History Assumed!

 By Carl Watner
Number 115


Here is a history test. Can you find any error(s) of historical fact in the following paragraph taken from Chapter 17 of Thomas Sowell, Basic Economics (New York: Basic Books, 2000)?

For centuries governments have set standards of measurement or prescribed certain measurements, such as the width of rails on railroads. The inch, the yard, and the mile are all government-prescribed units of measurement, as are pints, quarts, and gallons. If individuals had each set up their own units of measurement, transactions and contracts would be a nightmare of complications, as would the enforcement process. When railroads first began, each company was free to decide for itself how wide apart its rails would be set. The net result was that rail widths differed from one railroad to another, which meant that space between train wheels also differed, so that trains from one rail line could not run on another. To tie a country together with railroads would be vastly more costly if a train from San Francisco could reach Chicago only if there happened to be rails of the same width covering the entire distance. To do this when rails were of different widths would have required far more railroads to be built, with many tracks running parallel to tracks of different widths, to reach the same places. Governmentally-imposed standards for the distance between rails eliminated this vastly expensive problem. [pp. 253-254]

The errors are: 1) The inch, the yard, the mile, the pint, the quart, and the gallon are now governmentally-prescribed units of measurement, but they were not – as Sowell implies – originally created by government. These units of measurement pre-dated all modern governments, and are now referred to as “customary” units of measurement, rather than ones originated by government. 2) At least in the United States, “governmentally-imposed standards for distance between rails” were not responsible for achieving track width standardization.

Here is another sentence from Thomas Sowell’s book: “Even the strongest defenders of the free market do not suggest that each individual should buy military defense in the marketplace.” [p. 253] How many readers of The Voluntaryist can identify what is wrong with that sentence? It should be rather obvious. In the last 150 years there have been, and are, individuals who advocate “that each individual should buy military defense in the marketplace.” The first person that comes into my mind who disproves Sowell’s sentence is Murray Rothbard. In fact, while writing this article I looked at For A New Liberty (New York: Collier Books, 1978, Revised Edition) and found a discussion of both private military protection and free enterprise standardization.

In the context of this article, neither issue merits great elaboration. Suffice it to say, Rothbard [p. 219] points out that “Gustave de Molinari, the nineteenth-century French free-market economist, was the first person in history to contemplate and advocate a free market for police protection.” Rothbard refers to Molinari’s article, “The Production of Security” written in 1849, which appeared in Journal Des Economistes. (See Whole Number 35 of The Voluntaryist for excerpts from Molinari’s article.) Rothbard, himself, distinctly advocates free market defense agencies for national defense in For A New Liberty. See the section captioned “National Defense,” which is the conclusion to Chapter 12, “The Public Sector III: Police, Law, and the Courts.” Interestingly enough, Rothbard also raises the issue of rail standardization in the section captioned “Street Rules,” in Chapter 11 of For A New Liberty. He states that American railroads of the 19th century achieved voluntary standardization of their track widths because it was in their best interests to do so. An article that provides the factual information to support this history was written by Peter Samuel and appeared in the February 1984 issue of Reason Magazine. The article was titled “Tracking A Curious Fact: How US rails got their track together,” and appeared on pages 37 – 39.

One thing bothers me about these examples of mistaken history. They represent an unstated assumption about the role of governments in history. Apparently, neither Thomas Sowell, nor his editors at Basic Books, nor any pre-publication readers realized that anyone would be so brash as to advocate private military protection or that private enterprise could solve the problem of rail standardization. Such ideas are outside their paradigm of how people think about government and the role government takes in society. In other words, in the minds of Sowell, his editors, and any pre-publication readers it was simply impossible that these things could have or did occur. In their minds, private owners are incapable of solving standardization problems. Consequently, they think given the fact that rail standardization exists in the United States, it must have been brought about by governmentally-imposed legislation. How else could it have happened? Ignorance is bliss, especially when it comes to history!

In Orwell’s 1984, Winston Smith, one of the main characters, worked for the Ministry of Truth. One of his duties was to rewrite previously written newspaper articles so that they would agree with the regime’s current directives. The old articles were destroyed in the memory hole. I am not accusing Thomas Sowell of intentionally re-writing history (just being ignorant of it). In fact, when I pointed out his error about rail standardization in a personal letter, he promised to correct it in the second edition of Basic Economics (if one appears). However, even such a correction would not change his basic argument that people require a centralized (government) coordinator to set the rules and eliminate the free-riders.

What concerns me the most is the unquestioned assumption that human beings require coercive political governments. It is both a matter of logic (who bears the burden of proof in demonstrating that humans require or do not require political government) and a matter of historical truth (what have governments accomplished and what has private enterprise accomplished). As readers of The Voluntaryist know: our editorial assumption is that people can live more morally, happily, and prosperous under a regime of voluntaryism. This is subject both to proof as an ‘a priori’ assumption and as a historical, ‘a posterori,’ fact. While I have the greatest respect for Thomas Sowell as a person, he, his editors, and readers ought to stop “assuming” history.

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