When the State Comes After You

Recently by Butler Shaffer: ‘Klaatu Barada Nikto!’

The world is a dangerous place, not because of those who do evil, but because of those who look on and do nothing.

~ Albert Einstein

I become exasperated reading or listening to chuckleheaded people who are unable – or unwilling – to distinguish the peaceful and voluntary nature of a free market, from the violent and coercive character of the corporate-state system that long ago took over our economic lives. Murray Rothbard's words come to mind, wherein he observed that it was no great wrong to not understand economics, but that one ignorant of the subject ought not be offering advice on such matters. I would no more go to a lawyer, or an orthodontist, or Lew Rockwell, to have brain surgery performed on me, than would I take seriously the prescriptions offered by economic ignoramuses on how to "grow" an economy (an idea as absurd as that of misguided, controlling parents who believe it is their role to "grow" their children).

Many of the signs and comments of participants in the varied "Occupy Wall Street" demonstrations reflect this confusion between the impersonal nature of markets and the politically-enforced interests of marketplace participants. "End corporate greed" is a common sentiment expressed, no doubt, by persons who embrace the "power greed" that drives those who want the state to enforce their visions. It is such simplistic thinking that insists on labeling the pursuit of individual self-interest as "greed," while political power ambitions get defined as "public service." The slothful-minded then find it easy to condemn all marketplace pursuit of self-interest as "anti-social" (at best) or downright "criminal" at worst, and to regard the politically-driven as the embodiment of "public spiritedness." "Businessmen" are then collectivized as persons lacking in any principled integrity who will do anything to increase profits to their firms.

As a response to such muddled thinking, I would like to offer two examples: the first of literary derivation, the second from real-life. Each involves manufacturers of airplane parts who have contracted with the federal government to help produce military aircraft. For purposes of this illustration, I will overlook the difficulties associated with government-contracting itself. My focus will be upon how each of these men responded to defects in either the manufacture or design of their products; imperfections each understood to be a danger to pilots flying the planes involved.

The first man is Joe Keller, a fictional character brought to life by Arthur Miller in his 1947 play – and later a film – All My Sons. Joe and his partner, Steve Deever, are in the business of manufacturing, among other items, airplane cylinders during World War II. Prior to the parts being shipped, both Joe and Steve become aware of the defective nature of these cylinders, but operating under the pressures of time and threat of being in default in their contract with the government, they proceed with the shipment. Later, twenty-one pilots die because of such defective parts, but Joe manages to shift the blame to Steve who, as a consequence, is convicted and sent to prison.

Most of the play centers on Joe's lack of moral character, and the consequences thereof not only to himself, but to his and Steve's families. Toward the end, it becomes known that Joe's son – an Army pilot who had long been listed as "missing in action" – had learned of Joe's wrongdoing, and committed suicide by crashing his plane. When Joe is told of this, he goes to his room and shoots himself.

By contrast, consider the example of Spencer Heath, a man who was an engineer, inventor, attorney, manufacturer, and a highly-respected social philosopher. During World War I, Heath was in the business of manufacturing airplane propellers. Like Joe Keller, Heath had a contract with the federal government to produce and deliver a given number and style of propellers that had been designed by the government. Prior to shipping them, Heath did some testing that confirmed the defective nature of the design of the propellers. He contacted the War Department about this, informing them that the propellers would likely fall apart in flight, endangering the pilots, and that he refused to ship them. Heath faced more than a threat of a breach of contract action: he was told, by the War Department, "Mr. Heath, this is wartime. You make these propellers, or we'll shoot you!"

I never met Spencer Heath, but from what I know of him it is evident that he was a very moral and philosophically principled person. He patented his inventions only as a defensive measure (i.e., to keep others from taking his ideas, patenting them, and thus preventing Heath from using his own works). When asked if his thinking allowed his competitors to follow his work, Heath replied: "Yes, I do find that they follow me – and that’s what keeps them behind, where they belong!”

How, then, would such a focused man of integrity respond to the government's threat to have him shot if he failed to deliver the defective propellers? Unlike Joe Keller, how could Spencer Heath avoid the government's threats without, at the same time, participating in what his judgment told him would lead to the deaths of other men? I suspect that this was not a moral dilemma for Heath – I doubt that he had any conflict as to the propriety of his actions – but did require the search for a pragmatic solution that would keep both him and some unknown pilots alive.

Late one night, and with the help of one of his employees, Spencer went to the loading dock where the crates of propellers awaited shipment the next day. With a crowbar, these men opened each crate and on each propeller stamped the message: "Made under protest. Condemned by manufacturer." Heath's grandson, Spencer MacCallum, told me he later learned that the propellers had been sent to a warehouse in Texas, and were never put into use. His grandson also informed me that he owns the rubber stamp that Heath had made with which to warn others of the defective nature of the propellers.

My life experiences – including my years as a lawyer – have brought to my attention the behavior of many business people who, like Spencer Heath, lived the integrated life (i.e., having their moral principles reflected in the practical necessities of their work). Interestingly, most of the men and women who exhibited such integrity were also the owners of the firms for which they made decisions. It is no coincidence, I think, that in his important book Citadel, Market and Altar, Spencer Heath gave birth to the theory of communities operating on property-based principles, a work that his grandson has continued in his own book, The Art of Community.

It is such distinctions as are offered by the Kellers and the Heaths of our world that ought to be kept in mind by us all, particularly when we are trying to unravel the causes of the economic crises in which we find ourselves. When business people find themselves inconvenienced by the unintended consequences of their own incompetence, many will turn to lobbyists and politicians to help them secure a more favorable spot at the government trough. On a more encouraging note, there will often be a Spencer Heath who will insist on putting his (literal) stamp on his work to express his refusal to bring harm to others.

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