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Free Men and Free Markets, by Robert Theobald

Free Thought

Free Men and Free Markets.
by Robert Theobald.
Clarkson N. Potter. 203 pp. $5.00.

From its title, one might suspect that this was a tract in defense of laissez-faire economics, but titles can be misleading. Robert Theobald’s book is very far from being a conservative treatise—which is not to say that it is a radical one. Indeed, this curious book cannot rightly be placed on the political spectrum at all. Suspended above the gravitational pull of the political world, it defies the ways of the workaday world like the Indian rope trick. In fact, the book in itself is like the Indian rope trick—amusing, even clever, but fundamentally a hoax. It is not to be taken seriously.

This is not to say that we should not take seriously the problems that Theobald is interested in. He sees a world coming (in fact he sees it already here) in which the traditional mechanisms of economics will no longer serve their purpose. A wave of cybernation is soon to render a large proportion of society’s labor effort redundant. At the same time, mounting surpluses of basic commodities, such as food and steel, make the redundancy of labor irrelevant. Coupled with this we have only the meanest pittance placed at the disposal of the economic outcasts by a government still chained by a nostalgia for 19th-century economics. The result is an increasing dysfunction : unemployment, inadequate purchasing power, recourse to irrationalities in order to sustain a semblance of economic “growth.”

Given some license for exaggeration—I do not, for example, believe that cybernation and “abundance” are quite in the advanced stages Theobald says they are—I think this is a true enough statement of the case. I confess that my teeth are set on edge by various barbarous neologisms to which the author resorts for some inscrutable purpose—firms are called “marketives” and goods and services “ecofacts”—and I am somewhat pained at the tone of discovery in which Theobald speaks of things that have been long known and explored. But that is not where my objection lies. For having diagnosed the malady of an ailing capitalism, Theobald now produces with a flourish his Magic Rejuvenation Pill—BES or Basic Economic Security:

We will need to adopt the concept of an absolute constitutional right to an income. This would guarantee to every citizen of the United States, and to every person who has resided within the United States for a period of five consecutive years, the right to an income from the federal government sufficient to enable him to live with dignity. No government agency, judicial body, or other organization whatsoever should have the power to suspend or limit any payments assured by these guarantees.

To be sure, this is not quite the whole of it. Like all Utopian planners, Theobald gets involved in a certain amount of fussy detail: the system will be bolstered, not only by BES but also by CS (Committed Spending); side by side with “marketives” will come a new category of productive organization, the “consentive.” An Appendix gives us a rough idea of income levels, starting with $3200 for a couple with two children and no non-BES income.

Now curiously enough, I find no point of economics to disagree with here. The productive capacity is there and could certainly be spread along more egalitarian lines, as BES would insure, while demand created in this fashion would in fact serve to sustain a steady and high flow of output. The trouble is, the design of a purely mechanical Utopia is mere child’s play. Anyone can sit down and figure out ways of dividing up the work and the output with results that please him more than the present sorry arrangements. But if the intellectual enterprise is to become more than the play of a child, one must go on to probe into two far more difficult areas. The first is the question of how this mechanical rearrangement of economic affairs will affect the political and social fabric of society. And the second is the question of how the desired economic mechanism is actually to be fashioned from the existing one.

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Thus let us ask ourselves—for Theobald does not ask other than in passing—what might be the effect on society if men no longer had to work in order to live? How many workers would wish to continue in the factories—even well-lit, ventilated, and automated factories—when they could get BES and go fishing? All right, says Theobald, we will pay them more. Good—and as prices thereupon rise, what happens to the buying power of BES? And in any case, what makes Mr. Theobald so sure that men would be so obedient in following the lure of higher wages? How much would we have to pay Mr. Theobald himself to entice him into a mine or onto a South Dakota farm or even into a cybernated North Carolina mill? And if the introduction of BES would fearfully complicate the problem of assuring society’s output—if, in the economists’ words, it would play hob with the shape and position of the supply curve of labor—what then would be left of “free markets” and “free men”?

This is one problem—or, rather, one of a set of problems—that gets only the most superficial examination in this book. But it is not the most important. There remains the little question of how we are to achieve Theobald’s utopia, and here a quotation sheds sudden illumination: “This book is written in the belief that most of these individuals [“the highly respected corporate head, the energetic union leader and the concerned cabinet member”] are fundamentally more concerned with the achievement of the West’s basic goals than with the preservation of their present roles, with their attached rights and obligations.”

What are we to make of this pitiable naïveté? Let us leave aside for the moment the problem of just what the goals of the West are, and ask if a study of Western history allows one to contend that, before the claims of sweet reasonableness, the pocketbook, and the flag have ever been laid aside. If it were not so anguishing and so cruel, it would be comic.

I know, I know, it is good that a man speaks his mind freely, good that he dreams about a better world, good that he shrugs aside the petty details and concentrates on the main thing. No doubt this feeling accounts for the encomiums which this book has elicited from people who should know better. For in the end this is not a useful, nor—as I said at the outset—a serious book. It is not right—in fact it is positively wrong—to play these kinds of games with the re-organization of society. It is not right to legislate in the mind the most far-reaching changes in the affairs of men and then to sweep under the rug all the consequences, unpleasant as well as pleasant, which might flow from those changes. It is not right to speak of the re-ordering of society and to ignore wealth and power, ideology and self-interest, and the vast rooted inertia of human conditions. Schemes for social change have been and should be among the most enlarging and ennobling of men’s intellectual efforts. They have been and they should be ideas for which men are willing to transform their lives, even on occasion to give up their lives. Hence when I see a plan for a new society advanced, not in the somber recognizance of man’s present (and for a long while, foreseeable) estate, not in the awareness (or the defiance) of the existing massive structures of privilege and power, but only as a divertissement, an intellectual bagatelle, a cute idea, then I feel saddened and in some ways more cast down than when I read the stupid but at least substantial defenses of the status quo.

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