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Lawrence W. Reed is president of the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York—www.fee.org.This essay has been adapted for CIEL by the author from an essay first published in the July 1997 issue of FEE’s journal, The Freeman.
In the literature of anti-capitalism, the dominant bogeyman is unquestionably the big, private, profit-seeking company. Is there a sin imaginable that hasn’t been laid at the doorstep of those who own or manage large firms?
Defenders of capitalism have produced powerful arguments and voluminous evidence exposing much of the anti-capitalist literature as mythology—attacks that seem plausible on the surface but which dissolve when set against either economic principles or practical experience.
One of the more common attacks concerns a strategy that, according to the mythology, big companies employ often and successfully against their smaller competitors. It is known as predatory price-cutting, commonly understood as the practice of underselling rivals to bankrupt them, and then raising prices to take advantage of the absence of competition.
Recently, when an anti-capitalist professor raised this issue, I asked him if his state-subsidized university was engaging in this very thing by charging tuition that did not cover its instructional costs. Private colleges, I pointed out, can’t combat this competition by relying on taxes to level the playing field. My professor friend responded by arguing that predatory price-cutting assumes an evil intent, and no government really intends to drive private colleges from the market by establishing its own universities. Besides, he said, we must look at the actual effects: private colleges indeed exist and even thrive, in spite of the subsidized competition.
In referring to actual effects, the professor was unwittingly making a point that undermined his case. Predatory price-cutting is a theory that, more often than not, falls apart when it leaves the classroom and enters the real world. The fact is, in a free market, large firms rarely attempt it and when they do, they usually fail at it. Even large firms that have the power of government on their side find it much harder to succeed as predators than the theory at first suggests.
The early experiences of the Dow Chemical Company provide an interesting case in point. Dow—an industrial giant famous for its aspirin, chlorine products, and plastic wrap—was once a prey that many expected would not survive. I’m indebted to my friend (and senior historian at FEE) Dr. Burton Folsom for first acquainting me with this story.
Herbert Dow, the founder, had already started two other chemical companies by 1897: one went broke, and the other fired him. “Crazy Dow” was what the folks in Midland, Michigan called him. Like David fighting Goliath, he did battle head-on with large German chemical monopolies and eventually toppled them from world dominance. It was hard to tell, in the end, who was really the predator and who was really the prey.
Dow’s key product was bromine, which he could sell as a sedative or as a chemical to develop photographs. He invented a process to separate bromine from the sea of brine underneath the city of Midland. With gusto, Dow sold his bromine inside the United States, but not outside—at least not at first.
The Germans had been the dominant supplier of bromine since it first was mass-marketed in the mid-1800s. No American dared compete overseas with the powerful German cartel, Die Deutsche Bromkonvention, which fixed the world price for bromine at a lucrative 49 cents a pound. Customers either paid the 49 cents or they went without. Dow and other Americans sold bromine inside the United States for 36 cents. The Bromkonvention made it clear that the Americans were lucky to be allowed to sell at all, and that if they tried to sell outside America the cartel would flood the American market with cheap bromine and drive them all out of business.
By 1904, Dow was ready to break the rules: He moved to sell bromine in Europe and Japan at a price well below that of the cartel. Before long, the Bromkonvention went on a rampage. It poured bromides into America at 15 cents a pound, well below its fixed price of 49 cents, and also below Dow’s 36-cent price.
Was Dow the helpless little guy, about to be smashed by the evil German capitalists just like the predatory price-cutting theorists would have predicted? Quite the contrary, he was the quintessential entrepreneurial genius who gives capitalism its cutting edge. He had his agent in New York discreetly buy hundreds of thousands of pounds of German bromides at the cartel’s 15-cent price. Then Dow repackaged the German bromides and sold them in Europe—including Germany—at 27 cents a pound. “When this 15-cent price was made over here,” Dow said, “instead of meeting it, we pulled out of the American market altogether and used all our production to supply the foreign demand. This, as we afterward learned, was not what they anticipated we would do.”
Indeed, as Folsom revealed in his book, Empire Builders: The Vision and Influence of Michigan’s Early Entrepreneurs, the Germans were befuddled. They expected to run Dow out of business; and this they thought they were doing. But why was U.S. demand for bromine so high? And where was this flow of cheap bromine into Europe coming from? Was one of the Bromkonvention members cheating and selling bromine in Europe below the fixed price? The tension in the cartel was dramatic. According to Dow, the German producers got into trouble among themselves as to who was to supply the goods for the American market.
The confused Germans kept cutting U.S. prices—first to 12 cents and then to 10.5 cents a pound. Dow meanwhile kept buying these cheap bromides and reselling them in Europe for 27 cents. By the time the Bromkonvention finally caught on to what Dow was doing, it had lost the price-cutting war. Dow had secured new markets for his own company with his competitors’ product, and he was now in a position to build a chemical giant. He went on to beat foreign, government-subsidized cartels in dyes and magnesium. Consumers of ever cheaper and better products were the biggest winners.
The predatory price-cutting charge is most commonly applied to the early history of John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Company. But here, too, the record departs from the rhetoric. Professor John S. McGee, writing in the October 1958 Journal of Law and Economics, showed conclusively that Rockefeller did not engage in the practice because he was smart enough to know that other entrepreneurs weren’t helpless nitwits who would take it lying down. (For a more complete explanation, see either McGee’s article or my own in the March 1980 issue of The Freeman, “Witch-Hunting for Robber Barons: The Standard Oil Story”: http://tinyurl.com/d3zrhe).
Anti-capitalist literature is rife with demons, monsters, and other assorted bogeymen, but so are fairy tales.
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Lawrence W. Reed is president of the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York—www.fee.org. It is adapted from a 2007 essay by the author for the Center for the American Experiment in Minnesota.”
Playing a politician in a classic Marx Brothers comedy, the inimitable Groucho once declared, “Those are my principles! If you don’t like them, I have others!”
We laugh at Groucho’s line but it’s a flash of candor that too many of today’s politicians aren’t honest enough to say in public even though it describes the way they behave. I wish they would subscribe to a set of principles rooted firmly in truth and consistency, press for policies that advance those principles, and compromise only when it’s required to at least move the ball down the field in that direction. But before we can expect politicians to be so principled, we must insist they be men and women of character.
Character is what differentiates a politician from a statesman. Statesmen don’t seek public office for personal gain or attention. Like George Washington, they often are people who take time out from productive careers of accomplishment to temporarily serve the public. They don’t have to work for government because that’s all they know how to do. They stand for a principled vision, not for what they think citizens will fall for. When a statesman gets elected, he doesn’t forget the public-spirited citizens who sent him to office and become a mouthpiece for the permanent bureaucracy or some special interest that greased his campaign.
Because they seek the truth, statesmen are more likely to do what’s right than what may be politically popular at the moment. You know where they stand because they say what they mean and they mean what they say. They do not engage in class warfare, race-baiting or in other divisive or partisan tactics that pull people apart. They do not buy votes with tax dollars. They don’t make promises they can’t keep or intend to break. They take responsibility for their actions. A statesman doesn’t try to pull himself up by dragging somebody else down, and he doesn’t try to convince people they’re victims just so he can posture as their savior.
When it comes to managing public finances, statesmen prioritize. They don’t behave as though government deserves an endlessly larger share of other people’s money. They exhibit the courage to cut less important expenses to make way for more pressing ones. They don’t try to build empires. Instead, they keep government within its proper bounds and trust in what free and enterprising people can accomplish. Politicians think that they’re smart enough to plan other people’s lives; statesmen are wise enough to understand what utter folly such arrogant attitudes really are. Statesmen, in other words, possess a level of character that an ordinary politician does not.
