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Freedom, Ownership, and Human Progress

Mises Daily: Monday, April 18, 2011 by

The Mainspring of Human Progress

For 60 known centuries, this planet that we call Earth has been inhabited by human beings not much different from ourselves. Their desire to live has been just as strong as ours. They have had at least as much physical strength as the average person of today, and among them have been men and women of great intelligence. But down through the ages, most human beings have gone hungry, and many have always starved.

The ancient Assyrians, Persians, Egyptians, and Greeks were intelligent people; but in spite of their intelligence and their fertile lands, they were never able to get enough to eat. They often killed their babies because they couldn't feed them.

The Roman Empire collapsed in famine. The French were dying of hunger when Thomas Jefferson was president of the United States. As late as 1846, the Irish were starving to death; and no one was particularly surprised because famines in the Old World were the rule rather than the exception. It is only within the last century that western Europeans have had enough food to keep them alive — soup and bread in France, fish in Scandinavia, beef in England.

Hunger has always been normal. Even to this day, famines kill multitudes in China, India, Africa; and in the 1930s, thousands upon thousands starved to death on the richest farmlands of the Soviet Union.

Down through the ages, countless millions — struggling unsuccessfully to keep bare life in wretched bodies — have died young in misery and squalor. Then suddenly, in one spot on this planet, people eat so abundantly that the pangs of hunger are forgotten.

The Questions

Why did men die of starvation for 6,000 years? Why is it that we in America have never had a famine?

Why did men walk and carry goods (and other men) on their straining backs for 6,000 years — then suddenly, on only a small part of the earth's surface, the forces of nature are harnessed to do the bidding of the humblest citizen?

Why did families live for 6,000 years in caves and floorless hovels, without windows or chimneys — then within a few generations, we in America take floors, rugs, chairs, tables, windows, and chimneys for granted and regard electric lights, refrigerators, running water, porcelain baths, and toilets as common necessities?

Why did men, women, and children eke out their meager existence for 6,000 years, toiling desperately from dawn to dark — barefoot, half-naked, unwashed, unshaved, uncombed, with lousy hair, mangy skins, and rotting teeth — then suddenly, in one place on earth there is an abundance of such things as rayon underwear, nylon hose, shower baths, safety razors, ice cream sodas, lipsticks, and permanent waves?

What Are the Answers?

It's incredible, if we would but pause to reflect! Swiftly, in less than a hundred years, Americans have conquered the darkness of night — from pine knots and candles to kerosene lamps, to gas jets; then to electric bulbs, neon lights, fluorescent tubes.

We have created wholly new and astounding defenses against weather — from fireplaces to stoves, furnaces, automatic burners, insulation, air conditioning.

We are conquering pain and disease, prolonging life, and resisting death itself — with anesthetics, surgery, sanitation, hygiene, dietetics.

We have made stupendous attacks on space — from oxcarts, rafts, and canoes to railroads, steamboats, streetcars, subways, automobiles, trucks, busses, airplanes — and attacks on time through telegraph, telephone, and radio.

We have moved from backbreaking drudgery into the modern age of power, substituting steam, electricity, and gasoline for the brawn of man; and today the nuclear physicist is taking over and finding ways for subduing to human uses the infinitesimally tiny atom — tapping a new source of power so vast that it bids fair to dwarf anything that has gone before.

It is true that many of these developments originated in other countries. But new ideas are of little value in raising standards of living unless and until something is done about them. The plain fact is that we in America have outdistanced the world in extending the benefits of inventions and discoveries to the vast majority of people in all walks of life.

How Did It Happen?

Three generations — grandfather to grandson — have created these wonders that surpass the utmost imaginings of all previous time. How did it come about? How can it be explained? Just what has been responsible for this unprecedented burst of progress, which has so quickly transformed a hostile wilderness into the most prosperous and advanced country that the world has ever known?

Perhaps the best way to find the answer is first to rule out some of the factors that were not responsible.

