By Edward Coleson
Emerson once remarked that if a man made a better mousetrap the world would beat a path to his door, but he neglected to mention what some of the folks would do when they got there. It is to be expected that the Amalgamated Mice of America would mouse-cott the new arrangement, nor can one help sympathizing with those who may be hurt in the short run by the march of progress. But more than likely, the Emerson Better Mousetrap Company would be in for a lot of opposition from others with less obvious reasons for objecting to the innovation. Unfortunately, it seems that ever since our Stone Age grandparents thought of moving out of the cave, anyone who upset the status quo by trying to do things a bit more efficiently has been suspect. Doubtless that is why human history is largely the story of poverty and stagnation.
We often fail to realize how hard it was to get the machine age in motion and how hostile forces threatened to swallow the fresh new ideas which sparked this revolution before it got started. Progress is not inevitable or automatic. Picture James Watt struggling to build a steam engine without the tools and equipment we take for granted. The modern industrialist, used to dealing in thousandths of an inch, may begin to appreciate the problems of these pioneers when he notes the satisfaction expressed by Watt’s partner when they succeeded in boring a fifty-inch cylinder that “does not err the thickness of an old shilling in any part.” Try using a thin dime as a precision gauge, or imagine a “fit” that sloppy.
But that was not the greatest hurdle. Years before, when Watt wanted to set up his workshop in Glasgow, he was not permitted to do so because the local tradesmen thought there were already more than enough such establishments. Watt got his chance only because the University took him as their instrument maker. Later, when factories were developing in England to make use of the new power and equipment, mobs of workers swept down upon the mills and destroyed them. The new technique, incredibly crude by our standards, might produce too much and drive the price of cloth below the starvation level for the weavers who still plied their trade by hand. Their fears were justified: they couldn’t compete with the Frankenstein monster which spewed abundance and threatened their jobs.
We may imagine that the “surplus” problem is modern, a tragic consequence of the phenomenal productivity of the machine, now being automated to further compound the difficulty. But mankind’s neurotic fear of abundance (planiphobia, if one may coin a term) is deep-seated and was old when Englishmen first discovered that a mechanical device could spin several threads in place of one. it is hard for us to see how they could have imagined that their little was too much; but they so believed, and responded by rigging the market just as we do. The result was to render the “times”–or as we would say, the economy–“out of joint.” Eventually, we may see that our maladjustments grow out of the same regulations and controls which they belatedly realized were causing rather than curing their difficulties.
The sudden burst of productivity, coming nearly two centuries ago to a world with a chronic and psychopathic fear of abundance, generated a bitterness against the machine which persists even today. Generations of soft-hearted people, refusing to look beyond the obvious for the true significance of the industrial revolution, are perpetuating a misunderstanding that need not have developed in the first place. For the simple truth is that plenty is desirable. Everyone wants more for himself and only seeks to limit output for others because he believes he will get more if they have less–an immoral, selfish, and short-sighted policy which is self-defeating and only leads to economic and political chaos.
We try to dress our ancient practices in modern garb and imagine they are necessitated by the stupendous productivity of the machine. A recent textbook tells the student that two men with a combine can cut and thresh as much wheat in a day as 125 laborers could by hand, or a ratio of 62½ to 1 in our favor. This overlooks the fact that combines are produced, not by rubbing magic lamps, but by a long line of men and machines, which reduces the net ratio considerably. Dr. William H. Peterson of New York University thinks we were perhaps six times as productive in 1960 as in 1800, rather than 62½ times as implied in that other figure. If people today want a dozen times as much as their ancestors did in 1800, there should be no problem; and we know that human wants are insatiable–we feel we must have a multitude of things they never dreamed of having. But, if we devise all sorts of fantastic schemes to reduce output we’ll be right back where they were in 1800–cutting and threshing grain by hand.
It might help our thinking if we could back up a few centuries to compare the “before-and-after” of industrialization. Practically, we can do almost as well by going to a primitive village in some backward area of the world where people still farm with a hoe and craftsmen still ply their ancient trades by hand. Having had this experience a few years ago, I assure you that the glamour of “going native,” the simple and unspoiled life, fades as quickly as the morning haze under the rays of the tropical sun. Our neighbor was a weaver who spent day after day on his veranda weaving a narrow web of crude cloth on his primitive loom supported by three sticks. “How quaint,” you say, but that is only part of the story. The poor native was a man of years, malnourished and unkempt, and his craft had fallen on evil days. Competition from cheap, imported textiles–made with high-priced labor—-was driving the old man out of business and he was too old to change. Women in America may think that dry goods are too expensive; everything we ever buy always costs too much and, for some perverse reason, everything we have to sell brings too little. Although our weaver earned only a pittance, his cloth was relatively expensive by our standards and fantastically so tor his neighbors. Nor was the reason obscure: he simply produced so little.
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