In America’s first century, Americans generally were skeptical of the expansion of government power not because they read policy studies or earned degrees in economics but because they placed a high priority on character. Using government to get something at somebody else’s expense, or mortgaging the future for near-term gain, seemed dishonest and cynical to them, if not downright sinful and immoral.
One of the fascinating people in American history is Grover Cleveland. (see http://ciel.fi/en/blog/grover-cared/). He had no college education, no formal economics training and may have never read a policy paper before being elected president. Nonetheless, he almost always came to the right policy conclusions. That’s because he clearly saw the connection between character and the principles of a free society. Because he possessed the former, he became a champion of the latter.
Cleveland said what he meant and meant what he said. He did not lust for political office, and he never felt he had to cut corners, equivocate or connive in order to get elected. He was so forthright and plain-spoken that he makes Harry Truman seem indecisive by comparison. H.L. Mencken, who was known for cutting politicians down to size, wrote a nice little essay on Cleveland entitled “A Good Man in a Bad Trade.”
Cleveland thought it was an act of fundamental dishonesty for some to use government for their own benefit at everyone else’s expense. Accordingly, he took a firm stand against some early stirrings of an American welfare state. The country was in good hands when it was run by principled citizens like Cleveland.
So, you might want to know, how quick should elected officials be to compromise? I offer here no clear line of demarcation, just a suggestion that if we insisted first and foremost on character, this question would matter a whole lot less than it does today. I’d sooner trust a statesman than a politician to know when to compromise.
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Lawrence W. Reed is president of the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York—www.fee.org.This essay has been adapted for CEIL by the author from an essay first published in the February 1997 issue of FEE’s journal, “The Freeman.”
Of all the ingredients in the recipe for education, which one has the greatest potential to improve student performance?
No doubt the teachers unions would put higher salaries for their members at the top of the list, to which almost every reformer might reply, “Been there, done that.” Teacher compensation has soared in recent decades at the same time every indicator of student performance has plummeted.
Other answers include smaller class size, a longer school year, more money for computers, or simply more money for fill-in-the- blank. The consensus of hundreds of studies over the past several years is that these factors exhibit either no positive correlation with better student performance or show only a weak connection. On this important question, the verdict is in and it is definitive: The one ingredient that makes the most difference in how well and how much children learn is parental involvement.
When parents take a personal interest in the education of their children, several things happen. The child gets a strong message that education is important to success in life; it isn’t something that parents dump in someone else’s lap. Caring, involved parents usually instill a love of learning in their children—a love that translates into a sense of pride and achievement as knowledge is accumulated and put to good use. Time spent with books goes up and time wasted in the streets goes down.
American parents were once responsible for educating their children. Until the late nineteenth century, the home, the church, and a small nearby school were the primary centers of learning for the great majority of Americans. In most Southern states before the Civil War, it was illegal under state laws for blacks to be educated, but many people (both black and white) provided education in secret defiance, producing a remarkably high literacy rate among oppressed blacks.
In more recent times, many American parents have largely abdicated this responsibility, in favor of the experts in the compulsory public school system. According to a 1996 report from Temple University in Pennsylvania, nearly one in three parents was seriously disengaged from their children’s education. The Temple researchers found that about one-sixth of all students believed their parents don’t care whether they earn good grades and nearly one-third said their parents had no idea how they are doing in school.
If anything has changed since 1996, it’s more likely to be in the wrong direction. The bitter fruit of a century of Americans “educated” to believe that education is a government job is now being harvested. And literacy and graduation rates in government schools in inner cities like Detroit are now so bad one can’t help but wonder if they’d be better if education were simply made illegal.
Amid the sorry state of American education today are heroes who are rescuing children in a profoundly personal way. They are the homeschoolers—parents who sacrifice time and income to teach their children themselves. Homeschooling is the ultimate in parental involvement.
Teaching children at home isn’t for everyone and no one advocates that every parent try it. There are plenty of good schools—many private and some government (“public”)—that are doing a better job than some parents could do for their own children. But the fact is that homeschooling is working—and working surprisingly well—for the growing number of parents and children who choose it.
That fact is all the more remarkable when one considers that these dedicated parents must juggle teaching with all the other demands and chores of modern life. Also, they get little or nothing back from what they pay in taxes for a public system they don’t patronize.
“The number of home-schooled kids hit 1.5 million in 2007,” reports USA Today—“up 74% from when the Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics started keeping track in 1999, and up 36% since 2003.” USA Today says that “the percentage of the school-age population that was home-schooled increased from 2.2% in 2003 to 2.9% in 2007.” Those are still small numbers compared to government school enrollment, but they are up from a mere 15,000 in the early 1980s.
Parents who home school do so for a variety of reasons. Some want a strong moral or religious emphasis in their children’s education. Others are fleeing unsafe government schools or schools where discipline and academics have taken a backseat to fuzzy feel-good or politically correct dogma. Many home school parents complain about the pervasiveness in government schools of trendy instructional methods that border on pedagogical malpractice.
Home school parents are fiercely protective of their constitutional right to educate their children. In early 1994, the House of Representatives voted to mandate that all teachers—including parents in the home—acquire state certification in the subjects they teach. A massive campaign of letters, phone calls, and faxes from homeschoolers produced one of the most stunning turnabouts in legislative history: By a vote of 424 to 1, the House reversed itself and then approved an amendment that affirmed the rights and independence of home school parents.
Critics have long harbored a jaundiced view of parents who educate children at home. They argue that children need the guidance of professionals and the social interaction that come from being with a class of others. Homeschooled children, these critics say, will be socially and academically stunted by the confines of the home. But the facts suggest otherwise.
A 1990 report by the National Home Education Research Institute showed that homeschooled children score in the 80th percentile or higher, meaning that they scored better than 80 percent of other students in math, reading, science, language, and social studies. Reports from state after state show homeschoolers scoring significantly better than the norm on college entrance examinations. Prestigious universities, including Harvard and Yale, accept homeschooled children eagerly and often. Homeschooled children make headlines regularly as winners of spelling bees and for other impressive academic achievements.
And there’s simply no evidence that homeschooled children (with a rare exception) make anything but fine, solid citizens who respect others and work hard as adults. Have you ever heard anyone say, after a riot or a drug bust or a rowdy post-game altercation, “Oh, there go the homeschoolers again!”?
Homeschool parents approach their task in a variety of ways. While some discover texts and methods as they go, others plan their work well before they start, often assisted by other homeschoolers or associations that have sprung up to aid those who choose this option. Common to every homeschool parent is the belief that the education of their children is too important to hand over to someone else.
Writing in the July 1996 issue of Reason magazine, Britton Manasco argues that the growth of CD-ROMs, Internet services, and computerized educational networks is likely to make homeschooling even more attractive to parents. For a tiny fraction of what a printed version might cost, one software publisher is offering a classic books program that incorporates more than 3,500 unabridged literary works, complete with hundreds of video clips and illustrations. A support group in Ann Arbor, Michigan, provides inexpensive on-line help, resources, and evaluations for thousands of homeschool children worldwide. Another organization links first-rate instructors and homeschool students from all over the country via computer in a college preparatory program that includes a core curriculum for about $250 per course.
In every other walk of life, Americans traditionally regard as heroes the men and women who meet challenges head-on, who go against the grain and persevere to bring a dream to fruition. At a time when more troubles and shortcomings plague education and educational heroes are too few in number, recognizing the homeschool heroes in our midst may be both long overdue and highly instructive.
