CLARENCE B. CARSON, IDEAS ON LIBERTY
Originally published July 01, 1962 in the Freeman
Men bent upon tyranny will ever find means at hand for achieving it and justifications for imposing it. The unimaginative, the uncreative, the lazy, and the irresponsible can ever find formidable circumstances to excuse their failures. Whether any given set of circumstances is more favorable to liberty than another is debatable. It is not debatable, however, that conditions change, or that changed circumstances require different approaches to the same goal. Deterministic explanations of human behavior cannot be disposed of by simply denying any importance to circumstances. We front at any given time an imposing array of circumstances in terms of which we must modify our behavior or have it modified for us, react or respond, adjust to or overcome them. Effective action must proceed from an awareness both of enduring and of changing circumstances.
One of the inherent weaknesses of conservatism is its tendency to rely upon whatever is established and instituted, oblivious to the manifold changes that are occurring. At his best, the conservative labors to preserve enduring values; at his worst, he battles to maintain all established practices. Frequently, he stands for the ephemeral and enduring indiscriminately, thus laying himself open to the charge that he fears change and loves the comfort of the familiar. Quite likely, too, conservatives at any time will have among their number those who have established themselves in some favored position, and who wish to see it maintained as a special privilege.
Those whose dominant public concern is with liberty can make common cause with conservatives at one point—their desire to maintain instituted protections of liberty because it is an enduring value. But the task is not now one of simply maintaining liberty; it is in great measure one of restoring it. The posture of the indiscriminate conservative can be a positive hindrance in the latter undertaking. Liberty is a very practical matter. To ignore or gloss over changed circumstances will not help to maintain liberty, but it will play into the hands of those whose programs have resulted in a gradual circumscription of liberty. Twentieth century “liberals” have had the advantage too long of taking potshots at the conservative who would, they say, return to the days of McKinley. The argument from circumstances (and the “necessity” of coming to terms with them) is the most powerful one in the arsenal of the “liberal.” The argument cannot be countered either by ignoring or denouncing it. It can only be met effectively by recognizing the changed conditions of the twentieth century, acknowledging that changed circumstances require different approaches to liberty, and boldly confronting these circumstances with new ideas and programs. An historical purpose can be served also by calling attention to the changed physical conditions in America, for it was in terms of them that reformers advanced their programs and infused America with their ideas.
It is not necessary to embrace a deterministic environmentalism in order to recognize that changed circumstances can alter the conditions of individual liberty. When conditions are simple, the alternatives for choice are more apparent. The fewer people involved in a decision the easier it is for all of them to participate effectively in the decision-making process. Economic independence promotes individual liberty; dependence is a deterrent. As the situation becomes more complex, as men’s lives become more interrelated, as institutions grow in size and complexity, as organizations extend their reach, liberty becomes ever more difficult to maintain. Conversely, it is much easier for tyranny to be subtly extended.
The foundations of American liberty were conceived and laid in an overwhelmingly rural, agrarian, sparsely populated, and informal America. These foundations rested upon premises inherited from the Old World and practices congenial to the New World conditions. There is, of course, no conclusive proof that the belief in individual liberty was simply a product of the American environment, and I doubt that it was. New soil can become the ground for new tyrannies if men are willing. My assumption is that the devotion to liberty grows out of faith, hope, belief, and determination before which conditions may be nothing more than an adjunct.
At any rate, New World conditions offered opportunities congenial to the development of liberty if men’s minds were bent in that direction. This new land offered to the settlers unbounded opportunity to conquer, to build, to change, to create a country, as it were, to their own liking. Early settlers were largely free from the binding fetters of custom, from the necessity to conform to established ways, from many of the prescriptions of class and caste, from most, if not all, of the limitations of an established order.
But the New World not only offered much; it also required much of the settlers. It required strength, courage, ingenuity; it placed great responsibility upon the individual: he must establish order, and he must provide for himself and his own or perish.
