The World's Worst Folly
NOVEMBER 01, 1960 by G. COURNEY CONOVER
Mr. Conover is technically retired after many years of research and development for the chemical manufacturing industry, but remains actively self-employed in his special field and in general research for better living.
A large part of the human race lives today i ‘fear of a war in the near future war filled with greater and more numerous horrors than any conflict the world has ever known. The fear of such a war is based upon the countless threats of the organized believers in the doctrines of Karl Marx. These doctrines, derived mainly from economic theories, lead up to a demand for the acceptance of a tyrannical government and a fiendish code of ethics. Obviously such theories should be thoroughly and critically examined.
Marx’s theories in the field of economics were taken largely from the ideas of men who wrote on the subject of political economy in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. These scholars were interested mainly in the economic problems with which governments of the period were concerned. They showed only a secondary, and rather narrow interest in the subject of the production of wealth. They did not deal with the subject in any comprehensive manner and did not attack the view commonly held at the time: that labor alone produces wealth.
The fortune of the Western World might have been much better if a few of the early economists had developed a lively curiosity about the production of wealth, or still better had interested themselves financially in some of the new and rapidly growing industries that were springing up at the time, thus learning by firsthand observation and experience how wealth is produced.
But the world was not fortunate in its early economists or their experiences. Deep into the twentieth century, most men, including great scholars, were to believe that wealth is produced by labor.
Karl Marx adopted some of the theories of the early political economists and rejected others, and developed his own rather simple set of theories. His basic economic doctrine is that all wealth (wealth in this case being all goods that people desire) is produced by labor (the term "labor" commonly being used in its popular sense). In this doctrine, gifts of nature evidently are taken for granted and capital is incorrectly assumed to be produced by labor alone. The doctrine is an excellent one for propaganda purposes because of its simplicity; its fault is that it demonstrably does not rest upon any foundation of truth.
Continuing with his doctrine claiming unique importance for "labor" in the production of wealth, Marx concluded (using acceptable logic but starting with a false premise) that since "labor" does not receive all the value of the goods produced, it is being "exploited" by the "bourgeois" employers who "filch" the "surplus value" of the goods. He attributed all the discomforts and privations endured by many of the employed workmen of his time to this imagined exploitation by employers. As a remedy for the imagined injustice to "labor," Marx urged a violent revolution with limitless destruction and cruelty, followed by the organization of a government with unlimited power to carry out the notions of a dictator or governing clique.
The Production of Wealth
The production of wealth, a world-wide and ever-changing human activity, is not a simple process and it is not easy to recognize all factors that take part in it. However, a thoughtful and unprejudiced person with extensive experience in, or close to, the production of wealth would doubtless note the importance of "know-how," risk-taking, the chance discovery of mineral wealth, and invention, and would conclude that many factors are involved in addition to the "capital" and "labor" that are so often mentioned.
A tentative list of factors is given below. Additional factors have been suggested and may deserve inclusion. The order of the factors in the list is not intended to be significant.
1. Mental capital; knowledge of the methods; technology; know-how
2. Chance discovery
5. Gifts of nature; natural resources; "land"
10. Initiative; enterprise
This factor comprises the whole enormous volume of knowledge that is available for carrying on all wealth-producing activities. It is one of the fundamental factors in the production of wealth under the conditions of civilized life, since some portion of this fund of knowledge must be employed in every one of the countless individual operations which make up all the production processes used in manufacturing, construction, mining, and agriculture.
Richness in, or poverty in, mental capital can cause the difference in standards of living between a civilized industrial nation and a savage tribe, the same natural resources being accessible to both groups and the ability to work being equal. An example from history will illustrate the tremendous effects an abundant flow of mental capital into a particular region can bring about in a relatively short historical period.
California is generously endowed with gifts of nature available for use in the production of wealth; among these are: fertile soils, numberless sources of water power, petroleum, natural gas, timber, and valuable metals. These resources were present and untouched in the middle of the eighteenth century; and yet at that time the area of the state supported only a scanty population (estimated at 130,000 people) with a standard of living about as low as human beings can endure. Their houses were mere shelters covered with thatch, bark, or earth. Their clothing in good weather was nothing at all for men, only aprons of buckskin or shredded bark for women. Acorns were their main foodstuff; this was supplemented as opportunity offered by rabbits and other small game, grass seed, fish, shellfish, snakes, grasshoppers, snails, slugs, and angleworms.