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Lawrence W. Reed is president of the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York—www.fee.org.This essay has been adapted for CEIL by the author from an essay first published in the March 2006 issue of National Review Online. The disaster in New Orleans from Hurricane Katrina occurred the previous August.
The year 1887 was a tough year in Texas. Day after day brought hot, dry winds that parched the land. Farmers saw their crops wither and their cattle grow weak from thirst. Spirits faltered as desperate Texans prayed for rain, seemingly to no avail. Eager to help (at least with other people’s money), congressmen pushed through a bill to provide federal aid in the form of seed, but one man stood in their way—America’s 22nd president, Grover Cleveland. At a time when the federal budget boasted a large surplus, he vetoed the bill.
What kind of man could say no to free seed for his salt-of-the-earth brethren in distress? Was Cleveland, son of a Presbyterian minister, a cold, cruel and heartless Scrooge? Could this be the same man who once taught at the New York Institute for the Education of the Blind and cultivated a passionate, lifelong devotion to helping the sightless?
Yes indeed, one and the same. But the president was no mean-spirited miser. He simply knew what almost no one in Congress today understands: He knew the decisive difference between government and everything else. If he were alive to witness the tragic antics of Federal Emergency Management Agency in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, he might be sorely tempted to say, “I told you so.”
A federal bureaucracy that shells out $438 per night to house New Orleans evacuees in a Manhattan hotel, blows $300 million on trailers that sit and rot many miles away from the intended recipients, stymies help from the Red Cross and other government departments, doles out $2,000 debit cards to just about anybody who needs a tattoo and a massage, and runs ice trucks to every corner of the country except where the ice is needed: These are not the fruit of the allegedly insensitive, laissez-faire 1880s. They are the product of our “compassionate” and gargantuan government, for which every need is an excuse to spend, grow, politicize and subsume.
In his veto of the Texas Seed Bill, Cleveland warned against a general disregard of the “limited mission” of the federal government. He didn’t think Congress or the president should torture the Constitution until it confessed that disaster relief was among the responsibilities of Washington, D.C. He felt that the country should heed the time-honored lesson that, as he put it, “Though the people support the Government, the Government should not support the people.”
The welfare-statists of our time have saddled us with $8 trillion in debt, a federal tax burden seven or eight times that of Cleveland’s day, and a legacy of handout programs that have yielded little more than dependency and dysfunctional families. Billions in corporate welfare have exacted a similar toll on American enterprise. Cleveland tried to tell us that government has nothing to give anybody except what it first takes from somebody, and that a government big enough to give us everything we want is big enough to take away everything we’ve got. But somewhere along the way we fooled ourselves into thinking that government can help our brothers and sisters better, more quickly, and more cheaply than we can help them ourselves. What a sorry mess of pottage we’ve mortgaged our children’s future for.
Nonetheless, Americans are still the most generous charity givers on the planet. The best evidence that we haven’t entirely lost the instincts Cleveland appealed to is the fact that when Americans want to donate money to help others, they don’t make their checks out to FEMA or any other government agency.
Cleveland didn’t say no to drought relief because he thought hurting farmers didn’t deserve relief. He urged Americans in general and members of Congress in particular to give from their own hearts and personal resources. His veto message noted, “The friendliness and charity of our countrymen can always be relied upon to relieve their fellow citizens in misfortune.” Aid from Washington, D.C., he wrote, only “encourages the expectation of paternal care on the part of the Government and weakens the sturdiness of our national character.”
Those farmers in Texas got their aid, all right—as much as 10 times or more in private assistance as the amount that Cleveland refused to launder first through a federal bureaucracy.
Just six years before in another example of monumental generosity, Americans came to the rescue of their fellow citizens through private means. In 1881, Clara Barton mobilized her newly formed American Red Cross in its first major disaster-relief effort, pouring a gusher of money, food, clothes and volunteers into Michigan after a raging fire destroyed much of four counties. American history is replete with similar stories of people helping people in the absence of largesse from Washington, D.C.
As the Katrina recovery continues, the federal government will do what the federal government does best. It will talk, squawk, and pontificate. It will hold hearings, point fingers, and proclaim its good intentions. It will learn nothing and change little, for that is the nature of the beast and a big reason our Founders wanted it kept small and constrained in the first place. It will, as one of Franklin Roosevelt’s cronies once said, “tax and tax, spend and spend, elect and elect.”
I suspect that meanwhile, in spite of the mind-numbing hurdles that big government puts in their way, the real heroes will be quiet folks who help their fellow citizens by what they give and by what they build. Grover Cleveland told us we could count on them because they, at least, have never let us down.
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Lawrence W. Reed is president of the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York—www.fee.org.This essay has been adapted for CEIL by the author from an essay first published in the November 1994 issue of FEE’s journal, “The Freeman.”
Advocates of the spontaneous order of freedom and free markets are forever stomping out the fires of fallacious reasoning, anti-capitalist bias, and twisted history. It seems that as soon as we put out one fire, opponents of the market manage to ignite ten others.
We spend as much time explaining the workings of the market as we do debunking myths and clichés about it. Statists and interventionists spout an endless stream of put-downs and one-liners that pass as thorough critiques of the market, each one requiring a time-consuming, painstaking response and appeal to reason. We are constantly rewriting prejudiced accounts of history to match what really happened.
Nearly ninety years ago (note: now 105 years ago), muckraking novelist Upton Sinclair wrote a book titled The Jungle which wove a tale of greed and abuse that reverberates to this day as a powerful case against laissez faire. Sinclair’s focus of scorn was the meatpacking industry. The objective of his effort was government regulation. The culmination of his work was the passage in 1906 of the famed Meat Inspection Act, enshrined in most history books as a sacred cow (excuse the pun) of the interventionist state.
Were Sinclair’s allegations of a corrupt industry foisting unhealthy products on an unsuspecting public really true? And if so, should the free market stand forever indicted and convicted as a result? A response from advocates of freedom is long overdue. Here’s a healthy start.
The Jungle was, first and foremost, a novel. It was intended to be a polemic—a diatribe, if you will and not a well-researched and dispassionate documentary. Sinclair relied heavily on both his own imagination and on the hearsay of others. He did not even pretend to have actually witnessed the horrendous conditions he ascribed to Chicago packinghouses, nor to have verified them, nor to have derived them from any official records.
Sinclair hoped the book would ignite a powerful socialist movement on behalf of America’s workers. The public’s attention was directed instead to his fewer than a dozen pages of supposed descriptions of unsanitary conditions in the meatpacking plants. “I aimed at the public’s heart,” he later wrote, “and by accident I hit it in the stomach.” 
Though his novelized and sensational accusations prompted later congressional investigations of the industry, the investigators themselves expressed skepticism of Sinclair’s integrity and credibility as a source of information. President Theodore Roosevelt wrote of Sinclair in a letter to William Allen White in July 1906, “I have an utter contempt for him. He is hysterical, unbalanced, and untruthful. Three-fourths of the things he said were absolute falsehoods. For some of the remainder there was only a basis of truth.” 
Sinclair’s fellow writer and philosophical intimate, Jack London, wrote this announcement of The Jungle, a promo that was approved by Sinclair himself:
Dear Comrades: . . . The book we have been waiting for these many years! It will open countless ears that have been deaf to Socialism. It will make thousands of converts to our cause. It depicts what our country really is, the home of oppression and injustice, a nightmare of misery, an inferno of suffering, a human hell, a jungle of wild beasts.
And take notice and remember, comrades, this book is straight proletarian. It is written by an intellectual proletarian, for the proletarian. It is to be published by a proletarian publishing house. It is to be read by the proletariat. What Uncle Tom’s Cabin did for the black slaves The Jungle has a large chance to do for the white slaves of today. 