So, for intellectual, spiritual, and circumstantial reasons, Americans developed an order in which there was much individual liberty and a corresponding individual responsibility. Social customs arose to abate the loneliness and ameliorate the severity of individual responsibility. They tended to be voluntary in character, and to depend upon cooperation rather than coercion for their working. I have in mind such folkways and customs as house-raisings, housewarmings, hog-killings, quilting bees, cornhuskings, and sitting up with the sick and the dead. In case of severe need occasioned by crop failure, hail, being burned out, the loss of an indispensable cow or horse, neighbors frequently made up an offering to help out. It was customary in the nineteenth century for orphans, the aged, the infirm, the crippled, and the maimed to be cared for by the closest kin among the relatives. When death occurred, the neighbors not only sat up during the period of mourning but also laid out the body, built the coffin as likely as not, dug the grave, and sang at the funeral. Recreation originated in and was participated in by the community: singings, all-day to-do’s, cakewalks, square dances, turkey shoots, fox hunts, debates, fish fries, and picnics.
Rural Americans, that is most Americans before the Civil War, produced most of the necessities of life on the farm and in the home. They grew most of their food, hunted and fished for a portion of their meat, spun their yarn, wove and fashioned homespun clothes, churned their butter, made their soap and the lye that went into it. A family often “got by” with only an occasional trip to the store to purchase spices, salt, powder and shot, and delicacies or trinkets. The farmer was by necessity a jack-of-all-trades, adept at everything from carpentry to wood splitting. The farm wife was expected to be accomplished in everything from fancy needlework to gardening.
I describe neither utopia nor pastoral bliss. There was much hard and lonely work, much suffering; the rains fell on the just and the unjust alike. My point is that here were people who had a way of life built upon independence, who had a significant liberty to dispose of their time and resources, and were profoundly aware of their responsibilities for their own well-being. Self-respect and community respect depended upon maintaining independence. There was something even shameful in having to ask aid of anyone else. Help from others should be volunteered, not asked for.
Civil War—A Dividing Line
The Civil War can be and often has been taken as the dividing line between the old and the new America—as that point at which such diverse and multitudinous changes began to spread across America that we can profitably speak of a qualitative change in the conditions of American life. As one historian states it, “Our nation of 1865 was a nation of farmers, city artisans, and industrious independent business men, and small scale manufacturers…. In this period before the Civil War comparatively small single owners, or frequently copartnerships, controlled practically every industrial field.”1 After the Civil War there emerged an increasingly industrialized, urbanized, and mechanized America.
It is neither practical nor necessary to trace out in detail the multitudinous changes that have occurred affecting the condition of Americans since the Civil War. It will be useful, however, to consider some of them in detail and to suggest the impact of others. I shall focus upon those developments which have been attended by increasing dependency, ramifying interdependency, growing complexity, and a circumscription of the area of choice of the individual. My purpose will be threefold: to show that the conditions within which liberty could possibly be maintained have changed, to indicate the bearing of changes upon the individual’s view of his chances for free choice, and to lay bare the circumstantial background which made “liberal” programs appear necessary and desirable.
While the Civil War and developments attendant upon it did not start the train of events and developments which were to circumscribe the individual, it did accentuate and accelerate some of them. The outcome of the war practically determined that the union was indissoluble, that states having once joined it were subject to national decisions. The constitutional amendments adopted in consequence of the war greatly extended the scope of the central government. The Fourteenth Amendment made citizenship national, forbade states to violate the privileges of any citizen (thus laid the foundation for federal courts to provide rights). The Fifteenth Amendment extended the role of the national government into the determination of who should vote. The war and reconstruction made force a part of the character of the United States; no one could now correctly maintain that the union was voluntary. The extension of the powers of the national government created a greater force at a further remove from the individual, made government more impersonal, and made it less likely that an individual could alter its course.
