The Bent Ruler
JULY 01, 1969 by JOHN R. GEARHART
Mr. Gearhart, entering his senior year in electrical engineering at the University of Illinois, is from the rural community of Bethany, Missouri. His career goal is to work in medical electronics. This article won him first prize in the Spring 1968 Tau Beta Pi and Greater Interest in Government Essays Contests and is reprinted here by permission.
Of all people who should not be T. S. Eliot’s "hollow men"—with "head-pieces filled with straw"—it is America’s engineers. Our gray matter contains a thorough knowledge of our technical field and at least a smattering of the humanities. The theoretical must withstand constant testing in practical application; balance is thereby obtained between dreams and performance of the possible. It should follow naturally that as we translate highly technical knowledge into everyday scientific progress, we feel an interest and obligation to become involved in civic and governmental affairs—local, state, and national.
We can hardly be unaware that the time of America’s greatness may be running out. Within 200 years, with only 7 per cent of the earth’s surface and 6 per cent of the world’s population, we have become among the richest, most powerful nations in history. The rising cycle of courage to liberty to abundance, however, has been replaced by the downward curve of selfishness to complacency to dependency. We should be reminded of Spengler’s dire predictions of the West’s decline and Arnold Toynbee’s observation that 19 of our 21 leading civilizations died from internal weakness and decay.
Our Founding Fathers anchored in our country’s documents the great principles of civilized man and his heritage. They created a "Republic"— not a "Democracy." Our pledge of allegiance states "and to the Republic for which it stands." Democracy, ultimately, could become mobocracy, wielding tyranny as suffocating as that of any monarch or dictator. Leaders were to govern as little as possible; they were to be the servants of the people, not lords over them. Checks and balances were developed with care and pain, and local responsibility and public opinion were counted upon to restrain excess popular feeling. There was firm agreement with Thomas Jefferson that citizens be "bound down from mischief by the chains of the Constitution." In our present age of analysis, criticism, and dissent, however, it is well to remind ourselves that, though the American system is not perfect, it may well be the best man has yet conceived. Common sense, therefore, indicates that its destruction, or even the erosion of its effectiveness, could be dangerous indeed.
In recent years, the doctrine of objective values (validity of "right" and "wrong") has given way to one of "situation ethics," in which truth is relative. Arthur Sylvester will probably be remembered as the man who informed the American public that government has the right to lie. News media speak freely of "credibility gaps." Pushed to a logical conclusion, any act, even murder, could be justified. It is not surprising that in this period the "Death of God" advocates proclaim loudly that man is now unshackled and free, free to fashion his own destiny. From an engineering standpoint, the situation is akin to beginning a construction assignment with deformed tools—a broken transit or a bent ruler; and once accepted, this doctrine means man’s ultimate standard can be no higher than his inaccurate, highly fallible human nature.
Order, Justice, Freedom
Order, justice, and freedom should stand uppermost in our philosophy of government. Order must exist first, or proper functioning is impossible; a government’s first duty is to assure the safety of its citizens. Recent disorders in our society were aggravated when officers of the law were deterred by Supreme Court rulings such as the Mallory and Escobedo rules, were asked to stand by during looting, and were subjected to continual taunts of "brutality." Mass disrespect for law and peace followed. Violence, of course, is not the citizen’s proper approach to reform. Instead, it is a step backward from channels of debate, voting, and legal action. When internal restraints break down, police have no alternative but force.
We hear much of our "arrogance of power" internationally, but either pure pacificism or anarchy would leave nations or individuals at the mercy of unscrupulous power. It is high time our youth learned something about the greatness of our nation. Otherwise, as evidenced by the weakness of our draftees taken prisoner during the Korean War (most American soldiers succumbed to the enemy’s will), and now again in full bloom with the Vietniks, the time may come when no values are left.
Justice refers to equal treatment under the law. It is imperative that the majority, the average citizen, and the taxpayer be not forgotten in the current hurry to favor the minority, the criminal, and "the poor." Justice is rightly depicted as a goddess with eyes blindfolded or closed. She holds a sword, or scales, or both. Her function must often include punishment.
Freedom is also currently in jeopardy. If man is not free he is not responsible; if he is not responsible he is not moral. Order without justice or freedom is tyranny, but freedom without justice or order is anarchy. In the same way, much so-called academic freedom is license. To maintain freedom is not easy, and it is highly questionable whether most men, deep in their hearts, are willing to pay the price. Napoleon Bonaparte was welcomed by the majority of the French.
Why did I not include equality, one of the great cries in the French Revolution and now heard increasingly in our country? Because we can be realistically equal only in the sight of God and law. True equality is impossible without coercion. Forced integration in our schools has been far from successful. Increasing loads and additional types of taxes constitute forcible redistribution of wealth; a point is being reached where thrift is punished and sloth encouraged. When people demand a "right" to be equal, they frequently forget that others have "rights" too.
Anchored in Reality
The engineer should be a creative professional. He applies his skill and knowledge to the study and analysis of problems and develops solutions which generally prove worthy well into the future. He is a link between technology and human endeavors, so he cannot lose sight of the social structure in which he and other men function and live.
Engineers usually prefer individual initiative—the free-enterprise system—instead of the welfare state; in fact, they enjoy responsibility and competition, fundamental qualities in maintaining our Republic. Honor and integrity have become well enough ingrained in their thinking so that it is easy for them to understand the necessity of similar attributes in a nation. It is obvious that false sentimentality must be distinguished from valid compassion, that emotion and propaganda must be distinguished from clear thinking.
Apathy and complacency do not achieve order, justice, and freedom. "Every good and excellent thing," wrote Thornton Wilder, "stands moment by moment on the razor edge of danger and must be fought for." The unique talents of engineers are needed not only in their chosen fields but to help restore basic principles and common sense to our country. The ruler seems bent indeed. Let us straighten it and use it!
The Minimum Wage
To make a horse drink
It is foolish to try;
It’s fully as hard
To make customers buy:
So, when prices are raised
By law or decree,
That sales will fall off
Is as sure as can be;
And if minimum wages
By commission are set
Above what the worker
Would naturally get,
Those worth the money
Alone will be hired,
While the lowest-grade labor
Will surely be fired,
And the jobless will sit
And wonder all day
Just what they have gained
From the high legal pay.
WILLFORD I. KING, Economics in Rhyme