is a dangerous place, not because of those who do evil, but because
of those who look on and do nothing.
exasperated reading or listening to chuckleheaded people who are
unable – or unwilling – to distinguish the peaceful and voluntary
nature of a free market, from the violent and coercive character
of the corporate-state system that long ago took over our economic
lives. Murray Rothbard’s words come to mind, wherein he observed
that it was no great wrong to not understand economics, but that
one ignorant of the subject ought not be offering advice on such
matters. I would no more go to a lawyer, or an orthodontist, or
Lew Rockwell, to have brain surgery performed on me, than would
I take seriously the prescriptions offered by economic ignoramuses
on how to "grow" an economy (an idea as absurd as that
of misguided, controlling parents who believe it is their role
to "grow" their children).
Many of the
signs and comments of participants in the varied "Occupy
Wall Street" demonstrations reflect this confusion between
the impersonal nature of markets and the politically-enforced
interests of marketplace participants. "End corporate greed"
is a common sentiment expressed, no doubt, by persons who embrace
the "power greed" that drives those who want the state
to enforce their visions. It is such simplistic thinking that
insists on labeling the pursuit of individual self-interest as
"greed," while political power ambitions get defined
as "public service." The slothful-minded then find it
easy to condemn all marketplace pursuit of self-interest as "anti-social"
(at best) or downright "criminal" at worst, and to regard
the politically-driven as the embodiment of "public spiritedness."
"Businessmen" are then collectivized as persons lacking
in any principled integrity who will do anything to increase profits
to their firms.
As a response
to such muddled thinking, I would like to offer two examples:
the first of literary derivation, the second from real-life. Each
involves manufacturers of airplane parts who have contracted with
the federal government to help produce military aircraft. For
purposes of this illustration, I will overlook the difficulties
associated with government-contracting itself. My focus will be
upon how each of these men responded to defects in either the
manufacture or design of their products; imperfections each understood
to be a danger to pilots flying the planes involved.
man is Joe Keller, a fictional character brought to life by Arthur
Miller in his 1947 play – and later a film – All My Sons. Joe
and his partner, Steve Deever, are in the business of manufacturing,
among other items, airplane cylinders during World War II. Prior
to the parts being shipped, both Joe and Steve become aware of
the defective nature of these cylinders, but operating under the
pressures of time and threat of being in default in their contract
with the government, they proceed with the shipment. Later, twenty-one
pilots die because of such defective parts, but Joe manages to
shift the blame to Steve who, as a consequence, is convicted and
sent to prison.
Most of the
play centers on Joe’s lack of moral character, and the consequences
thereof not only to himself, but to his and Steve’s families.
Toward the end, it becomes known that Joe’s son – an Army pilot
who had long been listed as "missing in action" – had
learned of Joe’s wrongdoing, and committed suicide by crashing
his plane. When Joe is told of this, he goes to his room and shoots
consider the example of Spencer Heath, a man who was an engineer,
inventor, attorney, manufacturer, and a highly-respected social
philosopher. During World War I, Heath was in the business of
manufacturing airplane propellers. Like Joe Keller, Heath had
a contract with the federal government to produce and deliver
a given number and style of propellers that had been designed
by the government. Prior to shipping them, Heath did some testing
that confirmed the defective nature of the design of the propellers.
He contacted the War Department about this, informing them that
the propellers would likely fall apart in flight, endangering
the pilots, and that he refused to ship them. Heath faced more
than a threat of a breach of contract action: he was told, by
the War Department, "Mr. Heath, this is wartime. You make
these propellers, or we’ll shoot you!"
I never met
Spencer Heath, but from what I know of him it is evident that
he was a very moral and philosophically principled person. He
patented his inventions only as a defensive measure (i.e., to
keep others from taking his ideas, patenting them, and thus preventing
Heath from using his own works). When asked if his thinking allowed
his competitors to follow his work, Heath replied: "Yes,
I do find that they follow me and that's what keeps them behind,
where they belong!"
would such a focused man of integrity respond to the government’s
threat to have him shot if he failed to deliver the defective
propellers? Unlike Joe Keller, how could Spencer Heath avoid the
government’s threats without, at the same time, participating
in what his judgment told him would lead to the deaths of other
men? I suspect that this was not a moral dilemma for Heath – I
doubt that he had any conflict as to the propriety of his actions
but did require the search for a pragmatic solution that
would keep both him and some unknown pilots alive.
night, and with the help of one of his employees, Spencer went
to the loading dock where the crates of propellers awaited shipment
the next day. With a crowbar, these men opened each crate and
on each propeller stamped the message: "Made under protest.
Condemned by manufacturer." Heath’s grandson, Spencer MacCallum,
told me he later learned that the propellers had been sent to
a warehouse in Texas, and were never put into use. His grandson
also informed me that he owns the rubber stamp that Heath had
made with which to warn others of the defective nature of the
life experiences – including my years as a lawyer – have brought
to my attention the behavior of many business people who, like
Spencer Heath, lived the integrated life (i.e., having their moral
principles reflected in the practical necessities of their work).
Interestingly, most of the men and women who exhibited such integrity
were also the owners of the firms for which they made decisions.
It is no coincidence, I think, that in his important book Citadel,
Market and Altar, Spencer Heath gave birth to the theory of communities
operating on property-based principles, a work that his grandson
has continued in his own book, The
Art of Community.
It is such
distinctions as are offered by the Kellers and the Heaths of our
world that ought to be kept in mind by us all, particularly when
we are trying to unravel the causes of the economic crises in
which we find ourselves. When business people find themselves
inconvenienced by the unintended consequences of their own incompetence,
many will turn to lobbyists and politicians to help them secure
a more favorable spot at the government trough. On a more encouraging
note, there will often be a Spencer Heath who will insist on putting
his (literal) stamp on his work to express his refusal to bring
harm to others.