DAVID LILIENTHAL DEFENDS THE TENNESSEE VALLEY AUTHORITY (1939)

 

[TVA Director David Lilienthal wrote the following in praise of this New Deal initiative.]

 

The spirit in which the task is undertaken; its purpose, whether for the wel­fare of the many or the few; the methods chosen--these will determine whether men will live in freedom and peace, whether their resources will be speedily exhausted or will be sustained, nourished, made solid beneath their feet not only for themselves but for the generations to come.

 

The physical achievements that science and technology now make possible may bring no benefits, may indeed be evil, unless they have a moral purpose, unless they are conceived and carried out for the benefit of the people themselves. Without such a purpose, advances in technology may be disastrous to the human spirit; the industrialization of a raw material area may bring to the average man only a new kind of slavery and the destruction of democratic institutions.

 

But such a moral purpose alone is not enough to insure that resource develop­ment will be a blessing and not a curse. Out of TVA experience in this valley I am persuaded that to make such a pur­pose effective two other principles are es­sential. First, that resource development must be governed by the unity of nature herself. Second, that the people must par­ticipate actively in that development.

 

The physical job is going to be done; of that I think we can be sure. But if, in the doing, the unity of nature's resources is disregarded, the price will be paid in exhausted land, butchered forests, pol­luted streams, and industrial ugliness. And, if the people are denied an active part in this great task, then they may be poor or they may be prosperous but they will not be free....

 

The whole point of the TVA experi­ence... is that the best way, perhaps the only way the job can be done effectively is by observing the unity of nature, by following democratic methods, by the ac­tive daily participation of the people them-selves....

 

We have a choice. There is the im­portant fact. Men are not powerless; they have it in their hands to use the machine to augment the dignity of human exist­ence. True, they may have so long denied themselves the use of that power to de­cide, which is theirs, may so long have meekly accepted the dictation of bosses of one stripe or another or the ministrations of benevolent nursemaids, that the mus­cles of democratic choice have atrophied. But that strength is always latent; history has shown how quickly it revives. How we shall use physical betterment--that decision is ours to make. We are not car­ried irresistibly by forces beyond our con­trol, whether they are given some mystic term or described as the “laws of eco­nomics.” We are not inert objects on a wave of the future.

 

Except for saints and great ascetics, I suppose most people would agree that poverty and physical wretchedness are evils, in and of themselves. But because extreme poverty is an evil it does not follow that a comfortable or a high ma­terial standard of living is good. A Ten­nessee Valley farm wife who now has an electric pump that brings water into her kitchen may or may not be more generous of spirit, less selfish, than when she was forced to carry her water from the spring day after day. A once destitute sharecropper who now has an interesting fac­tory job at good wages and lives in a comfortable house in town may or may not be more tolerant, more rational, more thoughtful of others, more active in com­munity concerns. We all know that some of the least admirable men are found among those who have come up from poverty to a “high standard of living.”

 

Whether happiness or unhappiness, freedom or slavery, in short whether good or evil results from an improved environ­ment depends largely upon how the change has been brought about, upon the methods by which the physical results have been reached, and in what spirit and for what purpose the fruits of that change are used. Because a higher standard of living, a greater productiveness and a command over nature are not good in and of them-selves does not mean that we cannot make good of them, that they cannot be a source of inner strength....

 

Democracy is a literal impossibility without faith that on balance the good in man far outweighs the evil. Every effort to cherish the overtones of human imagina­tion in music, painting, or poetry rests upon that same faith, makes that same assumption. And so it is with what we have been seeking to do in this valley. To call it “materialistic” answers nothing. The rock upon which all these efforts rest is a faith in human beings....

 

There is a . . . widely held objection to such an enterprise as we have seen in this valley. The hideous belief has been spread over the earth that the price of material progress and freedom from want must be the complete surrender of individual freedom. The acceptance of this doctrine has been indeed the principal event of our lifetime. And it remains the faith of the people of Germany and Japan, the most ad­vanced technical nations of the continent of Europe and in all the Orient....

 

The technical results in the Tennessee Valley, the achievements of many kinds of experts, are of course matters of no little importance. But, speaking as an ad­ministrator and a citizen, unless these tech­nical products strengthen the conviction that machines and science can be used by men for their greater individual and spirit­ual growth, then so far as I am concerned the physical accomplishments and the ma­terial benefits would be of dubious value indeed.

 

There are few who fail to see that modern applied science and the machine are threats to the development of the in­dividual personality, the very purpose of democratic institutions. It is for this rea­son that the experience of the last ten years in the valley of the Tennessee is heartening. In this one valley (in some ways the world in microcosm) it has been demonstrated that methods can be devel­oped--methods I have described as grass-roots democracy--which do create an op­portunity for greater happiness and deeper experience, for freedom, in the very course of technical progress. Indeed this valley, even in the brief span of a decade, sup-ports a conviction that when the use of technology has a moral purpose and when its methods are thoroughly democratic, far from forcing the surrender of individ­ual freedom and the things of the spirit to the machine, the machine can be made to promote those very ends.