The Jungle’s fictitious characters tell of men falling into tanks in meatpacking plants and being ground up with animal parts, then made into “Durham’s Pure Leaf Lard.” Historian Stewart H. Holbrook writes, “The grunts, the groans, the agonized squeals of animals being butchered, the rivers of blood, the steaming masses of intestines, the various stenches . . . were displayed along with the corruption of government inspectors”  and, of course, the callous greed of the ruthless packers.
Most Americans would be surprised to know that government meat inspection did not begin in 1906. The inspectors Holbrook refers to as being mentioned in Sinclair’s book were among hundreds employed by federal, state, and local governments for more than a decade. Indeed, Congressman E. D. Crumpacker of Indiana noted in testimony before the House Agriculture Committee in June 1906 that not even one of those officials “ever registered any complaint or [gave] any public information with respect to the manner of the slaughtering or preparation of meat or food products” 
To Crumpacker and other contemporary skeptics, “Either the Government officials in Chicago [were] woefully derelict in their duty, or the situation over there [had been] outrageously over- stated to the country.”  If the packing plants were as bad as alleged in The Jungle, surely the government inspectors who never said so must be judged as guilty of neglect as the packers were of abuse.
Some two million visitors came to tour the stockyards and packinghouses of Chicago every year. Thousands of people worked in both. Why is it that it took a novel written by an anti-capitalist ideologue who spent but a few weeks there to unveil the real conditions to the American public?
All of the big Chicago packers combined accounted for less than 50 percent of the meat products produced in the United States; few if any charges were ever made against the sanitary conditions of the packinghouses of other cities. If the Chicago packers were guilty of anything like the terribly unsanitary conditions suggested by Sinclair, wouldn’t they be foolishly exposing themselves to devastating losses of market share?
Historians with an ideological axe to grind against the market usually ignore an authoritative 1906 report of the Department of Agriculture’s Bureau of Animal Husbandry. Its investigators provided a point-by-point refutation of the worst of Sinclair’s allegations, some of which they labeled as” willful and deliberate misrepresentations of fact,” “atrocious exaggeration,” and “not at all characteristic.” 
Instead, some of these same historians dwell on the Neill-Reynolds Report of the same year because it at least tentatively supported Sinclair. It turns out that neither Neill nor Reynolds had any experience in the meatpacking business and spent a grand total of two and one-half weeks in the spring of 1906 investigating and preparing what turned out to be a carelessly-written report with preconceived conclusions.
Gabriel Kolko, a socialist but nonetheless an historian with a respect for facts, dismisses Sinclair as a propagandist and assails Neill and Reynolds as “two inexperienced Washington bureaucrats who freely admitted they knew nothing”  of the meatpacking process. Their own subsequent testimony revealed that they had gone to Chicago with the intention of finding fault with industry practices so as to get a new inspection law passed. 
As popular myth would have it, there were no government inspectors before Congress acted in response to The Jungle and the greedy meatpackers fought federal inspection all the way. The truth is that not only did government inspection exist, but meatpackers themselves supported it and were in the forefront of the effort to extend it!
When the sensational accusations of The Jungle became worldwide news, foreign purchases of American meat were cut in half and the meatpackers looked for new regulations to give their markets a calming sense of security. The only congressional hearings on what ultimately became the Meat Inspection Act of 1906 were held by Congressman James Wadsworth’s Agriculture Committee between June 6 and 11. A careful reading of the deliberations of the Wadsworth committee and the subsequent floor debate leads inexorably to one conclusion: Knowing that a new law would allay public fears fanned by The Jungle, bring smaller competitors under regulation, and put a newly laundered government stamp of approval on their products, the major meatpackers strongly endorsed the proposed act and only quibbled over who should pay for it.
In the end, Americans got a new federal meat inspection law. The big packers got the taxpayers to pick up the entire $3 million price tag for its implementation as well as new regulations on their smaller competitors, and another myth entered the annals of anti-market dogma.
To his credit, Upton Sinclair actually opposed the law because he saw it for what it really was—a boon for the big meatpackers.  Far from being a crusading and objective truth-seeker, Sinclair was a fool and a sucker who ended up being used by the very industry he hated.
Myths die hard.
What you’ve just read is not at all “politically correct.” But defending the market from historical attack begins with explaining what really happened. Those who persist in the shallow claim that The Jungle stands as a compelling indictment of the market should clean up their act because upon inspection, there seems to be an unpleasant odor hovering over it.
(An extended version of this essay, with additional information on Sinclair’s activities in the decades after publication of his book, was published in 2006 by Liberty magazine and is accessible here: http://libertyunbound.com/archive/2006_08/reed-meat.html.
1. Gabriel Kolko, The Triumph of Conservatism: A Reinterpretation of American History, 1900-1916 (Chicago: Quadtrangle Books, 1967), p. 103.
2. Roosevelt to William Allen White, July 31, 1906, Elting E. Morison and John M. Blum, editors, The Letters of Theodore Roosevelt, 8 vols. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1951- 54), vol. 5, p. 340.
3. Mark Sullivan, Our Times: The United States, 19001925; vol. 2: America Finding Herself (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1927), p. 473.
4. Stewart H. Holbrook, The Age of the Moguls (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1953), pp. 1 I0-11 I.
5. U.S. Congress, House, Committee on Agriculture, Hearings on the So-called “Beveridge Amendment” to the Agriculture Appropriation Bill, 59th Congress, 1st Session, 1906, p. 194.
7. Ibid., pp. 346-350.
8. Kolko, p. 105.
9. Hearings, p. 102.
10. Upton Sinclair, “The Condemned-Meat Industry: A Reply to Mr. J, Ogden Armour,” Everybody’s Magazine, XIV, 1906, pp. 612-613.
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Lawrence W. Reed is president of the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York—www.fee.org.This essay has been adapted for CEIL by the author from an essay first published in the December 2004 issue of FEE’s journal, “The Freeman.”
“Democracy,” journalist H. L. Mencken once said, “is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard.” He also famously defined an election as “an advance auction sale of stolen goods.”
Mencken was not entirely hostile to democracy. He simply possessed a more sobering view of its limitations than today’s conventional wisdom.
Indeed, democracy may be the world’s single most oversold concept of political governance. Commonly yet erroneously romanticized, it is assumed in most circles to ensure far more than it possibly can. The Norman Rockwell portrait of engaged, informed citizens contending freely on behalf of the common good is the utopian ideal that obscures the messy details of reality.
Just how oversold democracy is came home to me recently as I listened to a group of college students debating farm subsidies. Advised that experience and economics underscore the folly of subsidies, the student consensus was nonetheless in support of “helping farmers.” Why? Because that’s apparently what the people wanted when they voted for the congressmen who gave us the handouts. To those students and a disturbing number of other citizens these days, the veneer of “democracy” somehow covers up a multitude of sins. It may even sanctify them. We need another dose of Mencken-esque reality—and that starts with a clearer view of what this thing is that enraptures so many.
Monarchy is easy to define. If you’ve got a king, you’ve got one. Military dictatorship is also stark in its manifestation. If one guy wears a uniform, has all the tanks, and tells everybody else what to do, you’ve got one of those. But what exactly is democracy?
Pure, undiluted democracy is unshackled majority rule. Everybody votes on everything, and 50 percent plus one decides every “public” issue—and inevitably, a whole lot of what ought to be private ones too. Perhaps ancient Athens for a brief time came closest to this, but no society of any size and complexity can practice this form of governance for long. For starters, it’s unwieldy and unworkable, endlessly contentious, and disrespectful of certain inalienable rights of individuals who may find themselves in the minority.
