The Good Old Days

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The libertarian
humorist P. J. O’Rourke says, "When you think of the good
old days, think u2018dentistry.’"

The greatest
invention of the modern world is anesthetics. Prior to 1844, in
preparation for an operation, you drank booze until you passed
out — hopefully. Then the physician — "sawbones,"
he was called — got started hacking away.

you may not go under anesthetics more than once a decade, what
would you pay on a desert island for the last can of ether when
it was time for your operation? People will not give up access
to anesthetics.

As for a
familiar indispensable item in daily use, toilet paper comes to
mind. That was invented in 1857, according to some
. The perforated roll came in 1867.

In other
words, some very big breakthroughs came late in the history of

IN 1904

Richard Russell reprinted a document that is being sent around
the Internet. It’s a list of
conditions in 1904
. I have not checked out the truth of each
detail, but in general they sound reasonable to me. Here is the

  • The average
    life expectancy in America was 47.

  • Only
    14% of the homes in the U.S. had a bathtub.

  • 18% of
    American households had at least one full-time servant or

  • Only
    8% of the homes had a telephone.

  • A three-minute
    call from Denver to New York City cost $11.

  • Sugar
    cost $0.04/pound. Eggs were $0.14/dozen. Coffee cost $0.15/pound.

  • There
    were only 8,000 cars in the U.S. and only 144 miles of paved

  • The maximum
    speed limit in most cities was 10 mph.

  • Alabama,
    Mississippi, Iowa, and Tennessee were each more heavily populated
    than California. With a mere 1.4 million residents, California
    was only the 21st most populated state in the Union.

  • The average
    wage in the U.S. was $0.22/hour.

  • The average
    American worker made between $200—$400/year.

  • A competent
    accountant could expect to earn $2000/year, a dentist $2,500/year,
    a veterinarian between $1,500—$4,000/year, and a mechanical
    engineer about $5,000/year.

  • More
    than 95% of all births in the U.S. took place at home.

  • 90% of
    all U.S. physicians had no college education. Instead, they
    attended medical schools, many of which were condemned in
    the press and by the government as "substandard."

  • The
    five leading causes of death in the US were:

    1. pneumonia and influenza

    2. tuberculosis

    3. diarrhea

    4. heart disease

    5. stroke

  • The American
    flag had 45 stars. Arizona, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Hawaii and
    Alaska hadn’t been admitted to the Union yet.

  • The population
    of Las Vegas, Nevada was 30.

  • One in
    ten American adults couldn’t read or write.

  • Only
    6% of all Americans had graduated from high school.

  • There
    were only about 230 reported murders in the entire U.S.

The statistics
on consumer prices indicate how successfully the Federal Reserve
System, our nation’s quasi-public central bank, has defended the
purchasing power of the dollar. But apart from that, things are
doing great. Mostly.


One item
stands out on the list as too good to be true.

Today, things
are far worse. Which one is it?

Go back and
look over the list again.

Go on. I
dare you. I double-dog dare you.

Stuck? Here
is a hint

1940, the literacy figure for all states stood at 96 percent for
whites, 80 percent for blacks. Notice that for all the disadvantages
blacks labored under, four of five were nevertheless literate.
Six decades later, at the end of the twentieth century, the National
Adult Literacy Survey and the National Assessment of Educational
Progress say 40 percent of blacks and 17 percent of whites can’t
read at all. Put another way, black illiteracy doubled, white
illiteracy quadrupled. Before you think of anything else in regard
to these numbers, think of this: we spend three to four times
as much real money on schooling as we did sixty years ago, but
sixty years ago virtually everyone, black or white, could read."

Is it really
this bad today? It really is. The good old days, educationally,
really were good.

This was
equally true in 1910. The good old days were better. Consider

to the Connecticut census of 1840, only one citizen out of every
579 was illiterate and you probably don’t want to know, not
really, what people in those days considered literate; it’s
too embarrassing. Popular novels of the period give a clue:
u2018Last of the Mohicans’, published in 1826, sold so well that
a contemporary equivalent would have to move 10 million copies
to match it. If you pick up an uncut version you find yourself
in a dense thicket of philosophy, history, culture, manners,
politics, geography, analysis of human motives and actions,
all conveyed in data-rich periodic sentences so formidable only
a determined and well-educated reader can handle it nowadays.
Yet in 1818 we were a small-farm nation without colleges or
universities to speak of. Could those simple folk have had more
complex minds than our own?"

