The Infinite Well of Progress

Recently I was picking up a pair of glasses. While I waited another customer—a Russian émigré—remarked that she was having a hard time choosing a frame. Back in the Soviet Union, she said, there would be a choice of perhaps five frames.

Alex, the shop owner—also a Russian émigré—added that in optical shops in the former Soviet Union customers would not usually receive their exact prescription. A nearsighted customer with a prescription of -3.25 would be given a lens that was the closest available, perhaps -3.75. Not only that, Alex explained, the optical shop would make no attempt to fit the pupil to the lens—it was literally one size fits all. (If you wear glasses, you know that an optician takes measurements so that the sweet spot on the lens matches where your eye focuses.)

The conversation continued. The customer told of leaving the Soviet Union, with her husband, in February, 1979. Their first stop was Vienna. Their money being very limited; they stopped in a supermarket knowing that they could only purchase a few items. As they entered the store they found themselves in the produce department. Her husband told her to look straight ahead and not at the staggering amount of fresh fruits and vegetables—a cornucopia that they had never seen and could not yet afford.

Earlier in my visit, before this customer had arrived, Alex had shown me a modern miracle—the Adlens Emergensee—a  $59 pair of glasses that adjusts to any prescription via a knob. You simply dial the knob until your vision was most clear. James Chen, the developer of the product, was motivated by humanitarian concerns—he wanted to help the poor in developing countries and help disaster victims who lost  their glasses. Billions of citizens in the developing world have no access to eyeglasses. In Uganda, Alex explained, there are twelve opticians in the entire country. Outside of the cities, there are none. Yet, aid workers untrained in optical arts and possessing no optical lab could now hand out glasses that give sight to those with no other eye care access.

Who put oranges on the shelves in Vienna? Who put eyeglasses in the hinterlands of Uganda?

The Soviet planners were unable to provide food. And no government has been able to solve the problem of providing glasses to the desperately poor.

The evidence is overwhelming that markets, not governments, are the source of progress. Yet, lacking basic literacy in economics, an increasing number of Americans believe otherwise.

Two college students were sitting behind me on a commuter train. The young man seemed to be “lecturing” his girlfriend.  He was instructing her about what he perceived were the advantages of central planning. “Take China, for example,” he said. “When the next big thing in technology comes along, the Chinese government simply orders that the new technology be used and bam it is done.” He explained that in the United States it takes too long for Congress to act.

If his girlfriend disagreed with him, I do not know, for she silently listened. Do most college students believe that technological innovations in the United States take an act of Congress? The answer may be yes. In May, at a commencement address at Ohio State, President Obama told his audience in an attempt to justify big government “… we know this country cannot accomplish great things if we pursue nothing greater than our own individual ambition.”

Of course individual ambition is facilitated by our cooperation with others; we earn partners when we help others fulfill their needs. Voluntary cooperation is needed to promote progress. Few adults who have worked for a living would disagree. But government hinders and doesn’t facilitate this cooperation. Government brings people together only through coercion which is the very opposite of voluntary cooperation.

The market process, not a government official, brings forth new ideas and the cooperation necessary to implement them. Of course, not all new ideas are good ones; those ideas that best fulfill our needs as consumers rise to the top in the market process. Government officials, unconstrained by the profit motive, seek to meet their needs first. And even when government planners have good intentions, they will favor known solutions rather than the unknown. All progress emerges from the unknown.

In 1947, Harvard economics professor, Sumner Slichter wrote:

Our economy has the tremendous advantage of possessing three and a half million business enterprises outside of agriculture and about six million business enterprises in agriculture. This means that the American economy has nearly ten million places where innovations may be authorized. Have you ever thought of that? Ten million places where experiments may be tried, where no further authority is needed to authorize an experiment. Our economy operates under about ten million separate private busi­ness budgets. No regimented economy can hope to compete in dynamic drive with an economy which possesses nearly ten mil­lion independent centers of initiative.

President Obama, like all politicians, tells us he cares and wants to make our lives better. Yet he offers us only more regimentation. Where is the kindness and compassion? Where is the freedom that fuels initiative? Regimentation is immoral and unkind. Regimentation attacks human freedom. It denies millions the ability to lift themselves out of grinding poverty and million more the ability to raise their standard of living.

There is an infinite well from which human ingenuity arises. An initial idea is not enough. During the process of discovery we must return to the well again and again for inspiration. Regimentation can never dry up the well, but it can reduce our ability to drink from the well. Undermining incentives to cooperate with others and limiting our capacity to raise capital needed to implement our ideas is like building a barbed wire fence around the well of human ingenuity. Eventually some even forget that there is a well to drink from and look to government as the source of progress. Why do we impoverish ourselves?

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