Individual Liberty in the Crucible of History, Part 6
CLARENCE B. CARSON, IDEAS ON LIBERTY
But Surely, I will be told, even if a rebirth of liberty were needed, now is not the time for it. What we need in these times, says the critic, are unity and strength. Surely, it is unwise to cast doubts upon the benevolence of our government and to divide our people by calling for a return to liberty. Besides, times have changed, and we must adjust to and go forward with them. The trend everywhere today is toward socialism and collectivism, and Americans must adapt to the actual world within which they live. Even if it were possible to “turn back the clock,” what would our socialistic allies think of the effort? Speak to us not of individual liberty but of collective security, for the latter is what our age requires. Let us shed a tear for the passing of individualism and merge ourselves once more with the spirit of the times and join in the collective effort.
Can there be an effective reply to this propagated “wisdom” of our era? Is it possible to restore liberty, to return to the path from which we have wandered? Is individual liberty practical in these complex and disordered times? If these questions could be answered affirmatively, would it be possible to arouse people from their apathy and unconcern with liberty?
The Right Time
But when, let us ask, were the times right for liberty? Surely, no one will say that they were right in 1776. Read again Thomas Paine’s description of the world situation in that year: “Every spot of the Old World is overrun with oppression. Freedom has been hunted round the globe. Asia and Africa have long expelled her. Europe regards her like a stranger, and England has given her warning to depart.”
Grant that Paine may have been guilty of exaggeration, for his report was not that of a sober reporter but of a man on fire for liberty and independence. Yet a historian can only modify the judgment and eliminate the exaggeration, not deny its validity entirely. Continental European countries were generally ruled by despots, though some of them were called enlightened. The French Estates General had not met in the memory of any living man. Spain was well on the way of its long day’s journey into night. The
English monarch, George III, was attempting to reassert the declining authority of the English crown. There was not a major republic anywhere in the world. Were these propitious times for liberty?
Historians, with that particular distortion which they almost invariably bring to the past, have, of course, presented a rather different picture of the eighteenth century. They see that people were being sensitized and made ready for liberty by the Enlightenment, by the works of philosophers and scholars, by the thrust of merchants for economic freedom, and by a rising tide of discontent. Yet even as late as 1760 there was no discernible rising tide of discontent even in America. Nor were there many signs of greater political sensitivity. Voting records for the mid-eighteenth century indicate that even among those who could vote in elections only a minority did.
We read now of the works of John Locke, Voltaire, Adam Smith, Montesquieu, and Jean Jacques Rousseau. But suppose events and developments had taken a different course? It is likely the memory of some of these men would not have survived their day. Thomas Paine might have been only a “misguided” polemicist, had things turned out differently.
Who are the great economists of our day? Shall we remember John Maynard Keynes and John Kenneth Galbraith? Or will historians fasten one day on the seminal work of Ludwig von Mises and F. A. Hayek? The libertarian movement which today appears virtually insignificant may one day be studied by historians as a sign of a rising tide of freedom. Stranger things than this have happened in the past.
I do not predict what will happen in the future. Nor will I accept the predictions of others as to what will be. So far as I know, the future is undetermined. I do know with certainty that at one time in the past America ceased adjusting to the world of its time. Americans did not follow the trend of Europe but led it. And the example of Americans breaking with the leadership of Europe and striking out on their own encouraged and emboldened other men who longed for freedom. How daring it was in 1776 to throw off monarchy, in 1787 to conceive a Constitution for which there was no model, and to rest the government finally upon the consent of the governed! Was it the times that wrought these things? Or was it Patrick Henry, Thomas Jefferson, Samuel Adams, John Adams, Richard Henry Lee, George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and those others who struck a responsive chord in the hearts of Americans and guided that response toward the achievement of liberty and independence? I incline to the latter view myself.