Why did these people live in such revolting poverty in the presence of such an abundance of natural resources? Were they poor because they were being "exploited" by "bourgeois" employers? It is a silly question, but no sillier than the theory of poverty it has reference to, a theory that has been spread with great zeal by Marxists for more than a hundred years. The truth is, of course, that the aboriginal Californians were almost totally lacking in knowledge of the methods useful in producing wealth. (One example of their extreme ignorance is that they knew nothing of the use of wheels; another is that they did not know how to make cloth.) To be sure, they not only lacked knowledge, but also lacked physical capital in the form of tools and machines; but even if these had been given them, their conditions could not have been appreciably improved because of their ignorance.
The stupendous natural resources of California were little used until the middle of the nineteenth century. At that time settlers from the states to the east and from Europe began bringing in methods of wealth production, of which many had been used for centuries in the civilization of Europe, and others had been more recently developed by the invention and experimentation of the continuing Industrial Revolution. The effect of this influx of mental capital has been astounding. The rise in wealth that has taken place in California during the last one hundred years probably has no parallel in a century of the history of any other area of equal size. Instead of supporting 130,000 people with the lowest possible standard of living, the state now supports 15,537,413 with a standard of living equal to the best ever known.
An appreciable part of the world’s store of mental capital is an accumulation of practical information which has come down to us from prehistoric times. Undoubtedly, this fund of knowledge was acquired in the remote past in the same way that additions to it are obtained today; that is, mainly from the results of chance discovery, invention, and experimentation. It seems probable, for instance, that the first process for making leather was developed from a chance discovery, the methods for making cloth from a number of inventions, and the effective use of draft animals from a long series of experiments.
For many centuries in Europe the growth of this fund of useful knowledge was slow and unsteady. In the eighteenth century, however, the rate of growth increased rapidly; it continued to increase throughout the nineteenth century, while in the present century growth has been at a rate unprecedented in human history.
Individuals acquire mental capital in ways of which a part may be classed as labor; among these are, study of the sciences and engineering, study in trade schools, and the practice of manual skills. Another factor also enters into these studies and practices; this is self-denial, which must be exercised by a large proportion of those who choose to study the physical sciences, engineering, and the mechanical arts rather than easier studies. Many people, however, especially those employed in the industries, acquire a great deal of mental capital painlessly and without conscious effort simply by listening to verbal instructions, and from their effortless observations resulting from daily contact with production methods in operation.
Interrelationships of considerable complexity exist among the factors, mental capital, physical capital, labor, invention, chance discovery, and research. Mental capital is necessary in the production of physical capital, and the reverse is nearly always true. Mental capital, physical capital, and labor are necessary in carrying out research; and research in turn is one of the most productive factors in building up the world’s store of mental capital. Also, a kind of mutual aid relationship often is observed among the factors, invention, research, and chance discovery.
Other interrelationships can be pointed out, but no others are needed to lead to the conclusion that the production of wealth is an activity of much greater complexity than Marxists ever have admitted.
Chance Discovery and Risk Taking
One of the most dramatic episodes in the history of the human race began in the year 1859. This was the initiation and development of the petroleum industry. The first well ever drilled for the purpose of obtaining petroleum was a success; and an industry that is now one of the world’s greatest began with a burst of enthusiasm and excitement that has never completely subsided.
Karl Marx was at the height of his career at this time; he could have learned all about this new industry if he had wished to do so. But if he had learned all the facts about this new way of producing wealth, he would have found that those facts exposed the falsity of the dogmas which had already won him fame. The petroleum industry in its early stages depended almost wholly on chance discovery for its establishment and growth; and chance discovery was necessarily coupled with risk taking. And chance discovery and risk taking certainly are not labor, which the Marxists insist is the only producer of wealth.
Marxist theories to the contrary notwithstanding, the early oil industry produced wealth at a marvelous rate, as statistics will show; and chance discovery, and risk taking, together with initiative, continued to be the main factors in producing this flood of new wealth. Labor, capital, and knowledge of the methods played secondary roles.
A single example will illustrate the relative unimportance of labor and capital with respect to the amount of wealth produced. A blacksmith living near
It may be pointed out here, parenthetically, that in the first several decades of the petroleum industry capital for testing unproved but prospective oil fields always was easy to obtain. Money that poured in from rich new fields commonly was applied in part in exploration; and people always could be found who would risk money on wildcat wells.