Unprepared for Freedom
The difficulties of the freed Negro may demonstrate to some extent the difficulties of achieving liberty in that postwar United States. On the face of it, the freeing of the Negro was a gain for liberty in the United States. But most Negroes were unprepared for this giant step into freedom, and the hard truth is that they frequently traded slavery for peonage. Much of their new-found freedom was lost in the share-crop and supply system which emerged in the South to replace the slave-plantation system. By the end of the nineteenth century the Negro, more often than not, was politically disfranchised, socially segregated, and economically encumbered. He became one of the several elements of the population receptive to the appeal of government provided “independence.”
If the Negro made some gains relative to his former condition, the white people in the South lost in independence during and after Reconstruction. Both as a result of governmental attempts to make over the South and because of the fall in prices of farm products, many white men were reduced to tenant farming. The trend toward white tenancy mounted through the years. “In 1900 about 36 per cent of all white farmers in Dixie belonged to these classes. In 1930 the proportion had gone up… to about 45 per cent.”2 Negroes and whites became competitors at the same level for the available land.
The Southern white man alleviated, to some extent, the threat of submergence by the Negro by developing industries which were usually closed to the Negro. But in so doing the Southerner frequently traded the dependence of the tenant for that of the factory and mineworker. If anything, the factory worker was more dependent upon the mill operator than the tenant had been upon the landlord. Frequently he lived in a company house, bought necessities at the company store, was “protected” by the company police, sent his children to the company school, and attended a church subsidized by the company.
The national agricultural situation followed a similar, though less dramatic, pattern. The farmer’s independence was being drained away by declining prices, heavy shipping and machinery costs, and increasing indebtedness. In the 1890′s, 27 per cent of American farms were mortgaged, and by 1910 the proportion had increased to 33 per cent. Farm tenantry was rising nationally: in 1880, 25 per cent of American farms were cultivated by tenants; by 1910 the figure had risen to 37 per cent.3
The period from 1865 to 1890 had been one of unprecedented agricultural and westward expansion (a major reason for the surplus in farm products which drove prices downward), of the occupation of new lands, of gold and silver rushes, of the building of cattle empires and the massacre of buffalo for their hides, of the expropriation of resources and the filling out of the West. Opportunity did not end abruptly in 1890, but the surface resources that had drawn men westward were owned and being utilized. The fertile land had been claimed; the range land was being fenced; the buffalo had been killed. Some Americans became aware that our resources were not limitless, and Congress passed the first conservation laws. This change in conditions set the stage for the belief that the ownership and control of property—and its use and abuse—by some men was a threat to others.
Private Fortunes Accumulated
Momentous economic changes occurred between 1865 and 1900. It was a period of rampant rugged individualism, of the accumulation of great fortunes in steel, meat, oil, silver, and rails, of the concentration of wealth in the hands of powerful individuals, of the spanning of the continent by railroad and telegraph, of wild stock market coups, of prosperity and depression. According to one report, the wealthiest man in New York was worth $6 million in1855. When Cornelius Vanderbilt died in 1877, he left a fortune of $104 million. Andrew Carnegie sold his steel interests in the early twentieth century for stocks and bonds valued at $492 million.4
Many rugged individualists used their wealth and manipulative skill to form monopolies and trusts. When Standard Oil Company, the first great trust, was formed in 1870 there were twenty-five independent refineries in Cleveland. In two years Standard absorbed all but five of these. “By 1874 the greatest refineries in New York and Philadelphia had likewise merged their identity with his [Rockefeller’s] own. When Rockefeller began his acquisition, there were thirty independent refineries operating in Pittsburgh, all of which, in four or five years, passed one by one under his control. The largest refineries of Baltimore surrendered in 1875.”5 Thus did smaller enterprises succumb to absorption by the giants.