But if Americans are unconcerned and apathetic today, leaders would be of no avail, even were they to speak out. It may be, as the critics say, that there is among us little enthusiasm for public undertakings. This may, however, be a hopeful rather than a discouraging sign for liberty. It may mean nothing more than that men are unenthusiastic about welfare programs, that they have tired of a never-ending expediency, that they are weary of vulgar appeals to self-interest narrowly conceived.
Tired of Reform
Man does not live by bread alone, and materialistic politicians and leaders may be subsisting today on the dregs of appeals which have lost their evocative power. The man with a two-car garage may endure grudgingly yet another proposal to extend social security but be ready and eager to stand for something which will ennoble him and restore meaning to his life. Letters-to-the-editor suggest that there may be millions of Americans who have not yet forfeited the faith of their fathers, who remember still the meaning of liberty and long to see it restored and revitalized.
Could it be that it is the intellectuals and politicians who are out of step? It is possible that words like Liberty, Truth, and Justice might awaken a glad response, had we men with the courage to use them and the sturdiness to exemplify them. Apathy may well be the end product of a stultifying welfare state.
The Path to Recovery
Is it possible to get off the road to collectivism and return to the path of liberty? I think so. As I said in the first article of this series, we must retrace our steps if we are to restore liberty in America. This is the least difficult of changes of direction to take. It is the way of rededication, not revolution; of restoration, not innovation; of a return to the tried and true, not an embarking into the unknown.
Superficially, the return to liberty should be easy for Americans. The United States Constitution—the bulwark of our liberty—still provides the higher law in this Republic. Technically it does, anyhow. There have been some regrettable amendments to it, notably the Fourteenth and Sixteenth, and numerous dubious court decisions. But the restoration of liberty can be made within the constitutional framework and would involve to considerable extent a return to that document.
Then, too, there is a great tradition of liberty, for which America was once known round the world. That tradition embraces such concepts as constitutional government, government by law rather than by men, representative government, separation of powers within the government, limited government, and certain inalienable rights belonging to man. These are concepts and principles that can serve as mighty levers for the protection and extension of liberty.
But concepts, institutions, and documents are of little use if men have lost faith in liberty. It is useless to talk of a return to the Constitution if that return is not preceded and accompanied by a vital faith. Faith is essential to all human undertakings for the following reasons : (1) Human knowledge is always limited, partial, and subjected to distorted interpretations resulting from human frailty. (2) Such knowledge as we attain can only be had by a faith that we can obtain it. (3) Faith must precede the works by which we test the validity of our hypotheses. (4) Insofar as we would know of ultimate ends and results, our knowledge is based entirely upon faith.
Faith alone can restore the meaning and urgency to liberty that would cause it to blossom once more in America. Why does liberty matter anyhow? Can it be pragmatically—that is, in terms of its immediate results—justified? There are those who argue that liberty produces material and social benefits, and they appeal to reason and history to support their point of view. But there are others—probably more numerous—who point up the inequalities that result from liberty, who emphasize the unhappiness and warped lives that result from deprivation, who declare that production—which they concede might be advanced by liberty—is no longer the problem. Liberty, they say, is of no account to men who are hungry. The liberty of some must be reduced so that the happiness of all may be advanced. The pragmatic defenders of liberty say this is not so, and retire behind a barrage of statistics to prove their contention. But alas, there are statistics and statistics, and the lesson of history is neither so plain nor human vision so clear that any one answer must be accepted.
Even if the pragmatic defenders of liberty were right, and liberty will provide the most goods with the most equitable distribution in the long run, they would be answered by a Harry Hopkins that men do not eat in the long run. More, it is doubtful that the materialistic argument can give that urgency to liberty that can foster its restoration. Today we may be eating the remains of the goose that laid the golden egg, but so long as we are well-fed, not many of us will be concerned to notice it or have the vision to comprehend its meaning.