In the latter half of the relatively short history of the petroleum industry, scientific research, systematic experimentation, invention, and the accumulated knowledge of years have revolutionized the methods of finding new oilfields. The risks involved in this exploratory work have been reduced to a notable degree. However, risk taking is still an important feature of such exploratory work and unexpected results still are obtained.
By the methods followed throughout its history, the petroleum industry has built up its production from an annual rate of about 2,000 barrels in 1859 to 7,126,980,000 barrels in 1959.
Chance discovery, in addition to the part it plays in producing new mineral wealth, is of the highest importance in building up the store of mental capital, which in turn adds to the world’s wealth and to humanity’s standards of living. Electron tubes, which have made possible many marvels of the present age, are examples of the remarkable results that may spring from a single chance discovery. The phenomenon discovered was called the "Edison effect." The discovery was a mere observation, a by-product of industrial research, which to the great gain of science and industry was correctly interpreted and promptly reported. The "Edison effect" has been put to practical use in the numerous kinds of electron tubes which have been invented and designed, and these tubes have been fundamental in the development of such useful adjuncts of an advanced culture as television and digital computers.
Research concerned with industrial chemistry often has been accompanied by interesting chance discoveries. For example, in the 1890′s a chemist was trying to find conditions under which sulfuric acid would act as an oxidizing agent for the conversion of naphthalene to phthalic anhydride, an organic chemical used at that time mainly in making synthetic dyes. Many experiments covering a wide range of conditions were carried out without any indications of eventual success. Finally, in one experiment a minor accident occurred and a thermometer immersed in the batch was broken; later it was found that the mercury from the thermometer bulb had acted as a catalyst and had brought about the desired reaction. From this accidental discovery a valuable large-scale process eventually was developed.
Marxists do not recognize invention in itself as a factor in the production of wealth. Possibly they profess to believe that invention is simply a form of labor. If so, they may be right in a small proportion of cases, but wrong in most. An invention at times may be the result of concentrated and prolonged mental effort which, by stretching definitions, can be interpreted as labor. But much more often an invention results from the effortless following of an interesting line of thought—in other words, from day dreaming, which by any sophistry cannot be construed as labor.
The Western World has a brilliant record in the field of invention. The period of the Industrial Revolution (roughly the last two centuries and a quarter) is recognized as an unprecedented epoch in history. It has been characterized by the production of an enormous number of inventions, which have brought about an extremely rapid rise in total wealth, in standards of living, and in enlightenment, and a corresponding rapid reduction in the total burden of heavy, tedious labor.
The Industrial Revolution started in England early in the eighteenth century. The first evidence of this intellectual outburst was a group of inventions which effected great improvements in the production of pig iron. Another series of inventions concerned with the textile industries followed (and partly overlapped) the first group. The textile industries were completely revolutionized. This wave of invention continued with a rising crest into and throughout the nineteenth century; it surged to still greater heights during the last quarter of that century, and has continued to rise (at least apparently) past the middle of the present century.
A sharp upturn which took place in the output of important inventions and discoveries late in the nineteenth century coincides approximately in time with the establishment of numerous research organizations for studying the application of science to the improvement of industrial processes and products. An invention often stimulates ideas for other inventions, and still more often it suggests ideas to be tested by systematic experimentation, that is, by research; and research often produces chance discoveries in addition to the anticipated discoveries which were the original aim of the investigation. As a consequence, invention, research, and chance discovery frequently aid each other to such an extent that results are obtained which are both unexpected and fortunate.
In its progress the Industrial Revolution has created countless new industries, has transformed or greatly modified many old ones, and has affected human life in so many ways that a new type of civilization has been created. In its most recent phase, a period of the last seventy-five or eighty years, invention has added so much to the mental capital and total wealth of the world that only a very few of its contributions to the fulfillment of human wishes can be cited as a partial measure of its value. Television, moving pictures with sound, and radio broadcasting have been developed since 1920. The airplane in all its forms and applications is wholly a product of the twentieth century. Power driven machines for planting, cultivating, and harvesting agricultural crops, displacing the horse-drawn counterparts, are also mainly a twentieth century development. The gasoline engine, the automobile, the phonograph, the general distribution of electric current for domestic use, and the telephone were developed earlier, mainly in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. It is astonishing to reflect that these inventions have revolutionized Western civilization within the lifetime of many people still living.
