Invisible Hand


December 15, 1991|By RAY JENKINS | RAY JENKINS,Ray Jenkins is editor of the editorial pages of The Evening Sun.

When I was a small child, growing up nine miles from the nearest paved road in the rural South, one day a red truck pulled up in our yard. A man got out and said he was from the REA. I ran to tell my mother this alarming news, and she said not to worry: Mr. Roosevelt sent him out to put in the electricity. So they wired our house, flipped a switch, and the light came on. When that light came on, I became a true believer in Mr. Roosevelt's New Deal; as long as the light stays on, I'll stay a believer.

This memory came to mind the other day when I read a column by George Will in The Sun paying adulatory tribute to the late George Stigler, the Nobel Prize-winning economist and free-market theorist. The column typifies the insufferable level of hubristic gloating we hear from conservatives who apparently subscribe to the Chanticleer view of history -- the belief that because they crowed, the sun came up. An example of the

flabby, facile claptrap that now passes for conservative "thinking" is found in a paragraph Will quotes from a 1963 essay by Stigler:

"Sears, Roebuck and Company, and Montgomery Ward made a good deal of money in the process of improving our rural marketing structure, but I am convinced they did more for poor farmers in America than the sum total of the federal agricultural support programs of the last 28 years."

Now, I have not read the learned doctor's essay, and frankly don't plan to if this fragment reflects his thinking, because anyone familiar with history will readily recognize the utter speciousness of the statement. Let's look at that history.

Subtract 28 years from 1963 and you get 1935, and I suspect Stigler chose that year because it represents the heyday of the Agricultural Adjustment Act, which was a pillar of Franklin D. Roosevelt's program of recovery from the Great Depression -- brought on by those spiritual forbears of Ronald Reagan and George Bush, Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge.

The purpose of that act was to impose a measure of discipline, through the collective action that civilized people call government, on the chaotic "free market" which had reduced the American farmer to a level of penury not much above Russian serfs of the 19th century. The idea was to make farm production meet market demand, to help farmers grow the products people needed. Granted, the system was eventually corrupted by greed and politics, but in its inception the idea was good.

Or perhaps Stigler had in mind the Rural Electrification Act which brought energy and, later, telephones to every farm in America. No one seriously disputes the value of that program.

As for that reliable conduit of commerce, the Sears Roebuck catalog, it is true there was not a farmhouse (or an outhouse) without one. And farm families would now and then order items from what was fittingly called "the wish book." But the fact is, most of what little money the farm people could scratch together went to purchase bare necessities at the village general store. It sold everything from cradles to coffins.

Besides, I wonder if it never occurred to Stigler that the mail-order catalog merchandising system could never have existed had it not been for something called RFD -- the popular initials for rural free delivery of mail -- a quintessential government function.

Moreover, a case can be made that the single greatest success story of America grew out of the concept of the land-grant colleges which set aside land for state institutions. It was on the campuses of these colleges that the great agricultural experiment stations were established, and the knowledge gained through these government institutions was taken through the Agricultural Extension Service and its thousands of "county agents" to every farm of every hill and valley of America.

Again, I speak from experience, having seen the county agent come to our farm with a few ears of a new variety of hybrid corn, developed at the state university, that could double the harvest of grain in a single year.

It was this kind of government action that changed not merely the life of rural America but of all America and indeed, all the world. The free-market advocates talk of Adam Smith's "unseen hand" in guiding the market economy. But it was the unseen hand of government that brought together the minds of people and the hands of people in the service of humankind, and in the process created a nation in which two percent of the population could provide food and fiber at affordable prices for the other 98 percent.

These are not historical obscurities, but facts that surely must be known to ivory towerists like Will and Stigler. For them to peddle the palpable nonsense contained in the paragraph quoted above is simply an Orwellian rewrite of history -- or, put another way, common intellectual criminality.

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