Man is a Moral Being
But there is a higher, nobler, and more forceful justification for liberty, before which materialistic explanations pale. It is simply this : man is a moral being. His existence has ethical and spiritual dimensions which give it ultimate meaning. The moral character of his life is evinced in the making of choices. Liberty is that condition within which choices can be made and spiritual growth take place. The greater the degree of liberty the larger the latitude for choice and growth. To put it negatively, when liberty is reduced and taken away, the moral character of human action is limited and the opportunities for growth are diminished.
Within this framework, social planning becomes not simply a debatable method of achieving the production and distribution of goods but rather a diabolical assault upon the meaning and significance of human existence. For social planning reduces the area of individual decision and choice. This is so whether the planning is done by a dictator or democratically by a vote of the whole people. The actions of societies and governments have moral consequences, but neither societies nor governments are moral in any significant sense. The ultimate significance of human morality lies in an eternal realm to which no entrance has been promised societies and governments.
There are those who agree that man is a moral being, but who maintain that this is the very justification of their social programs. They want to free man from those economic urgencies which stunt his character and absorb his life.
In order to do this, they take away from all men those liberties by which they produce and distribute goods and relieve men of much of their responsibility for providing for themselves. They introduce a vast immorality into human relations—by taking from those who produce and giving to those who do not—and wonder at the rise of juvenile delinquency, the spread of crime, and the blight of corruption in government. They remove some of the main props of the family and describe the disintegration of the family as a transition.
When men are still not entirely good, they proceed to make them good by legislation. They enact compulsory attendance laws for school children, make plans for teaching morality in the schools, lobby for prohibitions upon the sale of firearms, alcoholic beverages, certain kinds of literature, and gasp in horror at the “intolerance” which they have bred.
Once set upon this road of making man good by law, they apparently will find no place to turn back until they have removed all opportunities to do evil. But in this, too, they are frustrated at every step. For the agencies they invent to control man for good fall into the hands of those who use them for selfish and evil ends.
All of this could have been, and no doubt was, predicted in advance. Man was so created that he cannot be made good. Goodness, as men know it, is an option of man. It depends upon free choice and voluntary commitment. He needs all the choices and responsibilities that can befall him to remain sensitive to the problem and practiced in the right response. Remove the responsibilities that are by rights those of a man and you take away the most immediate incentives for right choice. There is visible evidence of the truth of these remarks, but their full meaning must be approached from a deep faith.
Those who have such a faith are ready to learn the other steps to be taken for a rebirth of liberty. From this vantage point we can restore the foundations of American liberty. “The three basic foundations of our liberty are,” as I said, ” (1) beliefs which support it, (2) institutions which protect it, and (3) personal independence without which it is meaningless and impossible.” The fundamental beliefs of the founders of American liberty were, as I pointed out in the first article of this series : belief in “natural law, freedom of the mind and will, individual responsibility, and rationalism. These in turn were given evocative power by the belief that there is a God who imbedded his immutable laws in the visible universe, that the individual has a worth not measurable in human terms, that each individual’s good is inseparable from the general welfare, and that liberty is priceless for the individual and socially beneficial.”
Are these still viable beliefs? Or have they now been discredited by scientific and psychological findings? I have shown how the belief in reason was undermined by an emphasis upon irrational motives, how freedom of the mind and will were undercut by deterministic theories, how individual responsibility was left stranded when freedom no longer seemed possible, and how new ideas were brought forward to replace the old by men with a collectivistic bent.
The Same Old Ideas
But was there anything new in all these ideas except the “scientific” trappings within which they were purveyed? Surely it is no recent discovery that man is a creature of passions. What philosopher, ancient or modern, has not noted and remarked upon it? Were not the great Greek philosophers all too conscious of the tendency of man to yield to unreason? For what did saints and monks go aside from the world and mortify the flesh if it was not to subdue these unruly passions? Nor is it a new notion that all material existence is contingent and dependent. Even the belief that all things are in a state of continual change was advanced by one of the earliest of philosophers. The great achievements of thought have been not the recognition of the obviously changing but of the subtly enduring; not the portraying of the patently ephemeral but the distinguishing of the eternal amidst the flux; not the discovery of relationship and contingency but the perception of ultimate freedom; not the describing of the tendency of man to yield to passions but the working out of reason by which he might overcome them.