To say that it is because of our natural resources is hardly enough. The same rich resources were here when the mound builders held forth. Americans have had no monopoly on iron, coal, copper, aluminum, zinc, lead, or other materials. Such things have always been available to human beings. China, India, Russia, Africa — all have great natural resources. Crude oil oozed from the earth in Baku 4,000 years ago; and when Julius Caesar marched west into Gaul, Europe was a rich and virgin wilderness inhabited by a few roving savages, much as America was when the pilgrim fathers landed at Plymouth.[1]

Is it because we work harder? Again the answer is "No" because in most countries the people work much harder, on the average, than we do.

Can it be that we are a people of inherent superiority? That sounds fine in after-dinner oratory and goes over big at election time, but the argument is difficult to support. Our own ancestors, including the Anglo-Saxons, have starved right along with everyone else.

Can it be that we have more energy than other peoples of the world? That's not the answer either, but it's getting pretty close. We are not endowed with any superior energy — mental or physical — but it is a fact that we, in the United States of America, have made more effective use of our human energies than have any other people on the face of the globe — anywhere or at any time.

The Real Answer

That's the answer — the real answer — the only answer. It's a very simple answer, perhaps too simple to be readily accepted. So it is the purpose of this book to dig beneath the surface and to seek the reasons underlying the reason.

In other words, just why does human energy work better here than anywhere else? And answering that question leads us into a whole string of questions, such as:

  1. What is the nature of human energy?

  2. How does it differ from other forms of energy?

  3. What makes it work?

  4. What are the things that keep it from working?

  5. How can it be made to work better? more efficiently? more effectively?

The answers, even the partial answers, to these questions should be extremely helpful in contributing to future progress.

In the last analysis, poverty, famine, and the devastations of war are all traceable to a lack of understanding of human energy and to a failure to use it to the best advantage.

History affords abundant evidence in support of that statement; but the evidence is somewhat obscured because most of the textbooks stress war and conflict, rather than the causes of war and what might be done to prevent war.[2]

In later chapters, we'll attempt to reverse the usual procedure. In other words, we'll try to see what can be learned from history as bearing upon the effective use of human energy, which advances progress — as against the misuse of human energy, which retards progress and leads to the destruction of life as well as wealth. But as a background for the main text of this book, it seems necessary, first of all, to review a few elementary facts — including a lot of things that we already know but which we are inclined to overlook.


First, let's consider the general subject of energy — human vs. nonhuman. This entire planet is made up of energy. The atoms of air surrounding it are energy. The sun pours energy upon this air and upon this earth. Life depends on energy; in fact, life is energy.

Every living thing must struggle for its existence, and human beings are no exception. The thin defenses of civilization tend to obscure the stark realities; but men and women survive on this earth only because their energies constantly convert other forms of energy to satisfy human needs, and constantly attack the nonhuman energies that are dangerous to human existence.

Some people are keenly aware of this: doctors and nurses, farmers, sailors, construction engineers, weather forecasters, telephone linemen, airplane pilots, railroad men, "sand hogs," miners — all the fighters who protect human life and keep the modern world existing. Such people stand the brunt of the struggle and enable the rest of us to forget.

But it is important that we do not forget. When we do forget, there is the temptation to indulge in wishful thinking — to build imaginative Utopias on the basis of things as we might like them to be, instead of facing the real human situation and reckoning with things as they are. In the last analysis, there can be no progress except through the more effective use of our individual energies, personal initiatives, and imaginative abilities — applied to the things and forces of nature.

Energy at Work

But let's get away from broad generalities for a moment and take a closer look at human energy at work.

Right now you are reading this book. Let's say you want to turn a page. You are the dynamo that generates the energy to turn the page. Your brain-energy makes the decision and controls the movement of the muscle-pulleys and bone-levers of your arm, your hand, and your fingers; and you turn the page.

The energy that you used to turn the page is the same kind of energy that created this book. Down through centuries of time and across space, from the first maker of paper, of ink, of type, every act of the innumerable minds and hands that created this book and delivered it to you — miners digging coal and iron in Pennsylvania, woodsmen sinking their axes into spruce in Norway and Oregon, chemists in laboratories, workers in factories and foundries, mechanics, printers, binders — was an operation of human energy generated and controlled by the person who performed the act.