That substantial benefits have been conferred on the Western World by the Industrial Revolution cannot be denied. (The most gratifying of the benefits is perhaps the enormous improvement in standards of living.) And it should be remembered that it was invention that started the revolution, and that it has been invention and its two allied factors, chance discovery and research, that have kept it going and which still keep adding one benefit after another as the revolution continues. An orthodox Marxist who tries to convince himself or others that the remarkable era in which we are living was brought about by "labor" will find all the facts of its history against him.
It is useless to discuss this essential factor in wealth production unless it is first defined with some precision, because the term "labor" brings up widely differing mental pictures, and carries various connotations, for different groups and persons. But difficulties have been found in arriving at a precise and satisfactory all-purpose definition of the factor; even Marx never defined "labor" precisely. However, labor in every popular and traditional sense is tiring, and this characteristic may be used to set it apart from other production factors which do not in themselves cause fatigue.
Hence, for the purposes of the present discussion, "labor" is any effort, directed toward the production of wealth, which produces fatigue. It follows that chance discovery, whether the result of pure luck, or partly brought about by the exercise of initiative, foresight, and judgment, is not labor;and neither is invention of the flash inspiration type; nor is the effortless and unintentional acquisition of mental capital by daily contact with methods and processes of production. By the same test, that of being tiresome in themselves, risk taking, initiative, judgment, foresight, and self-denial are not labor.
Since "capital" is by definition that portion of wealth that is applied to the production of more wealth, the numerous factors that are usually involved in wealth production are involved also in the production of capital; and the demonstrable facts of the existence of these multiple factors definitely prove the falsity of the Marxian dogma that capital is produced solely by labor.
Marxists refer to our relatively free economic system as the capitalistic system or as capitalism. By long-continued propaganda they have succeeded in attaching such a degree of odium to these names that they serve as smear terms. The implication of these terms is that the use of capital is characteristic of our economic system and is not a feature of a hypothetical Marxian system. The implication is ludicrously false—an economic system that does not segregate capital and use it in wealth production never has existed and cannot be imagined.
The search for new and useful materials and for new and improved methods for producing desired articles must have begun as soon as the human race had acquired moderate powers of imagination. Certainly at very low levels of culture men have carried on crude industries. For example, they have made pottery and have built boats; and it seems certain that these accomplishments necessarily must have been preceded by the development of workable methods, and that such development would require extensive experimentation. Further, it is probable that in some cases a program of experimentation was well enough planned and carried out with enough thoroughness to represent a primitive form of research.
Alchemy was a field of experimentation in which an enormous amount of misdirected energy was expended during the first fifteen or sixteen centuries of the Christian era. It is the subject of a large amount of specialized literature and has been dealt with adequately by historians. The alchemists utterly failed to reach their avowed objective of making synthetic gold or silver. They ended their search of a millennium and a half without a trace of success—and without even hope or honor. Their fault was of course that they held too tenaciously to groundless beliefs and unsound theories. However, they made many valuable contributions to the world’s store of useful knowledge in the fields of chemistry and metallurgy.
Modern research is carried on in permanent organizations. It is characterized by the use of a rational technique of experimentation and by the employment of all applicable scientific knowledge. This kind of research was not applied to the problems of the peacetime manufacturing and processing industries until the last two decades of the nineteenth century. Once established, however, research supported its own growth with the abundance of the discoveries it produced, and as a result it has grown during the twentieth century at a rate that may be described as explosive. This rapid growth of well-organized research—such research being reciprocally stimulated and aided by inventions and by chance discoveries—undoubtedly is connected with the similar tremendous increase in the world’s store of mental capital that has taken place simultaneously.
A method for making iron that was worked out in the early centuries of the iron age and used for many following centuries produced the metal only in batches; and the batches had to be small enough to be lifted out of the smelting furnace by manpower. The batches as taken from the furnace consisted of white-hot, semisolid iron and liquid slag. The slag had to be separated from the iron by an extremely laborious process of pressing and hammering. The furnace was partly or completely cooled down between batches. This method, wasteful of labor and fuel, was used with little variation or improvement for over two thousand years. For many hundreds of these years it was known that iron could be melted in the smelting furnace and would flow out of the furnace as a liquid; but apparently this happened only accidentally and was considered a misfortune. Iron was not commonly used for castings during these centuries, although methods for casting other metals were known.
All that was needed to give the primitive iron industry a much wider field of usefulness in human affairs and to effect a great reduction in the cost of producing the metal was a program of systematic experimentation—that is, practical research.