Or this:

1882, fifth graders read these authors in their Appleton School
Reader: William Shakespeare, Henry Thoreau, George Washington,
Sir Walter Scott, Mark Twain, Benjamin Franklin, Oliver Wendell
Holmes, John Bunyan, Daniel Webster, Samuel Johnson, Lewis Carroll,
Thomas Jefferson, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and others like them.
In 1995, a student teacher of fifth graders in Minneapolis wrote
to the local newspaper, u2018I was told children are not to be expected
to spell the following words correctly: back, big, call, came,
can, day, did, dog, down, get, good, have, he, home, if, in,
is, it, like, little, man, morning, mother, my, night, off,
out, over, people, play, ran, said, saw, she, some, soon, their,
them, there, time, two, too, up, us, very, water, we, went,
where, when, will, would, etc. Is this nuts?’ “

1910, only 6% of all Americans had graduated from high school."
Today, millions have graduated, but is their education equal to
sixth grade in 1910? In the best high schools, of course it is.
I’m talking about the typical high school. I’m talking about the
typical graduate.

My friend
Bertel Sparks taught at Duke Law School for years. For his entering
students, he passed out an essay on property written by Blackstone.
It was from "Commentaries," published in 1765. It was
the law book for English lawyers. He had them discuss the essay
in the following class. They always had great difficulty. The
essay was over their heads.

Then he would
hold up the source of the essay: the Sixth McGuffey Reader.
He said this exercise stomped the arrogance out of them early.


The Federal
Reserve System has a government-granted monopoly of control over
the commercial banking system. The tax-funded schools have no
comparable monopoly, but in terms of the amount of money spent
on pre-college education, tax-funded schools receive most of it.
If you don’t believe me, consider this. If cities allowed parents
of today’s home-schoolers and private school students to skip
paying that portion of property taxes going to pre-college education,
the tax-funded school system would survive this year’s funding
shortfall. (Next year, however, there would be a growing problem.)

There is
a pattern of failure here. It relates to government.

is parallel pattern
: success. It also relates to government,
and the absence thereof.

average life expectancy in America was 47."

Today, life
expectancy at birth for American females is 80 years. A male’s
life expectancy is 74.

Medical technology
has made us healthier. Sulfa drugs made major contributions two
generations ago, as have antibiotics. Medical research is influenced
by government money and regulations, but most of the basic research
is funded by the private sector. The health food industry, gymnasiums,
and the exercise device market are generally not receiving tax

diseases kill us, not plagues and epidemics. These scourges are
no longer a widespread threat: Pneumonia and influenza; Tuberculosis;
Diarrhea. Our children will bury us — a great gift of modern
technology. Private capital investment made this a reality.

14% of the homes in the U.S. had a bathtub."

of 2001, there were 681,000 dwelling units with no bathtub or
This is out of a total of 106,262,000 units.

of American households had at least one full-time servant or

We can’t
afford to hire household servants because wages are too high outside
the home. The free market economy, through capital investment
and its accompanying productivity, has produced employment opportunities
that are superior outside the home. Household servants tend to
be female and recent immigrants, with or without green cards.

8% of the homes had a telephone."

As for telephones,
the number of phone lines, including digital non-lines, has increased
dramatically ever since de-regulation, when the Bell companies
and AT&T lost their government-granted monopolies. Costs have
fallen dramatically since the mid-1970s. Phone cards at Wal-Mart
indicate how far they have fallen. Now, with Skype
providing free internet phone service, prices will fall even more.

population of Las Vegas, Nevada was 30."

The country
would be better off if it still were. That city is based on faith
in luck, despite rules that favor the house statistically. Men
have substituted faith in luck for faith in law. They have substituted
faith in gambling for faith in thrift, meaning sacrifice today
for the sake of tomorrow.

were only about 230 reported murders in the entire U.S."

Here, we
see the heart of the problem: the breakdown of law and order.
The self-government of Americans has slowly declined. Along with
this process has been the increase of laws on the books and money
spent on law enforcement.

I detect
a pattern here.


Think dentistry.
Things are better. Think taxes. Things are much worse. In 1910,
there was no federal income tax. There was no FICA tax. Think
government regulation. Think crime. Think divorce. Things are

Where men
have been left free to choose, things are generally better. Freedom
to choose doesn’t make Las Vegas go away, but it does let people
who lose at Las Vegas suffer the consequences. Medicare and Social
Security have become hoped-for aces (or at least deuces) in the
hole for gambling addicts. When it comes to house rules, Medicare
and Social Security are stacked against late-comers.

The lesson
is this: you must put your money where the record shows progress
— in capital, not in slot machines. You must build a stream
of income, not rely on the government’s house.

The closer
an investment market is to government regulation and "free"
government money, the more likely you will find your investment
coming up snake eyes.

little government and a little luck are necessary in life, but
only a fool trusts either of them."

P. J. O’Rourke

29, 2004

North [send him mail]
is the author of Mises
on Money
. Visit
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