People like the sound of “democracy” because it implies that all of us have equal say in our government and that a simple majority is somehow inherently fair and smart in deciding all or virtually all issues. On closer examination it should become apparent that subjecting every decision of governance to a vote of the people is utterly impossible. Many decisions have to be made quickly; many decisions require knowledge that few people possess or have the time to become expert on; and many decisions don’t belong in the hands of any government at all. A pure democracy, even if possible, would quickly degenerate into the proverbial two wolves and a sheep voting on what to have for lunch.
Suppose someone says, “I just don’t like people with boats and jewelry. I think we should confiscate their property. Let’s have a vote on that.” A democratic purist would have to reply, “All in favor say aye.” A person interested in securing individual rights would have to say, “That’s not a proper function of government, and even if 99 percent of the citizens vote for it, it’s still wrong. There’s nothing about mob rule that makes such a decision legitimate.”
In common parlance, “democracy” has been stretched to mean little more than responsive government. Because of elections, government officials cannot behave in a vacuum. That fact is laudable, but it hardly makes a “democratic” government heavenly. In his penetrating book, Capitalism, Democracy, and Ralph’s Pretty Good Grocery, Ohio State University professor John Mueller writes that democracy “has been characterized by a great deal of unsightly and factionalized squabbling by self-interested, shortsighted people and groups, and its policy outcomes have often been the result of a notably unequal contest over who could most adroitly pressure and manipulate the system. Even more distressingly, the citizenry seems disinclined to display anything remotely resembling the deliberative qualities many theorists have been inclined to see as a central requirement for the system to work properly.”
Irrespective of presidential candidates’ singing interminable paeans to “our democracy,” America is thankfully not one and never has been. Our Founders established a republic, and a republican form of government modifies pure democracy considerably. It provides a mechanism by which almost anyone can have some say in some matters of government. We can run for office. We can support candidates and causes of our choosing. We can speak out in public forums. And, indeed, a few matters are actually decided by majority vote. But a constitutional republic founded on principles that are more important than voting—like individual rights—will put strong limits on all this. In its Bill of Rights, our Constitution clearly states, “Congress shall make no law. . . .” It does not say, “Congress can pass anything it wants so long as 50 percent plus one support it.”
Those democratic elements of our republic should be given their due. Elections are a political safety valve for dissident views, because ballots not bullets resolve disputes. But the saving grace of democracy is not that it ensures either good or limited government; it is nothing more than that the system allows for political change without violence—whether the change a majority favors is right or wrong, good or evil.
We should be thankful that we don’t have an absolute monarchy or a theocratic dictatorship or other truly objectionable forms of governance, but we should have no illusions about the harm that even a responsive government, whatever you want to call it, can still do. Even the best and most responsive of governments, we should never forget, still rests on the legal use of force—an inescapable fact that requires not blind and fawning reverence but brave and determined vigilance. That calls for sober people who understand the nature of government and the importance of liberty.
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Lawrence W. Reed is president of the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York—www.fee.org.This essay has been adapted for CEIL by the author from an essay first published in the July 2007 issue of FEE’s journal, “The Freeman.”
In 1800, fewer than 1 million people lived in London; a century later, well over 6 million. As the 20th century dawned, London had already been the most populous city on the planet for seven decades. Britain’s population as a whole soared from 8 million in 1800 to 40 million in 1900. In the previous 2,000 years, even a fraction of such population growth anywhere in Europe was usually nipped in the bud by famine, disease, falling incomes, and population retrenchment.
But Britain in the 19th century was a special place, the legendary “workshop of the world.” London had become the capital of capital, with private investment in agriculture and manufacturing burgeoning at a record-breaking pace in the latter half of the century. The year Victoria ascended to the throne, 1837, saw fewer than 300 patent applications for new inventions, but by the end of the century the number exceeded 25,000 annually. Per capita income on the eve of World War I was three times what it was a century before and life expectancy had risen by 25 percent. There were many more mouths to feed and bodies to clothe, but British entrepreneurship was feeding and clothing them better than the world had ever experienced. It was the greatest flowering of problem-solving creativity, ingenuity, and innovation in history.
Colin Pullinger, a carpenter’s son from Selsea, typified the 19th century British entrepreneur. He designed a “perpetual mousetrap” that could humanely catch a couple dozen mice per trap in a single night, and then sold 2 million of them. Perhaps Emerson had Pullinger in mind when he famously wrote, “If a man write a better book, preach a better sermon, or make a better mousetrap than his neighbour, tho’ he build his house in the woods, the world will make a beaten path to his door.”
As the 1800s drew to a close, the framework that made possible these extraordinary achievements — capitalism — fell under assault. As poverty declined massively for the first time, the very presence of the poverty that remained prompted impatient calls for forcible redistribution of wealth. Around the world, Marxists painted capitalists as exploiters and monopolists. In Britain, Charles Kingsley argued that Christianity demanded a socialist order, and the Fabian Society was formed to help bring it about. Many unscrupulous businessmen turned to the state for favors and protections unavailable to them in competitive markets. Would anyone come to the defense of capitalism with as much vigor and passion as those who opposed it?
At least one group did: the Liberty and Property Defence League. Though its work has been largely forgotten, what the world learned about socialism in the following century surely vindicates its message. Its name derived from the members’ belief that liberty and property were inseparable and that unless successfully defended, both could be swept away by the beguiling temptations of a coercive state.
The founder of the League in 1882 was a pugnacious Scot by the name of Lord Elcho, later the 10th earl of Wemyss as a member of the House of Lords and thereafter known simply as “Wemyss.” Originally elected to parliament in 1841 as a protectionist Tory, he eventually embraced free trade and repeal of the Corn Laws by 1846. He later evolved into a full-throated advocate for what we today would call “classical liberal” ideas. At the organization’s third annual meeting in 1885, he expressed his hope that its efforts to educate the public would “cause such a flood as will sweep away, in the course of time, all attempts at state interference in the business transactions of life in the case of every Briton of every class . . . . No nation can prosper with undue state interference, and unless its people are allowed to manage their own affairs in their own way . . . .”
Wemyss and his friends rounded up spokespersons and financial support. They enlisted writers and public speakers. They published and circulated essays and leaflets. The organization operated as an activist think tank with a lobbying arm. The League attempted to mobilize public opinion against specific bills, functioning as a “day-to-day legislative watchdog” in the view of historian Edward Bristow. It even arranged testimony before parliamentary hearings. One League pamphlet attacked the introduction of “grandmotherly legislation” as a transgression against the freedom of contract. Armed with arguments provided by League members and sympathizers, Wemyss’ allies in Parliament killed hundreds of interventionist bills in the 1880s and 1890s.
Opponents often accused the League of being motivated by its members’ bottom line drive for profits, but in actuality its philosophical ideals were paramount. Among its members were some of the brightest intellects of the era, Herbert Spencer being perhaps the most notable. Author of the libertarian classic, “The Man Versus the State,” Spencer was the best-selling philosopher of his day and was nominated for a Nobel in literature.
Spencer saw liberty as the absence of coercion and as the most indispensable prerequisite for human progress. The ownership of property was an individual right that could not be morally infringed unless an individual first threatened the property of another. Spencer has been demonized as an apostle of a heartless “survival of the fittest” Darwinism by those who choose to ignore or distort his central message, namely that individual self-improvement can accomplish more progress than political action. One creates wealth, the other merely takes and reapportions it.
