford of the Plymouth Colony, when commenting on the results of dropping coercive collectivism, in effect the macro madness of the Old World, wrote:
. . . any generall wante or famine hath not been amongst them since to this day.
Following that momentous decision in 1623, there has been no famine or involuntary starvation in our land for over three centuries. However, we must not, in this analysis, give too much credit to our grandfathers. By and large, our ancestors had no more capacity to think for themselves or to see beyond the surface of things than do their progeny who now people this country. Those who cannot think for themselves—ancestors, or us—must, perforce, respond to their environment.
How the environment has changed! Replacing Grandfather’s little world of micro vision is a brand new world of television, radio, telephone, astro vision, world-wide news coverage in daily papers, magazines, books; we hop into an auto and see America; we board a jet and view the world—in a word, macro vision.
Of a sudden—one might say, without warning—Grandfather’s progeny are constantly having dinned into their heads all the “needs” of all the people on earth. Appalachia is no less an intimate and pressing need today than was a bucket brigade to put out Grandfather’s fire. Distressed areas, backward countries the world over, foreign ideologies and isms, Negro unrest at home and in faraway Africa, all the poor farmers and all the suffering wage earners, prices for steel, aluminum, copper (the list grows), the cotton surplus, downtowns deserted for shopping centers, the threatening efficiency of the Japanese, the vanishing gold supply, the weakness of the pound sterling, getting to the moon “because it’s there,” Russian sputniks—you name it—are problems which most Americans now feel they must find solutions for.
Grandfather had to figure out how to milk his sick friend’s cows as well as his own; I have to contrive ways to get all of mankind out of the mess it’s in; I do unless I can see beyond the surface of things and thus protect my micro mentality from being drawn into tackling macro problems.
Those persons who cannot see beyond the surface of things—their number is legion—take on problems bigger than they are and, as a consequence, push us into the coercive collectivism of the all-powerful state. But we may never understand why this is true, why they act as they do, unless we can effect a self-induced blindness equal to their myopia, until we bring ourselves to seeing no more than they now see.3 In short, we can explain them only as we put our own vision into reverse and back up to where they are—put ourselves in their shoes.
With this mental gymnastic accomplished, what is it we no longer see? We now cannot see any efficacious results that could possibly flow from thinking in micro terms. A leading labor official put it clearly and succinctly:
Only a moron would believe that the millions of private economic decisions being made independently of each other will somehow harmonize in the end and bring us out where we want to be.4
The implication here is clear. The labor official, not being able to see any possibilities in micro economics (the free market), can see no solution to social problems except through the political implementation of macro economics. That he in his blindness refers to free market see-ers as morons is only because the term is stronger than extremists, crackpots, nuts. There is nothing new or strange in this. Most of us have a tendency to regard as slightly touched the connoisseur of any specialty about which we know nothing.
I use the labor official as a prototype only because he expresses his blindness more brilliantly than do the vast majority of citizens who are in his unseeing state. The labor official simply does not see what a few at least dimly perceive.5 However, the fault may be as much with us as with him. Free market see-ers aren’t able to throw enough light on the matter. Indeed, some of “us” entertain a doubt now and then about the free market being adequate to the occasion—mail delivery, for instance. Or monopoly, or disaster, or education. Who among “us” has no blind spots?
That Which Is Not Seen
There is no man, present or past, who achieves more than a micro mentality. As the distinguished French scientist, Lecomte du Noüy, put it, “Man’s image of his universe is founded on less than one-trillionth of the vibrations which surround him.” In any event, our inability to recall a single see-all, know-all, individual should make this affirmation self-evident. No one of us ever sees more than a wee fragment of the whole universe, of another person, or even of the whole self.
Now suppose a person—such as the labor official—is unable to see how ordinary mentalities focused on micro problems, if left free to act independently of each other, could possibly attend to social and economic problems. Remember, we have put ourselves in his position. Blindfolded thus, we can see no opening to the free market (micro) avenue—none whatsoever!
What to do? Surely, there are macro problems galore. One avenue, and one only, appears open to us; a macro-solving formula. Having only micro mentalities ourselves, we don’t quite know how to solve a macro problem. So, how are micro mentalities to be made into macro-problem solvers? What’s the formula? This is the question we must, in our self-induced blindness, ask ourselves.
Our answer? Thoughtlessly, and for the most part, we turn the macro problems over to government. But, by this process, what is it we really do? We do no more than give the macro problems to micro mentalities with but one ingredient added: a police force! Reduced to its essence, we give micro thinkers the gun power of a constabulary on the naïve assumption that this renders a competency to cope with macro problems. We add only force—not one iota of wisdom—and feel relieved by how intelligently, neatly, efficiently we discharge our responsibilities! This is the view we get when we cannot see beyond the surface of things.
The blindfold having served its purpose, let’s remove it. The fallacy of the above course of action, and the unjustified sense of accomplishment, are immediately apparent when we distill what we have done to micro dimensions: you and me.
