Tuesday, April 20, 2010

People were not only smaller and lived closer to water: they were more broadly and deeply educated

By way of relaunching my blogging career, such as it is, I wish now to share with you a pair of passages I recently read. Here's the first:
No man stands out a grand and solitary figure; mental pictures are constantly painted of what the people think and as to what the people will or may do: when the bulk of the people do not think at all; for as Henry Ford long ago discovered, to most minds thought is 'absolutely appalling,' and what very naturally the masses want to do is enjoy themselves thoroughly and cheaply.
And here's the second:
To-day slavery consists in binding ourselves to the myth that nations are economically independent and that prosperity can be cultivated by trade barriers and protective tariffs. Were it possible to-morrow to establish universal free trade throughout the world, then within a generation would nations be so completely de-capitalized, for wealth would become so distributed, that international war would be deprived of its reason and become inane.
The first passage -- to me, at any rate -- could have come from one of today's behavioral economists, although I doubt many behavioral economists would quote Henry Ford with approval. Alternatively, one supposes it could have come from that branch of libertarian/anti-statist thought that refers dismissively to "the sheeple" (not without evidence, one must admit, and one must also concede that among those expressing such views is Albert Jay Nock).

The second could have come from just about anyone at the Mises Institute.

In fact, both these passages are from the same author, in the same work, within two pages of each other. The author is the British general and military theorist J.F.C. Fuller, writing in The Generalship of Ulysses S. Grant; the first passage can be found on pages 410-411, and the second on pages 411-412.

It's an interesting juxtaposition, says I, and the more so for having been written in the late 1920s, by a career officer in the Royal Army. Even more interesting is the fact that Fuller elsewhere in the book writes approvingly of Frederick W. Taylor; principles of scientific management (in the context of industrial-scale endeavors) and individual liberty appear on the surface to be little related, although one may suppose that liberty of contract remains the guarantor of the individual's liberty. Of course, when the political means has been employed to interfere with the ability of competitive enterprises to enter a market, and the state has eliminated the individual's ability to work unclaimed land (Nock writes on this in Our Enemy, the State: note that the preceding link goes direct to a PDF of the book), the exercise of liberty of contract increasingly resembles an academic exercise.

What do I make of it all? I don't know, although I am inclined to agree with Fuller's second passage. I have long believed, though, that most of those making up "the masses" are capable of far more than they know or have been taught to believe. One must be careful with such formulations, though: as a rule, I do not believe in false consciousness as advanced by collectivists. Finally, I am impressed with the apparent scope and depth of General Fuller's scholarship and education as expressed in his ideas (whether or not I agree with all of them) and writing ability. In addition to the work cited, I recently read Fuller's Grant and Lee: A Study in Personality and Generalship, and it too is well written and a fine piece of scholarship; I think one would agree, whether or not one agrees with Fuller's rather boats-against-the-current assessment of Grant as a general.


  1. Cool site and interesting comments, Ken. The fortunate thing is that the sheeple don't have to be capable of much. The main problem is that they mistakenly think they are able enough in many fields outside their expertise.

    - mpolzkill (somehow I'm stuck on the wrong account)

  2. Thanks for the kind remarks, mpolzkill. I need to get another post up -- I've got some thoughts on Robb's Brave New War.