The Good Old Days

The libertarian humorist P. J. O’Rourke says, “When you think of the good old days, think ‘dentistry.'”

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.

Although 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 Websites. The perforated roll came in 1867.

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

LIFE IN 1904

Recently, 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 list.

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 domestic.

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 roads.

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:

pneumonia and influenza
heart disease

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:

“By 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 this:

“According 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: ‘Last 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:

“In 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, ‘I 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?’ “

“In 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.

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

“The 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 money.

Degenerative 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.

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

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

“18% of American households had at least one full-time servant or domestic.”

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.

“Only 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.

“The 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.

“There 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 worse.

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.

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

~ P. J. O’Rourke

July 29, 2004

Gary North [send him mail] is the author of Mises on Money. Visit For a free subscription to Gary North’s newsletter on gold, click here.

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