by Leonard E. Read
Note – Frequent readers of BANKNOTES are aware of my relationship with Leonard E. Read and my admiration for his works during his lifetime. In the following issues I will be sharing his book, VISION, one chapter per month. It was written in 1978. What a privilege it was for me to know this great man! — R. Nelson Nash
The Delphic oracle said I was the wisest oft all the Greeks. It is because that I alone of all the Greeks, know that I know nothing. — SOCRATES
The U.S.A. is faced with an energy crisis – no doubt about it. Countless thousands of bureaucrats, involved businessmen, “economists,” and others are advancing so-called solutions they “think” are right – no doubt about that! Except that nearly everyone overlooks the simple and only solution, otherwise, they all differ – no two alike.
Why are we in an energy crisis? It is because the “solutions” are founded on a false assumption, namely, “I know the answer.” For the truth, hear Thomas Alva Edison: “No one knows more that millionth of one per cent of anything.” It’s these egotistical assumption that brought on the crisis and it’s these very same assumptions that will worsen rather than better the mess we’re in unless the simple remedy gains understanding.
The simple remedy? Both Socrates and Edison gave us the answer which, if followed, would read like this: “It is because I, among millions of Americans, am one who knows nothing and knows it.” It is necessary, however, that neither you nor I should be alone in the wise confession. Let there be a reasonable number of us and then, lo and behold, the miracle – the rescue – by that fantastic wisdom which exists alone in the free and unfettered market.
With the above as an introduction, let’s have a glance at the enormity of energy. No more than a glance is possible for no one ever has or ever will assess it in totality. For instance, the energy we earthlings enjoy is generally assumed tot have its origin in our star. According to my dictionary the sun is:
…the incandescent body of gases about which the earth and other planets revolve and which furnishes light, heat and energy for the solar system.
Here is another assumption which, until now, I had not questioned;
Although less than half of the earth’s sunlight entering the earth’s atmosphere reaches its surface, just 4 minutes of that solar input equals all the energy mankind consumes in an entire year.
Three questions pop into mind:
1. Isn’t is possible that there is something in Creation that precedes the sun as source? We don’t know one millionth of one per cent of anything, let alone this.
2. Are there not untold forms of energy beyond the range of solar energy?
3. Why has there not been a greater use of solar energy in the light present energy sources?
As a sampling of the thousand and one kinds of energy, reflect on electrical energy. There is not a person who is even aware of its many uses. They range from tiny services like electric toothbrushes and electric razors to such enormous outpourings of kilowatt-hours as in metal melting – steel, aluminum and the like.
Until 1864 the human voice could be transmitted the distance a shouter could be heard – about the length of a football field – at the speed that sound could travel. Now? Around the world in that time fraction of a second – at the speed of light. The phenomenon of electrical energy!
To repeat, electrical energy has a thousand and one uses and not a living person understands a single one of them. Why this bald assertion? No one knows what electricity is! Thus, where is the person who can solve our increasing electrical shortages? Wiseacres galore, but not one remotely wise enough! That should be self-evident.
The above is no more than a glance at the energy problem. Suppose someone were to write a book on all the forms he could bring to mind: Energy stored in such known fuels as gas, oil, coal, wood; magnetic energy, solar energy, gravitational forces, wind, waterpower, heat light, sound, electrical and chemical energy; nuclear energy, tension, motion, friction, animal power, human energy. Still, no more than a glance!
Countless kinds of energy supplement human energy, And note how variable the latter – from all sorts of physical exertions to such mental efforts as thinking and writing. No two persons are identical in this respect; indeed, each of us varies from day to day.
The only point I am attempting to emphasize is that no one has the slightest idea how, by himself, to solve the energy crisis, egotistical pretensions to the contrary notwithstanding ! Am I contending that the problem has no solution? No, the solution is so simple that nearly everyone ignores it.
Here are several thoughts that pave the way to the simple answer. Even though no one knows what electricity is, countless individuals with their tiny bits of expertise – when freely flowing – have discovered how to harness it. Likewise, no one really knows what solar energy is but the means of harnessing it have been discovered in a few minor instances. Why not on a larger scale? Because the government has intervened to the point that private effort is discouraged, leaving the wisdom of the market dormant.
To illustrate: Some years ago we had a water shortage along the Hudson River. Car washing, lawn sprinkling and the like were forbidden. Restaurants, short of special requests, were not allowed to serve a glass of water. Why that economic crisis? Government preempted – socialism – instead of the free market where the wisdom is.
Even more striking was an experience some months ago on the Monterrey Peninsula. In every bathroom were printed instructions: flush toilets only when absolutely necessary, confine showers to one minute, and so on. There we were on the shore of the world’s largest body; the Pacific Ocean. A water shortage! And for precisely the same reason as our water shortage on the Hudson.
The art of desalination has been known for several decades. However, the process lies largely dormant due to a preponderance of those who say, “I know the answer.” They have convinced themselves and the masses that no other solutions than their won would be worth trying – blind leaders of the blind.
I am confident that if the market were trusted to operate, water would be abundantly available, not only along the Pacific Coast but miles inland as well, at a surprising low price. The wisdom on the market is far and more productive than can be mustered through planned coercion.
How explain the simple solution to the energy crisis: It’s as simple as two times two is four.
In 1958 I wrote an article entitled, “I, Pencil.” This explained that no person knows how to make such a simple thing as an ordinary wooden lead pencil. The article has since been distributed and read throughout the United States and other countries, without a single contradiction in all these years. In 1958 there were produced in our country 1,600,000,000 wooden lead pencils, despite the fact that not a person on earth had the combination of knowledge and skill to make one!
It may be true that no one knows more than one millionth of one per cent of anything. But a pencil consists of many millions of somethings – tiny bits of expertise – flowing and configurating. The free and unfettered market has indeed a wisdom trillions of times greater than the wisdom of one who claims, “I know the answer.”
The making of a pencil is a simple operation compared to the desalination of water or to any of the major phases of our so-called energy problems. So, leave the solution to the market where the wisdom is.
Socrates’ secret was the knowledge that he didn’t know everything. Therefore, let us recognize with him the vital possibility that everyone knows a fraction of this or that. However tiny one’s portion may be, let it be freely productive, for in freedom do we best serve ourselves and others.