Book Summary: The Mainspring of Human Progress by Henry Grady Weaver

A book summary of the key ideas from The Mainspring of Human Progress by Henry Grady Weaver, along with informal book notes and favourite quotations.

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The Book in a Nutshell

Throughout history, the greatest leaps forward in economic prosperity have taken place under conditions of freedom and personal responsibility. The opposite is true of societies that have fallen into the trap of pagan fatalism, assuming a single authority can manage human energies and resource allocation for the “social good”. In The Mainspring of Human Progress, Henry Grady Weaver provides a historical and theoretical case for the power of individualism and free enterprise.

Book Summary: The Key Ideas

#1: Human Energy and Personal Freedom. The optimal conditions for human progress are conditions that allow us to most effectively use our human energies. As we – and only we – are in control of our human energy, an environment of freedom and personal responsibility allows us to most effectively deploy that energy.

#2: The Problems of Old-World and New-World Collectivism. The collectivist organisation of society relies on the view that an authority (or even one individual) can effectively organise society for the “greater good”. The result is inevitably the suppression of human energy and individual initiative.

#3: Spurs and Obstacles to Inventive Progress. Creativity doesn’t blossom under conditions of formalized rules and bureaucracy. It thrives under conditions of natural selection. Competition and financial rewards act as a stimuli in the process of invention.

Book Notes: The Key Ideas in Detail

The below are more detailed book notes on the key ideas from The Mainspring of Human Progress by Henry Grady Weaver. These notes are not an endorsement nor a critique. They also do not by any means cover the full breadth of the book and are instead intended as an introduction to the key themes, from which to decide whether to read the full book.

Key Idea #1: Human Energy and Personal Freedom

During the 1850s to 1950s, the United States experienced the greatest improvement in prosperity that the world has ever seen. Driven by technological advancement, Americans experienced an unprecedented uplift in standard of living.

Henry Grady Weaver argues that the simple reason for this progress were conditions that allowed the United States to make the most effective use of their “human energies”. And at the heart of human energy is the issue of freedom and responsibility.

Put simply, everyone is responsible for how they use their human energy:

“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 cannot be separated from responsibility; control is responsibility.”

Throughout history, we have made progress possible by creating tools that extend the uses of human energy in converting natural resources. Over time, these tools have three important effects:

  1. They allow us to use human energy more effectively. In other words, shortening the time and energy needed to complete tasks, build products, etc.
  2. They allow for the specialisation of effort. Production could become specialized according to skills and natural resource endowments by geography.
  3. They foster advances in cooperation. We have improved living conditions through peaceful exchange of goods and services.

Conflict and cooperation are crucial features in the optimal use of human energy, providing a stimulus and incentive for progress. But while they are necessary features of competition and free exchange, they can sometimes feel at the individual level like unnecessary obstacles to achieving our desires.

This consistent view throughout history – that a centralised authority should control human energies as a unit to run things to a desired state – has failed consistently because (1) only the individual can generate human energy and (2) only the individual can control the energy he generates.

Weaver contends that failure to understand these truths about human energy has hindered progress for millennia and led to war, famine and pestilence. But in periods where human energy has been granted the freedom to flourish, it has led to the greatest uplifts in prosperity seen throughout history.

Key Idea #2: The Problems of Old-World and New-World Collectivism

The old-world, fatalistic pagan view assumes that the individual is a helpless and passive participant beneath the decision-making gods. Weaver argues that this type of collectivist view assumes human beings operate like bees, but the reality is far from it:

“To discuss the welfare and responsibilities of society as an abstract whole, as if it were like a bee swarm, 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. There is no short cut!”

The idea of the collectivist organisation of society relies on the view that one authority or figure can take effective responsibility for the “social good”. But it is always dangerous to assume this ideal can be effectively outsourced:

“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 fellow men better than they, as individuals, can run their personal affairs.”

All forms of collectivism, including socialism and communism (which are fundamentally the same thing at different speed), rest on the premise that party supersedes individual. The result is that human energy and individual initiative are suppressed. This leads to poverty and ultimately war, as proven out throughout history.

Human energy has, however, managed to work in “fits and starts” under such regimes. But Weaver suggests that each time some space has been found for humans to apply their energies effectively, government involvement has then slowed or stopped progress.

The right of property ownership is an important example. Without ownership, what incentive do humans have to apply their energies to improve it?

“A thing is not property unless it is owned; and without ownership, there is little incentive to improve it.”

Nonetheless, certain restraints are necessary to ensure humans do not infringe upon the rights of others. Legal restraints play an important role, but only when limited to law and enforcement of laws which ensure human energy can be applied optimally. Extension of laws beyond this basic role does more harm than good.

Under what Weaver describes as the “pagan view”, the pattern has always been the overthrow of one authority in pursuit of some other authority. This is a trap and a perpetual cycle. It is simply a wheel around a static center.

“There has never been but one real revolution. It is the revolution against pagan fatalism – the revolution for human freedom.”

Key Idea #3: Spurs and Obstacles to Inventive Progress

As we track some of the most significant periods of economic progress and decline in history, it is clear that there is a lag effect at play:

“In the progress of a nation, just as in the decline of a nation, there is always a lag between cause and effect.”

The same is true of the inventive progress that underpins much of the periods of progress. But the greatest invention, he argues, is the principle of individual liberty and freedom. It serves as the foundation for all other innovations and provides the context for their full fruition.

“Inventive and scientific talent of a high degree can’t be produced by bureaucratic edict.”

Freedom of choice underpins inventive progress for several reasons:

  • Reward and punishment. Free enterprise provides conditions of attractive and reasonably attainable rewards, with penalties limited to business bankruptcy and personal insecurity. At the other end of the spectrum is totalitarianism, which promises the “reward” of security at expense of freedom, and punishment by the threat of something far more extreme.
  • Competition: “The greater the competition, the better the quality of persons who reach the top.” Genius thrives on rivalry.
  • Rules and regulation. Creativity doesn’t blossom under conditions of formalized rules and bureaucracy. It thrives under conditions of natural selection.

Weaver argues that this is not just a question of material accomplishment in countries that have adopted this model. It is an approach based on the sound moral principle of individual freedom.

The voluntary cooperation between men that has been necessary for America’s progress is in stark contrast to the zero-sum game of the static view of collectivism / pagan fatalism.

The freedom that has catapulted inventive progress forward is always central to producing peace in the long run. Weaver argues that war is driven by the pagan fatalistic view of mankind:

“War is caused by a false notion of human energy, based on the ancient superstition that men and women should be reduced to the status of the beehive. When the majority of people on this earth come to realise that they are free, self-controlling, responsible for their own acts and for their relationships with others, there will be no war.”

Other Quotations

On the power of work and free enterprise:

“There are no substitutes for self-faith, self-reliance, self-development, individual effort, and personal responsibility. Life is no bed of roses. The end of man is not self-indulgence, but achievement. There are no short cuts, no substitutes for work.”

On management of monopolies:

“Double guilt lies at the door of those who propose all-out governmental monopoly as a remedy for the lesser evils of the infrequent private monopoly.”

On the perils of state dependence:

“When people get into the habit of depending on some centralised authority to provide the things which they alone can produce, mob psychology always takes hold, and they flock to the cities.”

On the protection of freedom:

“The dangers of dictatorship must be avoided for all time to come. No one person nor small group of persons must ever be permitted to get too much power; and the minority – even down to the last individual citizen – must be protected against oppression by the majority or by any organized pressure group.”

You can buy the book here. Or for further related reading, try The Road to Serfdom by Friedrich Hayek and The Creature from Jekyll Island by G. Edward Griffin.

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