It is doubtful that individuals acting alone would have been able to gain virtual control of whole industries. Rockefeller combined his wealth and acumen with that of other men to form his predatory trust. Many of the great railroads were built with funds subscribed by numerous individuals, groups, towns, and states. Furthermore, while governments rarely interfered with business operations in the late nineteenth century, they did actively aid and assist them in a variety of ways. There were tariffs, patents, franchises, and injunctions available to the fortunate, and some railroads received large grants of land and huge government loans. Combinations of capital could operate throughout the United States under the frequently uninhibitory charters of a single state. The courts, instead of acting to limit the activities of combinations, extended their protection over them: the Supreme Court ruled (Santa Clara Co. v. Southern Pacific R. R. Co.) that a corporation was a person in the sense implied in the Fourteenth Amendment. It was these conditions—government aid and protection with a minimum of restriction—which made possible the great concentrations of wealth and power.°
Following upon and accompanying industrialization and the nationalization of business was a tremendous increase in nonagricultural and industrial workers. In 1860 there were 4,325,116 nonagricultural workers in the United States; in 1900 there were 18,161,235, a more than fourfold increase. Whatever else may be said for the “blue collar” and “white collar” workers, who made up an increasing proportion of these nonagricultural laborers, they were usually dependent and exposed when depressions and layoffs came. More often than not, they had neither land, property, nor insurance to fall back upon in adversity. Moreover, employment was uncertain: it fluctuated drastically in depressions such as those of the 1870′s and 1890′s (not to mention the 1930′s), and in recessions in 1884, 1893, and 1907. Financial panics and depressions were not new to this time, but their impact was much more widespread and devastating than they had been in an earlier America when men were apt to be less dependent upon one another.
Urbanization a Factor
Accompanying and related to industrialization and the increase of industrial workers was the rise of the city in the late nineteenth century. Though rural still outnumbered urban inhabitants, one historian says: “In America in the eighties urbanization for the first time became a controlling factor in national life. Just as the plantation was the typical product of the antebellum Southern system and the small farm of the Northern agricultural order, so the city was the supreme achievement of the new industrialism.”?
So many problems which concern only the individual or the family in rural areas are a common and collective concern in the city. If a farmer in a rural area has a pigpen near the house, only he and his family are likely to suffer, but for a man to keep pigs in the city may offend the nostrils of all those within a city block. City life provided the circumstantial background for much of the regulatory legislation of the twentieth century, which increasingly circumscribed the liberty of the individual.
Urban living has affected liberty, too, by obscuring the reality within which American liberty was conceived. The farmer is in daily contact with a reality of conditions which he did not create and some of which he is impotent to alter. The rains fall or the drought deepens; the frost comes early or the hail destroys the crops. The city dweller lives in contact with no such obvious constraining reality. The conditions of his existence are mostly manmade, hence apparently alterable at will. He is easy prey to the idea that he alone creates wealth, or that whatever is wrong can be corrected by governmental action. He seeks scapegoats in adversity and worships heroes in prosperity. If the farmer too is susceptible to these attitudes, it may be indicative of the fact that he derives more and more of his opinions from the city via the mass media of communication.
The few developments I have discussed in some detail are only a beginning and a sampling of that totality of circumstances that surround the individual in the twentieth century. The huge immigration that poured into America in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century swelled the population of Eastern cities with near destitute inhabitants, many of them illiterate even in their own tongues, having come from lands without traditions of representative government, used to paternalistic arrangements, and whose conception of democracy was frequently vitiated with socialism and anarchism. Enterprising individuals in the early twentieth century sometimes found the sources of capital closed to them by a virtual “money trust.”8 An international order which had generally kept the peace in the nineteenth century swiftly deteriorated in the twentieth, and we have been confronted with total war and its attendant circumscription of the liberty of the individual. The development of the mass media of communication has provided means for subtle and vulgar manipulation of the individual—both by governments and by private concerns—unprecedented in the history of man. Standardization, rationalization, and mechanization are abstractions standing for practices used by ever larger organizations in the twentieth century to alter the context within which human liberty could be realized.
It is to simplify, but there is much validity to the view that the individual has been dwarfed by nationalized, consolidated, and centralized businesses; swallowed up in giant corporations, vast bureaucracies, and huge armies, battered by total war, economic depressions, governmental and business propaganda; made apparently insignificant by his life in impersonal cities; replaced by the machine, or required to adjust to its demands; baffled by the complexity of the operations in the world in which he lives; manipulated by salesmen, advertisers, politicians, announcers, and assorted confidence men.