Let us say that you are insufficiently secure and prosperous. What can I do to ameliorate your plight? I can give or loan you something that is mine or, perhaps, give you some helpful counsel. Isn’t it obvious that my assistance cannot be increased by forcibly imposing my will upon you? What can I do with a gun that I can’t do better without one? Nothing whatsoever! For, surely, you won’t sanction my employing this coercive means to take from others and give to you. Not in a you-and-me micro situation, you won’t. But if you start thinking in macro terms you will—as do millions.
The Victims of Coercion
No plague has ever destroyed or impoverished or kept from self-realization more human beings than has the macro malady. The pilgrims who starved and died during the three years after landing at Plymouth Rock were its victims. Several million Russians perished during 1931-32 at the hands of macro thinkers—not by men playing God but by men playing against God.6 Every soldier who loses his life on the battlefield dies of the macro malady—micro men undertaking macro roles.
Any observer can see that wars, the preparation for them, and their aftermath, lead toward the total state, that is, toward more governmental take-over and an increasing number of macro problems. But only those who can see below the surface of things can see that when a people collectivize in a power organization—socialism, authoritarianism, the welfare state, the planned economy—in short, when they “macronize,” wars become possible, indeed, more than likely. Men in a free market, a people who limit themselves to micro problems—acting individually and in response to free choice—do not make war; they create and trade! Just as do the people in the abutting states of Illinois and Wisconsin, so will any people who, when free of busybodies, tend to mind their own business.
We cannot help concluding that the macro malady is but the social and economic manifestation of a vicious circle: macro organization brings on wars, and wars make macro problems which, in turn, compel us into macro organization.
Inflation helps to make the point. This dilution of the medium of exchange is the fiscal outcome of excessive government, that is, of macro organization. And what are the solutions? One control atop another: price, wage, rent, interest, production, exchange, all of which are macro dimensions.7
The recent water famine on the Hudson was a macro problem that arose from macro (socialistic) organization.8 I see no point in extending the list; it is clear, if we focus the eye aright, that micro mentalities, when trapped into macro-problem solving, contaminate society with mankind’s most destructive disease: the macro malady.
A Reason to Be Humble
What, then, is the remedy for the macro malady; how do we get ourselves out of this vicious circle? The answer, it seems to me, is simple enough but, in our world of macro vision, difficult to put into personal practice.
Perhaps the wise Socrates gave us the cue when he said, in effect, “That man thinks he knows everything whereas he knows nothing. I, on the other hand, know nothing, but I know that I know nothing.” The first step, it seems, is to recognize that “I”—no matter who—am a micro mentality and, thus, incapable of coping with or solving macro problems. In short, when asked how to solve macro problems, I must learn to tell the truth: “I don’t know.”
The next step is to realize that no other person, regardless of pretensions or the amount of force at his disposal, possesses anything beyond micro mentality himself and is no more capable of solving macro problems than I am. Required is a penetrating skepticism: trust no man beyond his infinitesimal area of competence; hold him to the very little he knows.
When enough of this kind of realistic skepticism exists, we will have no more truck with “pretenders to the throne.” Only then may we begin to see slightly beyond the surface of things, at least beyond what the afore-mentioned labor official can see: the therapeutic power of freedom. True, “millions of private economic decisions made independently of each other,” may not bring us out where he wants us to be; but this micro, free market, individual, freedom-of-choice process will bring millions of people as close to where each of them wants to be as is possible. There is a distinction.
As stated above, the nearest approximation of the micro approach ever practiced broke all the world’s records for security, welfare, prosperity, and the release of creative human energy. The argument that this worked all right in a simple economy but is inapplicable in a complex economy does not hold water. The more complex the economy the more must the micro way of life be relied upon. For, as the complexity of the economy increases, man’s ability to manage it correspondingly diminishes. No self-respecting individual will concede to any other person the competency to manage his own creative life for him. Think, then, how absurd it is to expect a competency to direct the complex arrangement involving millions of lives!
The micro approach—each person operating within the limits of his knowledge and competence—should require no theorizers; its record is so remarkable and profuse. Those of us who are privileged to apprehend its performance know full well that its practice will put an end to macro problems. There’ll be no more water famine on the Hudson, for instance, than there is a famine in chickens, or cornflakes, or mink coats. Only micro problems will remain: each person trying to figure out how best to improve his own little world in free and voluntary cooperation with others. Problems will fit the problem solvers and, thus, find such resolution as each is capable of. When individuals attempt to solve problems over their heads, they are in a wild and dangerous guessing game, like children trying to explain what makes the world go round, and with the power to impose on the rest of us the vagaries of their imagination. But when individuals are at work on problems of their own size, they will be at their best as problem solvers; they will, as we say, come to themselves.
In this attempt to identify the causes that underlie cause, we can well ask, what causes the macro malady? No doubt there are many, but the transmutation of wishes into rights deserves most careful consideration. . .