Extract from ‘The Mainspring of Human Progress’
THERE is no denying the fact that human beings progress and prosper in proportion to the degree to which individual initiative is permitted, or at least not prevented. But Old World government has always been based on the fallacious idea of an authority controlling a planned economy for the so-called common good. Actually, it is nothing more than the arbitrary use of physical force by persons upon persons; and regardless of the high motives and good intentions, the effect is the same – it always slows down progress and hinders the production and distribution of the necessities of life.
This explains the historical fact – at first surprising – that a sincere, conscientious, hard-working ruler always does the most harm to his own subjects. The lazy, dissolute ruler neglects his job. Caligula, for instance, merely wasted goods in riotous extravagance and tortured just a few hundred of his subjects for his personal enjoyment. The majority of the people always get along comparatively well under a ruler like Caligula.
It was the sober, ascetic, industrious Augustus Caesar, toiling for the welfare of his Empire and its people, who began the destruction of Rome and laid the foundation for the misery and human degradation which Europeans suffered for centuries thereafter. He launched a planned economy which was to serve as the basis for the Roman world peace. The Roman legions gave it to all the people of the then-known world – as fast as they could be conquered. From Africa and Asia to England that peace extended, and it was designed to last forever.
The hairsplitting economic regulations were perfected by Diocletian, whose stern directives were so efficiently administered that farmers could no longer farm; and many of the small businessmen, faced with starvation, committed suicide in preference to being executed for black marketing.
There was no work for the workingman, so the beneficent government stepped in and, by taxing the rich, managed for a while to provide the populace with bread and circus tickets.
But that was no solution. The improvement was shortlived. Money can’t buy goods unless the goods are produced.
The mounting taxes put more and more people out of business. An increasing number of workers were forced onto tax-supported relief until there was not enough productive energy at work to pay the tax bills. The great Roman Empire – with its plans for a thousand years of peace and security – collapsed into the Dark Ages.
That was the work of the best of emperors.
At the other extreme, let us turn to England, which, for many centuries, was blessed with some of the worst rulers ever to wear a crown. If Richard the Lion-Hearted had stayed at home and tended to his job, or if King John had been half as good a ruler as his grandfather, there never would have been a Magna Charta for freedom.
The only able Tudor was Queen Elizabeth, whose father, Henry VIII, had left England so uncontrolled that it took all her energy and wit just to hold on to her throne. There was no time left for her to rule, and never was a realm so loosely governed. She built up the British Navy by doing nothing for it. She told her sea captains to act on their own responsibility and at their own expense. She wouldn’t even pay for the powder and lead they used in defending England against the Spanish Armada. Her plan was to do no planning. With great firmness of character and consistency of purpose, she always decided to decide nothing. By this highly intelligent means, she let her subjects found the British Empire.
The good Queen Bess was succeeded by the Stuarts – a charming, self-indulgent breed of “divine right” kings, the poodle dogs of their species, with not a moral under their curly wigs. They governed so negligently that the butchers and bakers and candlestick makers chucked them off the throne and made ex-brewer Cromwell the ruler of England.
Even after such a lesson, the Stuarts later came back to power so lazily that Charles II gave his parliament the order: “I pray, contrive any good short bills which may improve the industry of the nation.”4
That was all. And while the King uttered such idle words, his police were so few that it was no longer necessary to bribe them. Thousands of smugglers took over, and boomed British foreign trade from every port and cove. They were so numerous that a wit described “Merrie England” as a piece of land entirely surrounded by smugglers!
At that time, Continental weavers depended on England for raw wool, which they wove into cloth far superior to the product of English looms. To protect the domestic manufacturers, Parliament prohibited any further export of English wool. Of course, this measure would have ruined the English woolgrowers; but as always in all history, realistic tradesmen rescued commerce.
And when the prospering English woolgrowers expanded production so rapidly that the black marketeers could no longer handle all the export trade, Charles offered only one little remedy for “overproduction.” He decreed that in England no corpse could be buried that was not wrapped in a woolen shroud of domestic manufacture.
The measure was strictly enforced; the wool was buried, but ghouls dug up the corpses and stole the shrouds, which, through bootlegging, finally covered the naked legs of London’s workingmen.
Germany and France
The Continental rulers with their powerful police forces were more efficient, especially in the Germanies where everything was so thoroughly regulated that production and commerce almost ceased to exist. And here is Buckle’s comment, with particular reference to France:
“In every quarter, and at every moment, the hand of government was felt. Duties on importation, and duties on exportation; bounties to raise up a losing trade, and taxes to pull down a remunerative one; this branch of industry forbidden, and that branch of industry encouraged; one article of commerce must not be grown, because it was grown in the colonies, another article might be grown and bought, but not sold again, while a third article might be bought and sold, but not leave the country. Then, too, we find laws to regulate wages; laws to regulate prices; laws to regulate profits; laws to regulate the interest of money; custom-house arrangements of the most vexatious kind, aided by a complicated scheme, which was well called the sliding scale, – a scheme of such perverse ingenuity, that the duties constantly varied on the same article, and no man could calculate beforehand what he would have to pay…. The tolls were so onerous, as to double and often quadruple the cost of production.… A large part of all this was by way of protection: that is to say, the money was avowedly raised, and the inconvenience suffered, not for the use of the government, but for the benefit of the people; in other words, the industrious classes were robbed, in order that industry might thrive.
“… the first inevitable consequence was, that, in every part of Europe, there arose numerous and powerful gangs of armed smugglers, who lived by disobeying the laws which their ignorant rulers had imposed. These men, desperate from fear of punishment … spread, wherever they came, drunkenness, theft, and dissoluteness; and familiarized their associates with those coarse and swinish debaucheries, which were the natural habits of so vagrant and lawless a life.”5
Indeed, nothing but smuggling kept the French from starving to death under the care of their state, benevolently planned for their welfare.
During the reign of Louis XIV, the French weavers went through a whole season without moving a shuttle. While the people were waiting for clothes, the weavers were waiting for the government to tell them what kind of cloth they would be allowed to weave, what color it should be, and how many threads would be permitted for each inch of warp and woof.
The regulations on the textile industry alone covered over 3,000 pages, and they were different for each district. The manufacturers of Saint-Maixent, for example, had to negotiate for four years before the government allowed them to use black warp, and they never did get permission to use black woof.
Human energy simply does not work the way the despots and dictators would like to have it work. It works only under its natural control. Any attempt to make it work through the use of police force has always failed and has held back civilization.