And that's really shortchanging the story. To make it complete, we would have to go back to the thousands of people who invented the tools — not just the paper-making machinery and the printing presses and binding equipment, but the tools that were used to make all these things, plus the tools that were used to make the tools.

As a result of modern equipment and facilities, the amount of human time required to produce this book and deliver it to you was less than an hour, whereas a few hundred years ago it would have taken months.

It all comes back to the effective use of human energy; and human energy, like any other energy, operates according to certain natural laws. For one thing, it works only under its own natural control. Your decision to turn the page released the energy to turn it. It was your will that controlled the use of that energy. Nothing else can control it.

It is true, of course, that many of your actions are prompted by suggestions and requests or orders and commands from others; but that doesn't change the fact that the decision to act and the action itself are always under your own control.

Freedom and Responsibility

Let's take an extreme case. A robber breaks into your house and threatens you at the point of a gun. Discretion being the better part of valor, you give in and tell him where your valuables are hidden. But you make the decision, and you do the telling.

If, instead of a robber, it were a kidnaper after your child, it would be a different story. But in either case, your thoughts and acts are under your own control. Thousands of men and women have suffered torture and even death without speaking a word that their persecutors tried to make them speak.

Your freedom of action may be forbidden, restricted, or prevented by force. The robber, kidnaper, or jailer may bind your hands and feet and put a gag in your mouth. But the fact remains that no amount of force can make you act unless you agree — perhaps with hesitation and regret — to do so.

I know this all sounds hairsplitting and academic, but it leads to a very important point — in fact, to two important points:

  1. Individual freedom is the natural heritage of each living person.

  2. Freedom cannot be separated from responsibility.

Your natural freedom — your control over your own life energy — was born in you along with life itself. It is a part of life itself. No one can give it to you, nor can you give it to someone else. Nor can you hold any other person responsible for your acts. Control simply can't be separated from responsibility; control is responsibility.

Results versus Desires

A steam engine will not run on gasoline, nor will a gasoline engine run on steam.

To use any kind of energy effectively, it is first necessary to understand the nature of the energy and then to set up conditions that will permit it to work to the best advantage.

To make the most effective use of steam energy, it is necessary to reckon with the nature of steam. To make the most effective use of human energy, it is necessary to reckon with the nature of man. And there's no escaping the fact that human energy operates very differently from any other energy.

Steam energy always acts in exactly the same way, so long as the conditions are the same — ditto gasoline energy and electrical energy.

Insects and animals follow certain patterns of action. Honeybees, for example, all make the same hexagonal cells of wax. Beavers all build the same form of dam, and the same kinds of birds make the same kinds of nests. Generation after generation, they continue to follow their changeless routines — always doing the same things in the same ways.

But a man is different because he is a human being; and as a human being, he has the power of reason, the power of imagination, the ability to capitalize on the experiences of the past and the present as bearing on the problems of the future. He has the ability to change himself as well as his environment. He has the ability to progress and to keep on progressing.

Plants occupy space and contend with each other for it. Animals defend their possession of places and things. But man has enormous powers, of unknown extent, to make new things and to change old things into new forms. He not only owns property but he also actually creates property.

In the last analysis, a thing is not property unless it is owned; and without ownership, there is little incentive to improve it.


[1] Really, when you come right down to it, nothing is a "natural resource" until after men have made it useful to human beings. Coal was not a natural resource to Julius Caesar, nor crude oil to Alexander the Great, nor aluminum to Ben Franklin, nor the atom to anyone until 1945. Men may discover uses for any substance. Nobody can know today what may be a natural resource tomorrow. It is not natural resources, but the uses men make of them that really count.

[2] From a standpoint of military history, I suppose it's important to know that the Battle of Bull Run came ahead of Vicksburg, but Margaret Mitchell's Gone With the Wind is far more revealing as bearing upon the causes and effects of the War Between the States.