Auberon Herbert was a Spencer acolyte whose championship of voluntarism found fertile soil among fellow League members. His now century-old warning about the danger of state intervention is positively prophetic: “No amount of state education will make a really intelligent nation; no amount of Poor Laws will place a nation above want; no amount of Factory Acts will make us better parents . . . . To have our wants supplied from without by a huge state machinery, to be regulated and inspected by great armies of officials, who are themselves slaves to the system which they administer, will in the long run teach us nothing, (and) will profit us nothing.”
In a 1975 essay in The Historical Journal from Cambridge University Press, historian Bristow contended that the Liberty and Property Defence League changed the language in one important, lasting way. Prior to the 1880s, “individualism” was a term of opprobrium in most quarters, referring to “the atomism and selfishness of liberal society.” The League appropriated the word and elevated its general meaning to one of respect for the rights and uniqueness of each person.
But was the League successful in its mission to thwart the socialist impulse? In the short run, lamentably, no. By 1914, socialists had convinced large numbers of Britons that they could (and should) vote themselves a share of other people’s property. Two world wars and a depression in between seemed to cement the socialists’ claim that their vision for society was inevitable.
Good ideas, however, have a way of resisting attempts to quash them. Bad ideas sooner or later fail and teach a valuable lesson or two in the process. Britain and most of the world gave socialism in all its varieties one hell of a run in the 20th century. The disastrous results now widely acknowledged underscore the warnings of those who said that we could depart from liberty and property only at our peril.
The warriors of the Liberty and Property Defence League may have lost the battle in their lifetimes, but a hundred years later they offer prophetic wisdom to those who will listen.
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Lawrence W. Reed is president of the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York—www.fee.org.This essay has been adapted for CEIL by the author author from an essay first published in the February 1979 issue of FEE’s journal, “The Freeman.”
A belief which I stressed again and again in my classes when I taught economics at Northwood University in Michigan was the belief that we are at war—not a physical, shooting war but nonetheless a war which is fully capable of becoming just as destructive and just as costly.
The battle for the preservation and advancement of liberty is a battle not against personalities but against opposing ideas. The French author Victor Hugo declared that “More powerful than armies is an idea whose time has come.” Armies conquer bodies, but ideas capture minds. The English philosopher Carlyle put it this way many decades ago: “But the thing a man does practically believe (and this is often enough without asserting it to himself, much less to others): the thing a man does practically lay to heart, and know for certain, concerning his vital relations to this mysterious Universe, and his duty and destiny there, that is in all cases the primary thing for him, and creatively determines all the rest.”
In the past, ideas have had earthshaking consequences. They have determined the course of history. For good or ill, they bring down governments and raise other ones up.
The system of feudalism existed for a thousand years in large part because scholars, teachers, intellectuals, educators, clergymen and politicians propagated feudalistic ideas. The notion of “once a serf, always a serf’ kept millions of people from ever questioning their station in life. Under the mercantilism practiced from the 16th through the 18th Centuries, the widely-accepted concept that the world’s wealth was fixed prompted men to take what they wanted from others in a long series of bloody wars.
The publication of Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations in 1776 is a landmark in the history of the power of ideas. As Smith’s message of free trade spread, political barriers to peaceful cooperation collapsed and virtually the whole world decided to try freedom for a change.
In arguing against freedom of the press in 1924, Lenin made the famous statement that “ideas are much more fatal than guns.” To this day, ideas by themselves can get you a prison sentence in a lot of places around the world.
Marx and the Marxists would have us believe that socialism is inevitable, that it will embrace the world as surely as the sun will rise in the east tomorrow. As long as men have free will (the power to choose right from wrong) however, nothing that involves this human volition can ever be inevitable! Men do things because they are of the mind to do them; they are not robots programmed to carry out some preordained dictum.
Winston Churchill once said that “Socialism is the philosophy of failure, the creed of ignorance, and the gospel of envy. Its inherent trait is the equal sharing of misery.” Socialism is an age-old failure, yet the socialist idea constitutes the chief threat to liberty today. So it is that believers in liberty, to be effective, must first identify and isolate the socialist notions which have taken their toll on liberty. In doing that, and then refraining from advancing those ideas, we can at the same time advance liberty. As I see it, socialism can be broken down into five ideas.
The Pass a Law Syndrome. Passing laws has become a national pastime in most Western countries. When a problem in society is cited, the most frequent response seems to be, “Pass a law!” Business in trouble? Pass a law to give it public subsidies or restrict its freedom of action. Poverty? Pass a law to abolish it. Perhaps we need a law against passing more laws.
In 1977 the American Congress enacted 223 new laws. It repealed hardly any. During that same year, the Washington bureaucracy wrote 7,568 new regulations, all having the force of law. (Thirty-three years later, the situation is even worse. Now, few in Congress even read the bills they vote for, some of which are in the thousands of pages).
James Madison in 1795 identified this syndrome as “the old trick of turning every difficulty into a reason for accumulating more force in government.” His observation leads one to ask, “Just what happens when a new law goes on the books?” Almost invariably, a new law means: a) more taxes to finance its administration; b) additional government officials to regulate some heretofore unregulated aspect of life; and c) new penalties for violating the law. In brief, more laws mean more regimentation, more coercion. Let there be no doubt about what the word “coercion” means: force, plunder, compulsion, restraint. Synonyms for the verb form of the word are even more instructive: impel, exact, subject, conscript, extort, wring, pry, twist, dragoon, bludgeon, and squeeze!
When government begins to intervene in the free economy, bureaucrats and politicians spend most of their time undoing their own handiwork. To repair the damage of Provision A, they pass Provision B. Then they find that to repair Provision B, they need Provision C and to undo C, they need D, and so on until the alphabet and our freedoms are exhausted.
The Pass a Law Syndrome is evidence of a misplaced faith in the political process, a reliance on force which is anathema to a free society. It’s also a sign that people have abandoned confidence in themselves and would prefer dependence upon politicians and largely unaccountable bureaucrats who usually are among the least capable in society to run the lives of others.
The Get Something From Government Fantasy. Government by definition has nothing to distribute except what it first takes from people. Taxes are not donations!
In the welfare state, this basic fact gets lost in the rush for special favors and giveaways. People speak of “government money” as if it were truly “free.” It may not be an exaggeration to say that perhaps the welfare state is so named because the politicians get well and the rest of us pay the fare.
One who is thinking of accepting something from government which he could not acquire voluntarily should ask, “From whose pocket is it coming? Am I being robbed to pay for this benefit or is government robbing someone else on my behalf?” Frequently, the answer will be both. The end result of this “fantasy” is that everyone in society has his hands in someone else’s pockets.
The Pass the Buck Psychosis. Recently a welfare recipient wrote her welfare office and demanded, “This is my sixth child. What are you going to do about it?”
An individual is victim to the Pass the Buck Psychosis when he abandons himself as the solver of his problems. He might say, “My problems are really not mine at all. They are society’s, and if society doesn’t solve them and solve them quickly, there’s going to be trouble!”
Socialism thrives on the shirking of responsibility. When men lose their spirit of independence and initiative, their confidence in themselves, they become clay in the hands of tyrants and despots. I might add: The only thing socialism has ever really done for poor people is to give them lots of company.
The Know-It-All Affliction. Leonard Read, in The Free Market and Its Enemy, identified “know-it-allness” as a central feature of the socialist idea. The know-it-all is a meddler in the affairs of others. His attitude can be expressed in this way: “I know what’s best for you, but I’m not content to merely convince you of my rightness; I’d rather force you to adopt my ways.” The know-it-all evinces arrogance and a lack of tolerance for the great diversity among people.