Evidently the necessary experimental work finally was carried out, since the production of molten iron in the smelting process eventually became standard practice.
The improved methods made cast iron cheap and abundant, and a rise in wealth and standards of living took place. A little research could have revolutionized the iron industry a thousand years earlier.
Initiative, Risk Taking, Self-denial, Foresight, and Judgment
These factors have characteristics in common and hence are grouped together for the purposes of the present brief review. All are intangible; all are derived from mental abilities or traits of character or both; none is labor as labor is defined in this discussion. Self-denial, foresight, and judgment do not involve labor when exercised; initiative and risk taking may involve labor and other factors.
Initiative is of first rank importance in the production of wealth since it is the factor that always starts the chain of events that lead to the creation of new production facilities. The chain of events may bring about the testing of a new machine, the discovery of a new process, the building of a new manufacturing plant, or even the creation of a new industry. Somewhat less directly, it may start research projects which will lead eventually to new production means.
Initiative is always personal. The forces of destiny may make all preparations for an important new event in wealth production; but only a person can produce or recognize a key idea, make the resolution to take action, and perform the first act leading to the reduction of the idea to practice. An element of chance is thus introduced into the inception of projects for increasing the production of wealth. Circumstances, time, and place may be favorable, but the right person may not be present. In this way the beginning of a project that eventually will be of great value may be delayed indefinitely. Strange intervals of stagnation which have occurred in the progress of industry may be attributed, at least in part, to this uncertainty in the appearance of the needed personal influence.
An example is known of a machine that gave excellent service in one industry, and which after a long lapse of time was adapted to a very different kind of work, where it was badly needed and where again it served well. The machine was designed in the 1790′s for shearing the nap of certain kinds of woolen cloth. Knives, each of which was bent into the form of an elongated helical curve, were fixed in parallel around a horizontal axle; in operation the knives were rotated rapidly about the axle. The cutting was done by the rotating knives coming into sliding contact with a fixed straight knife.
This method of cutting eventually was applied in the design of a well-known kind of lawn mower, only the means for rotating the knives being changed. But some seventy years elapsed before this much-needed adaptation was made. It seems highly probable that a lack of initiative was the only cause of the delay.
Risk taking is present in nearly all wealth-producing activities, but is most prominent in research and in new industries. Its function in helping to create new sources of wealth makes it one of the most productive of all factors. Practically all investments of capital involve risks, and risk taking is one of the contributions to the production of wealth for which investors have every right to receive compensation.
Self-denial plays a prominent part in the accumulation of physical capital by an individual, and a similar role in the acquisition of mental capital by individuals.
Foresight and judgment, like risk taking, are most valuable in research and in the development of new wealth-producing means.
The fundamental doctrine of the Marxists in the field of economics is that all wealth is produced by labor. However, evidence of a kind that can be tested by observation and by personal experience shows that this doctrine is false. Such evidence shows that the production of wealth is not a simple process but a complicated one involving many factors besides labor. It follows that all conclusions based on the main Marxian dogma are fallacious because based on a false premise.
Starting with their basic dogma and other false premises, the adherents of the Marxian cult reach the conclusion that "labor," a part of humanity they never precisely define, is grievously "exploited." As a remedy for this imagined injustice they ceaselessly advocate, and when possible bring about, violent revolutions with limitless destruction and atrocious cruelty, followed by the formation of governments with unlimited powers.
It must be concluded that Marxism, because of its record of violence, cruelty, and tyranny, and because of its complete lack of any foundation of truth, is Humanity’s worst folly.
Ideas on Liberty
There is much written and said these days about the need for discovering—or rediscovering—our national purpose. In these times of swiftly changing social conditions and shifting political and economic ideas we believe it is vital that Americans understand and tie fast to the values which made the nation great.
These values—the national purpose itself—are set forth clearly in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Nowhere have these values been better translated into practical, positive action than in our free enterprise system.
This system today is in peril. Outside our country formidable forces are determined to replace it with a totalitarian concept. Within, it is in danger of being eaten away, piece by piece, by steadily encroaching socialism disguised in such clothing as social welfare and "public benefit" regulation.
As said by William Penn: "Governments, like clocks, go from the motion men give them, and governments are made and moved by men, so by them they are ruled also. Therefore, governments depend upon men rather than men upon governments."
From a release of August 1960 by the Phillips Petroleum Company