The Growth of Organizations
How has he reacted or responded to these pressures and conditions? In the broadest terms, the response can be suggested figuratively. To begin, man acts in a strange and sometimes irrational but an almost always consistent manner when confronted by forces that are, or appear to be, beyond his control. He seeks company in his fear and impotence, to lose himself within some group or in the mass of humanity, to submerge himself in something larger than himself. What man, confronted by some natural phenomenon posing a threat to himself—say an oncoming storm—has not wished for the warmth and companionship of the family circle? It is the gathering of friends which assuages the pangs of grief when some member of the family is claimed by death.
The developments we have been considering do not appear upon analysis to be natural phenomena. But they took on something of the same sort of inevitable coloration. It was the relative incomprehensibility of the developments which made them so formidable to the individual. What man does not comprehend, he cannot control. Furthermore, that which is beyond the individual’s comprehension appears to be a force beyond the control of man. Giant corporations, complex mechanical operations, big government which could be heard and felt but not seen, made it appear that these behemoths acted with a will of their own, resisting the interference of a mere man. Probably these conditions came nearer to convincing men that things were determined outside of and beyond their control than any subtle theory could have done.
Men reacted, then, by joining together in groups: labor unions, business associations, secret societies, patriotic organizations, pressure groups, farm organizations, and cooperatives. These, in turn, became a menace to individual liberty. Witness, for example, the plight of the unorganized worker as an individual pitted against the combined force of organized men in a union. This condition added more fuel to the fire of demands for government mediation and regulation.
This account is only in part valid. The story of man differs from that of the story of lower animals. Man does not simply react to circumstances; he formulates theories and explanations and acts upon them. He is guided and directed by his interpretations, beliefs, and assumptions. It is not my contention that the course that American history took was inevitable nor that it was simply a reaction to circumstances. On the contrary, circumstances provided the favorable soil for the seeds of ideas planted by reformers of the time we have been considering. Conditions lent an air of plausibility to interpretations that were made of them. My point here is that there were new circumstances that posed problems for traditional concepts of American liberty, that these conditions provided a backdrop for reform efforts, and that failure to take them fully into account by defenders of liberty has led us into the present morass.
1 Burton J. Hendrick, The Age of Big Business (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1919), pp. 2-3, 6-7.
2 Wilbur J. Cash, The Mind of the South (Garden City: Doubleday, 1954), p. 283.
3 T. Harry Williams, Richard N. Current and Frank Friedel, A History of the United States (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1959), II, 172-79.
4 Hendrick, op. cit., pp. 10, 19, 84.
5 Ibid p. 36.
6 I refrain from entering into the debate as to whether these developments produced more “good” or “evil.” Such questions are usually answered within a framework of assumptions—pragmatic, materialistic, and the belief that man has sufficient knowledge to make such judgments—which I do not share. My interest in these developments here is restricted to them as they became circumstances of liberty.
7 Arthur M. Schlesinger, The Rise of the City (New York: Macmillan, 1933), p. 79.
8 The “money trust” was a term used in the early twentieth century to describe the dominant position of the Rockefellers and Morgan of major American financial institutions. The Pujo Committee reported in 1913: “If by a ‘money trust’ is meant an established and well-defined identity and community of interest between a few leaders of finance… your committee… has no hesitation in asserting… that the condition thus described exists in this country to-day.” [Quoted in Harold U. Faulkner, The Quest for Social Justice (New York: Macmillan, 1931), pp. 46-47.]
Editor’s Note: This essay first appeared in the July 01, 1962 issue of THE FREEMAN. Copyright © 2013 Foundation for Economic Education. All rights reserved. Used with the permission
Clarence B. Carson was a frequent contributor to THE FREEMAN, and was Professor of History at Grove City College in Pennsylvania.