In government, the know-it-all refrain sounds like this: “If I didn’t think of it, then it can’t be done, and since it can’t be done, we must prevent anyone from trying.”
A group of West Coast businessmen ran into this snag recently when their request to operate a barge service between the Pacific Northwest and Southern California was denied by the Interstate Commerce Commission because the agency felt the group could not operate such a service profitably!
The miracle of the market is that when men and women are free to try, they can and do accomplish great things. Leonard Read’s well-known admonition that there should be “no man-concocted restraints against the release of creative energy” is a powerful rejection of the Know-It-All Affliction. (Leonard Read was the founder of the Foundation for Economic Education and you can read more about him here: http://www.thefreemanonline.org/featured/leonard-e-read-crusader/).
The Envy Obsession. Coveting the wealth and income of others has given rise to a sizable chunk of today’s socialist legislation. Envy is the fuel that runs the engine of redistribution. Surely, the many soak the-rich schemes are rooted in envy and covetousness.
What happens when people are obsessed with envy? They blame those who are better off than themselves for their troubles. Society is fractured into classes and faction preys upon faction. Civilizations have been known to crumble under the weight of envy and the disrespect for property which it entails.
A common thread runs through these five socialist ideas. They all appeal to the darker side of man: the primitive, noncreative, slothful, dependent, demoralizing, unproductive, and destructive side of human nature. No society can long endure if its people practice such suicidal notions!
Consider the freedom philosophy. What a contrast! It is an uplifting, regenerative, motivating, creative, exciting philosophy! It appeals to and relies upon the higher qualities of human nature such as self-reliance, personal responsibility, individual initiative, respect for property, and voluntary cooperation.
Nobel laureate economist F. A. Hayek (author of the seminal 1944 book, “The Road to Serfdom”) called attention to the power of ideas in preserving liberty: “Unless we can make the philosophic foundations of a free society once more a living intellectual issue, and its implementation a task which challenges the ingenuity and imagination of our liveliest minds, the prospects of freedom are indeed dark.”
The verdict in the struggle between freedom and serfdom depends entirely upon what percolates in the hearts and minds of men. At the present time, in every nation of the world, the jury is still deliberating.
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Lawrence W. Reed is president of the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York—www.fee.org.This essay has been adapted for CEIL by the author from an essay first published in the February 2001 issue of FEE’s journal, “The Freeman.” The author wishes the reader to know that the conditions he described in 2001 are no better a decade later and neither are the public policies that produced them.
Public (government) education in America costs a princely sum, and it isn’t getting any cheaper. But what taxpayers shell out for the government school monopoly doesn’t tell the whole story. What others in society must pay to correct the shortcomings of that failed monopoly is huge and a painful testimony to the need for a big dose of choice, competition, and private enterprise.
Because government schools perform on a par with government farms, government factories, and government stores in the typical socialized society, we have in America what is commonly called “remedial education.” The government school establishment doesn’t like the term because of its pejorative nature, so its minions have lately come up with their own: “developmental education.” I have nothing to cover up, so I’ll use the former.
Remedial education is what has to happen when students graduate from high school lacking basic skills in reading, writing, and mathematics. They have a diploma, but it doesn’t certify that they know anything; these days, the only thing you can be sure a diploma certifies is that lots of people paid through the nose for at least 12 years before the government was done with you. When employers and universities have to spend money to bring high school graduates up to speed—to do what the K-12 system did not do—that’s remedial education.
Getting a handle on the costs of this corrective work in Michigan was the purpose of a study released in 2000 by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy.
“The Cost of Remedial Education: How Much Michigan Pays When Students Fail to Learn Basic Skills” by education policy scholar Jay P. Greene, captured page-one headlines all across the state and shook the very foundations of the government school establishment. It made a lot of people rethink their longstanding, rarely questioned assumptions about government schooling.
First, it’s important to understand what the study did not count. It did not include the cost of college-level work that has been “watered-down” but not labeled either “remedial” or “developmental.” Talk to most university professors these days and you’ll know what I mean.
The study accounted for the expense of instructional services, but did not count expenditures on technology to accommodate the lack of basic skills. Increasingly, businesses are investing in software and gadgets to do, in effect, an end-run around workers who lack basic skills. Many businesses these days buy cash registers that make change for customers because employees can’t be relied on to count accurately. Some fast-food chains actually provide cash registers with pictures of the food items on them so adult employees who can’t read “cheeseburger” can still use them.
And finally, the study did not count the costs incurred personally by either high school dropouts or graduates who have been short-changed by the system: the later costs of tutors and self-study, and the cost of lower incomes.
This study looked only at Michigan and only at the costs of remedial education incurred just by businesses and universities in that state. At a minimum, one-third and probably something closer to one-half of all students graduating from Michigan public high schools lack basic skills. By using five different strategies for calculating these costs, Greene arrived at $601 million as a conservative estimate of what Michigan businesses and universities spend each year to remediate high school graduates lacking basic skills. That is a considerable sum on top of the $13 billion state and local governments spend on public education each year in Michigan, and yet it’s surely too low because of all the costs that were not part of the calculation.
The government school establishment is quick to suggest that the problem isn’t entirely the fault of the schools. Parents, they say, are partly to blame when they don’t prepare kids well or see that they do their homework. While it’s true that many parents have abdicated their responsibilities in the education of their children, it’s also true that many parents who do take education seriously find that they must constantly fight the public schools on matters of proper course content and academic rigor. Many parents believe the report cards their kids bring home, not realizing that grade inflation and poor teaching render the meaning of those report cards dubious. And schools, not parents, are the outfits that issue the diplomas that once implied a mastery of at least basic skills. If a student doesn’t have those skills, it’s deception when his school graduates him as if he did.
Janet Dettloff, chair of the Math and Sciences Division at Wayne County Community College in Detroit, says the remedial problem is acute and goes beyond a simple lack of knowledge: “Most of the students who come to us not only lack math and English skills, but they lack basic academic skills too. They have no idea what is expected of them at the college level. They don’t know how to take notes. They don’t read the assigned material. And many of them don’t even come to class.”
Others from both the business and university communities told the author what education reformers have long understood: government schools are doing a poor job of imparting critical thinking skills. Logic and reason have largely been supplanted by appeals to emotion. In place of rigorous analytical processes, students are asked to tell how they feel about a particular issue. The “self-esteem” craze that has swept public education essentially produces students by the boatload who don’t really know much, don’t know that they don’t know, but feel real good about their ignorance.
Getting the public to think about the high costs of remedial education is proving to be a catalyst for advancing real reform. If you favor more choice, competition, and private enterprise in education—irrespective of your preference for vouchers or tax credits or privatization and complete separation of school and state as a means to do that—the remediation problem provides new and powerful arguments: It vividly demonstrates that there are costs to not scrapping the status quo. People who are uncomfortable with the thought of change have some startling new numbers to wrestle with.
Apologists for government schooling love to spurn the arguments of reformers with the line, “You’re not being fair because, after all, public schools have to take all comers. They can’t pick and choose as private schools can.” Well, thanks to eye-opening studies like this one on the remedial problem, we know that whether public schools take everybody or not, it’s clear that atrociously high numbers of those they take are not getting educated.
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Lawrence W. Reed is president of the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York—www.fee.org.This essay has been adapted for CEIL by the author from an essay first published in the May 2005 issue of FEE’s journal, “The Freeman.”)
As a former university professor, I read thousands of student-authored essays through the years — sometimes joyously, but probably just as often, painfully. Occasionally, the process of researching and writing exerted significant influence over a student’s future interests, thinking and perhaps even behavior. But of all the student essays ever written anywhere, I doubt that any had as profound an effect on its author and the world as one that was penned 220 years ago at Cambridge.
