The Opinion Research Corporation (ORC), still a leading polling company today, was one of the pollsters that made a case for the need for the ‘economic education’ that the Ad Council and others provided, and then later assessed the effectiveness of that ‘education’ on their behalf. In 1947 the ORC argued:
In the past few years it has been abundantly demonstrated that industry can operate under a system of competitive capitalism only if the public gives it support. Whether ten years from now the public will support capitalism or socialism depends importantly on what is being taught in America’s schoolrooms today.
Various studies were made of high school students to prove that they were ignorant of economics and the fundamentals of the American economic system and needed economic education. However these studies were essentially surveys of how strongly business values were held in the community rather than the objective studies of economic knowledge they purported to be. The sorts of questions that school students were asked, for example, were presented as questions of ‘fact’, however the answers required value judgements to be made as can be seen by the sample of questions below. The ‘correct’ answers are shown with a tick:
On the whole, workers make more money today than they did thirty years ago.
( ) But they are worse off because prices have gone up
( ) They are a little better off, but not much
( ) They are about 25% better off
(✓) They are about 75% better off
Money invested in new machinery and equipment has increased output. The workers have got some of the increase but the larger share has gone to the owners.
( ) I agree
(✓) I disagree
The wealth of this county is becoming more and more concentrated in the hands of the wealthiest 10% of the families
( ) True
In which of these industries is there practically no competition, or very little?
( ) Steel industry
( ) Automobile industry
( ) Oil industry
( ) Rubber industry
( ) Chemical industry
( ) Radio-television industry
The most secure jobs for employees are found in companies that....
( ) Share profits with their employees
(✓) Make steady profits
( ) Pay high wages
( ) Have the most liberal benefits
Consumers don’t have much influence on prices. Companies set the price and the customer has to pay it.
( ) I agree
(✓) I disagree
The most practical way for workers to increase their standard of living is for....
(✓) All workers to produce more
( ) All workers to get more of the money companies are already making
If Social Security benefits are increased -- say about double the present amount -- the workers can be sure of a secure old age.
( ) I agree
(✓) I disagree
Not surprisingly when given these same tests, executives scored much better than teachers or high school students.
In a series of such studies the ORC repeatedly found school students to be ‘weak in economic understanding’ in key areas. The low scores, claimed the ORC, indicated ‘a high state of confusion and a serious lack of information’ and ‘untutored opinion’. The ORC stated that ‘achieving a good score’ not only required knowledge of basic historical facts but also ‘a respect for the principles of individual freedom upon which our society is constructed’.
In actual fact such questions merely tested the degree to which high school students opinions coincided with those of business people and conservative ideologues. Erroneous thinking amongst students was indicated by findings that the majority of senior students believed that virtual monopolies of one or two companies existed in some industries, that most companies make a profit in an average year, that owners get too much profits and that owners got most of the gains from new machinery. Only a minority of seniors chose ‘keeping the profit incentive alive’ as being essential to survival of the American economic system.
Worst of all, from a business point of view, over half of the students agreed with the Marxist statement: ‘The fairest economic system is one that ‘takes from each according to his ability’ and gives to each ‘according to his needs’.’ This was even though most teachers disagreed with the statement. The failure of students ‘to see through this Marxist doctrine’ was taken to be evidence of ‘how little high school Seniors comprehend the fundamentals of our system.’
It was economic ignorance, ORC claimed, that led to an anti-business bias. Thus, corrective education and propaganda was necessary and was aimed at schools, universities, company employees and also the public in general.
The ORC also argued that corrective education and propaganda was necessary to undermine the faith of the community in government and regulation:
The stress our high schools place on American history and government leads teenagers to believe that a government directed economy, since it operates for the benefit of all, will best assure social and economic justice....
Young people’s support for enlarging the role of government in our lives is not likely to change without economics instruction.
Whilst surveys found that workers recognised the importance of freedom, they also found that those same workers looked to government as protectors of freedom rather than a threat to it and this was of concern to business people who wanted minimal government regulation. For example, a 1952 ORC survey found that 80 percent of manual workers said the main advantage of living in the USA was that people were free—free to speak, worship and vote as they chose and work where they chose. But what was of concern to businessmen was that these workers were complacent about these freedoms, they were ‘asleep to the chipping away of freedoms’ and did not understand the ‘necessity for unceasing vigilance’. The researchers noted: ‘Few workers view the government as anything but the benevolent protector of their rights. The idea that tyranny can come through government is not broadly recognized.’
This meant, according to the ORC, that whilst workers were opposed to socialism they ‘may well vote it in piece by piece’ seeking the end advantage of each measure but without realising the ‘loss of freedom entailed’ in the means of attaining it. For example they approved of social security, price controls and unions in terms of the benefits for themselves. The lesson that the ORC suggested needed to be learned from this was that education needed to help workers redefine freedom in terms of means rather than ends.
The ORC argued that ‘ignorance and lack of understanding of how the business system works go hand in hand with a willingness to vote for measures that undermine the system.’ Clearly it was best to correct such ignorance at school. School children, it found were more likely to view regulation of business and government control of prices favourably but this could be corrected with simple ‘education’.
For example, after being taken on a three day ‘Dollars at Work’ tour of various plants and offices which were scripted and carefully planned, ‘appreciable numbers changed their minds’ on issues such as government control and the share of income that the worker gets. Similar changes in attitude were also noted after being shown a film entitled Productivity or a comic book on productivity. And the ORC concluded that ‘far from charging industry with ‘Propaganda’ school children enjoy learning about industry through these new techniques.’
Part of the aim of all this ‘education’ was to get people used to the idea that ‘it is an appropriate part of business’s role in democracy to judge what beliefs we must hold in order to be ‘economically educated’.’ They juxtaposed personal, political and economic freedom, arguing that constraints on economic freedom were tantamount to reducing personal and political freedom and that those who sought to ‘intervene excessively in the play of market forces,’ however well intentioned they might be, posed a major threat to all those freedoms. Criticism of the economic system amounted to subversion of the political system.