Rewinding the Mainspring of Human Progress

By: Gary Galles

Henry Grady Weaver worked through many jobs on the way to becoming director of customer research for General Motors, which landed him on the November 14, 1938 Time cover. But virtually no one remembers that. Now he is best known for his short 1947 book, The Mainspring of Human Progress, that the Ludwig von Mises Institute’s website called “the true story of progress for the human race with acute understanding of the fundamental cause: freedom itself,” which led to the fact that now “Several generations count this book as the very one that started an intellectual revolution.”

The book had an interesting background. It draws heavily from Rose Wilder Lane’s 1943 The Discovery of Freedom: Mans’s Struggle Against Authority. It became a very influential book, ranking 67th in a 1999 Modern Library readers poll of the best nonfiction books. But Lane was not satisfied with it, so despite continuing interest, she refused to allow it to be reprinted after only 1000 copies were made. That continuing interest led Weaver to ask Lane’s consent to use her ideas, but retell it in his own way, which she granted. Ironically, even though Mainspring was thus what John Hood called “an amateur’s paean to freedom and individual ingenuity,” it ranked 48th in the same poll.

Reader comments about Mainspring have included “Nothing I say will adequately describe how awesome this book is,” “If I ever gave a list of books people needed to read before they die, this would be in the top three,” and “Best book I’ve read in 5 years. A concise and condensed summary of recent Western civilization cultural ideas.” Such raves justify giving it some serious attention. As a beginning, consider some of its most insightful words.

  • Most of the major ills of the world have been caused by well meaning people who ignored the principle of individual freedom, except as applied to themselves…professional “do-gooders”… who would ruthlessly force their views on all others–with the abiding assurance that the end justifies the means.
  • What is the human purpose in society?…it is a matter of benefitting yourself by getting something you desire from another person who, at the same time, benefits himself by getting something that he desires from you…the peaceful exchange of benefits, mutual aid, co-operation–for each person’s gain. The incalculable sum of all these meetings is human society, which is simply all the individual human actions that express the brotherhood of man.
  • To discuss the welfare and responsibilities of society as an abstract whole…is an oversimplification and a fantasy. The real human world is made by persons, not by societies. The only human development is the self-development of the individual person.
  • Even today, many civilized persons…have harbored the pagan belief that the sacrifice of the individual person serves a higher good…in the false ideal of selflessness–which emphasizes conformity to the will-of-the-mass–as against the Christian virtues of self-reliance, self-improvement, self-faith, self-respect, self-discipline, and a recognition of one’s duties as well as one’s rights. Such thinking is promoted under the banner of social reform, but it gives rise to the tyrants of “do-goodism”…who slaughter…the very people who look to them for the more abundant life and for protection against harm.
  • It is highly presumptuous of any mortal man to assume that he is endowed with such fantastic ability that he can run the affairs of all his fellowmen better than they, as individuals, can run their own personal affairs.
  • Every living thing must struggle for its existence, and human beings are no exception. The thin defenses of civilization tend to obscure the stark realities; but men and women survive on this earth only because their energies constantly convert other forms of energy to satisfy human needs, and constantly attack the nonhuman energies that are dangerous to human existence.
  • In the last analysis, there can be no progress except through the more effective use of our individual energies, personal initiatives, and imaginative abilities…
  • It all comes back to the effective use of human energy…the decision to act and the action itself are always under your own control.
  • Your freedom of action may be forbidden, restricted, or prevented by force…But the fact remains that no amount of force can make you act unless you agree–perhaps with hesitation and regret–to do so.
  • Individual freedom is the natural heritage of each living person.
  • Freedom cannot be separated from responsibility.
  • Your natural freedom–your control over your own life energy–was born in you along with life itself. It is a part of life itself. No one can give it to you, nor can you give it to someone else. Nor can you hold any other person responsible for your acts. Control simply can’t be separated from responsibility; control is responsibility.
  • Man has enormous powers…to make new things and to change old things into new forms. He not only owns property but he also actually creates property…without ownership, there is little incentive to improve it.
  • Free minds are inventive minds.
  • Overlords develop their ambitious plans, enforced by the firing squad and supported by huge predatory armies…but they are contradictory to the nature of human energy. They are always at the expense of individual initiative; they always result in oppression, leading to human degradation and war.
  • In America…Free men were to have an opportunity to live their lives, plan their own affairs, and work with one another–not under the lash of coercive authority but under the discipline of enlightened self-interest and moral responsibility.
  • Americans had no overall plan. They had something more important. They had personal freedom to plan their own affairs; and the avalanche of human energy resulting from that freedom.
  • This country had been covered by…a tumultuous multitude of free men…living under the weakest government in all the world. The people who had been left to shift for themselves–who had learned the lessons of realism…were creating a new world.
  • Unrestrained majority rule always destroys freedom, puts the minority at the mercy of the mob, and works at cross-purposes to the effective use of human energy and individual initiative.

Henry Grady Weaver’s The Mainspring of Human Progress drew out how poverty was almost everyone’s fate throughout world history until the evolution of capitalism made civilization possible. That is a lesson well worth remembering, because as Weaver put it:

  • One of the best ways to ensure future progress is to keep clearly in mind the things which have been responsible for our past progress, as well as the things which may have kept America from being as great as it might have been.

Powered by WPeMatico