Throughout Britain, the annual Latin essay contest at Cambridge was known and the honor of winning it coveted. The topic for the 1785 competition was prompted by a horrific human tragedy a few years before: Near the end of a long voyage from Britain to Africa to the West Indies, the captain of the British slave ship “Zong” had ordered his crew to throw 133 chained black Africans overboard to their deaths. He reckoned that by falsely claiming the ship had run out of fresh water, he could collect more for the “cargo” from the ship’s insurer than he could fetch at a slave auction in Jamaica.
No one in the Zong affair was prosecuted for murder. A London court ruled the matter a mere civil dispute between an insurance firm and a client. As for the Africans, the judge declared their drowning was “just as if horses were killed,” which, as horrendous as that sounds today, was not a view far removed from the conventional wisdom that prevailed worldwide in 1785. Slavery, after all, was an ancient institution. Even to this day, the number of people who have walked this earth in bondage far outnumbers those who have enjoyed even a modest measure of liberty.
Moved by the fate of the Zong’s victims and the indifference of the court, the university vice-chancellor in charge of selecting the topic for the 1785 contest at Cambridge chose this question: “Anne liceat invitos in servitutem dare?” – Is it lawful to make slaves of others against their will?”
Enter a man who, with a handful of compatriots armed only with the printed and spoken word, would clutch the public by the neck and not let go until it consigned slavery to the moral ash heap of history.
Born in Wisbech in 1760, Thomas Clarkson was a 25-year-old Cambridge student who hoped to be a minister when he decided to try his luck in the essay contest. Slavery was not a topic that had previously interested him, but he plunged into his research with the vigor and meticulous care that, with the passion that his findings later sparked, would come to characterize nearly every day of his next sixty-one years. Drawing from the vivid testimony of those who had seen the unspeakable cruelty of the slave trade first-hand, Clarkson’s essay won first prize.
What Clarkson had learned wrenched him to his very core. Shortly after claiming the prize, and while riding horseback along a country road, his conscience gripped him. Slavery, he later wrote, “wholly engrossed” his thoughts. He could not complete the ride without making frequent stops to dismount and walk, tortured by the awful visions of the traffic in human lives. At one point, falling to the ground in anguish, he determined that if what he had written in his essay was indeed true, it could lead to only one conclusion: “it was time some person should see these calamities to their end.”
Adam Hochschild, author of a splendid recent book on the history of the campaign to end slavery in the British empire titled “Bury the Chains,” explains the significance of those few minutes in time:
“If there is a single moment at which the antislavery movement became inevitable, it was the day in 1785 when Thomas Clarkson sat down by the side of the road at Wades Mill . . . . For his Bible-conscious colleagues, it held echoes of Saul’s conversion on the road to Damascus. For us today, it is a landmark on the long, tortuous path to the modern conception of universal human rights.” More than two centuries on, that very spot is marked by an obelisk, not far from London.
No man can rightfully lay claim, moral or otherwise, to owning another. That became Clarkson’s all-consuming focus. Casting aside his plans for a career as a man of the cloth, he mounted a bully pulpit and risked everything for the single cause of ending the evil of slavery. At first, he sought out and befriended the one group — the Quakers — who had already gone on record on the issue. But the Quakers were few in number and were written off by British society as fringe weirdos. Quaker men even refused to remove their hats for any man, including the king, because they believed it offended an even higher authority. Clarkson knew that anti-slavery would have to become a mainstream, fashionable, grassroots, educational effort if it had any hope to succeed.
On May 22, 1787, Clarkson’s organizational skills brought together twelve men, including a few of the leading Quakers, at a London print shop to plot the course. Alexis de Tocqueville would later describe the results of that meeting as “extraordinary” and “absolutely without precedent” in the history of the world. This tiny group, which named itself the Committee for the Abolition of the African Slave Trade, was about to take on a firmly established institution in which a great deal of money was made and on which considerable political power depended. The broad public knew little about the details of slavery and what it did know, it had accepted for the most part as perfectly normal since time immemorial.
“Looking back today,” writes Hochschild, “what is more astonishing than the pervasiveness of slavery in the late 1700s is how swiftly it died. By the end of the following century, slavery was, at least on paper, outlawed almost everywhere.” Thomas Clarkson was the prime architect of “the first, pioneering wave of that campaign” (the movement in Britain) which Hochschild properly describes as “one of the most ambitious and brilliantly organized citizens’ movements of all time.”
William Wilberforce is most often given the lion’s share of the credit for ending slavery in the British empire. He was the long-time Parliamentarian who never gave in to overwhelming odds, introducing bill after bill to abolish first the trade in slaves and later, slavery itself. Hero he certainly was, but it was Thomas Clarkson who first proposed to Wilberforce that he be the movement’s man in Parliament. And it was information Clarkson gathered by crisscrossing 35,000 miles of British countryside on horseback that Wilberforce often used in parliamentary debate. Clarkson was the mobilizer, the energizer, the barnburner, the fact-finder, and the very conscience of the movement.
He translated his prize-winning essay from Latin into English and supervised its distribution by the tens of thousands. He gave lectures and sermons. He wrote articles and a least one book. He helped British seamen escape from the slave-carrying ships they were pressed against their will to serve on. He filed murder charges in courts to draw attention to the actions of fiendish slave ship captains. He convinced witnesses to speak. He gathered testimony, rustled up petition signatures by the thousands, and smuggled evidence from under the very noses of his adversaries. His life was threatened many times and once, surrounded by an angry mob, he very nearly lost it. The long hours, the often thankless and seemingly fruitless forays to uncover evidence, the risks and the costs that came in every form, the many low points when it looked like the world was against him — all of that went on and on year after year. None of it ever made so much as a perceptible dent in Thomas Clarkson’s drive.
When Britain went to war with France in 1793, Clarkson and his committee saw early progress in winning converts evaporate. The opposition in Parliament argued that abandoning the slave trade would only hand a lucrative business to a mortal enemy. And the public saw winning the war as more important than freeing people of another color from another continent. But Clarkson did not relent. He, his ally in Parliament Wilberforce, and the committee Clarkson had formed, kept spreading the message and looked for the best opportunities to press it forward.
It was at Clarkson’s instigation that a diagram of a slave ship became a convincing tool in the debate. Depicting hundreds of slaves crammed like sardines in horrible conditions, it proved to be pivotal in winning the public mind. Clarkson’s committee enlisted the help of famed pottery maker Josiah Wedgwood in producing a famous medallion with the image of a kneeling black man, chained, uttering the words, “Am I not a man and a brother?” Indeed, Clarkson’s imprint was on almost everything the committee did. It even produced one of the first newsletters and one of the first direct-mail campaigns for the purpose of raising money.
The effort finally paid off. The tide of public opinion swung firmly to the abolitionists. The trade in slaves was outlawed by act of Parliament when it approved one of Wilberforce’s bills in 1807. Twenty-six more years of laborious effort by Clarkson, Wilberforce and others were required before, in 1833, Britain freed all slaves within its realm and became a model for peaceful emancipation everywhere.
Clarkson died at the age of 86, having outlived the other eleven he had called together at the print shop back in 1787. Hochschild tells us that the throngs of mourners “included many Quakers, and the men among them made an almost unprecedented departure from sacred custom” by removing their hats.
An essay lit a match, which started a fire, which saved millions of lives and changed the world. If you ever hear anyone dismissing the power of pen and ink, just tell them the story of Thomas Clarkson and his prize-winning essay.