A Capacity for Reason
The case for reason is not based upon the belief that man is always reasonable but upon the view that he is capable of using reason. The claim for requiring reason in polite discourse is not that it is the sole or even the most important motive in human behavior but that reason alone can be profitably dealt with in discourse. Indeed, reason is not a motive at all but a method. Irrationalists have made much of reason as a motive—in order to discredit it—but they simply set up a straw man when they do so. When men have to cast their selfish aims in the language of reason, they put the best possible face upon them and have to leave them at the mercy of rational analysis. If they will not stand up in discourse, they should and possibly will be discarded. That men are capable of reasoning and submitting to the best reason is the only real justification of political discourse and debate. This is as true today as it was 2,000 years ago. The case for liberty does not hinge upon man’s actual freedom at any given time. Rousseau was drastically wrong: man is not born free. He is from the moment of conception dependent upon someone else for sustenance, and there is reason to believe that as the infant ages, it becomes more emotionally dependent. We are all subjected to inner passions and outer influences and pressures. No, man is not born free, but perchance he may become progressively free. It is for this end that liberty is important. A man may, by exercising choice and initiative, become relatively independent of others for his livelihood. By so doing, it was once believed and may still be true, he can become practiced in those ways that make for moral and spiritual independence. (But let us not claim too much for man. The religious heritage of Christians proclaims that ultimate freedom as a spiritual condition depends upon the Grace of God. The increasing dependency and pervasiveness of doctrines of social dependency gives weight to this position in our day in which men are not noted for piety.) At any rate, it is only by the exercise of choice that man expresses his freedom.
It was not the newness nor even their apparently scientific character that gave such impetus to doctrines of determinism and irrationalism. It was rather the context within which they came. Romantics had taught that nature was good. If this be accepted as a universal, then everything that can be shown to subsist in nature should be accepted as good. Thus, if man was irrational by nature, if he was dependent by nature, then these should be accepted and yielded to. This position introduced a confusion into thought from which we have not yet recovered. It is also a vast simplification of man, the universe, and its meaning.
Here is not the place, however, to disentangle all the knotty issues about nature which have been introduced in the last two centuries. Suffice it to say that the belief in natural law and natural rights can be held without believing that nature is good in human terms. A child can fall to its death from a cliff through the operations of the law of gravity. As such, there is no moral issue involved in this : it is neither good nor bad, though it may be almost unbearably sad to those who have lost the child. Morality enters the picture when willed human action does. If some-one pushed the child from the cliff, then he was the doer of the evil action, not the law of gravity. Obedience to natural law is one thing; yielding to natural impulses is another. The first is expedient and wise; the second may be neither. Neither natural law nor natural rights are the cause of our morality. They are conditions within which morality occurs. Once we have committed an act, natural law may extend it to an end which we did not foresee or will. It is in this sense that natural law is thought to reflect the will of God. Here, too, it is that the attempt to go contrary to natural (divine) law is punished and brought to naught. It is within such a framework that natural rights can have meaning and the belief in them defended. But why use so much space writing of theoretical matters? Why not speak rather of practical matters? After all, liberty is a practical consideration. Faith and beliefs are practical matters also. Try to restore liberty in America without faith and belief and you will have revolution rather than government by law. Try to convince a man who lacks faith in liberty that we should revoke the privileged status of organized labor, remove the acreage allotments and price supports from agriculture, dismiss the boards and commissions which hold so much arbitrary power over business activity, and repeal the vast accretions of social legislation. He might agree with you that liberty would be desirable, but he would be appalled by the vision of sweated labor, crop surpluses and declining farm prices, concentrated wealth in the hands of the few, “cutthroat” competition, millions unemployed, hungry, ill-fed, ill-clothed, and with inadequate medical care. Will liberty work? It might, but the risks are too great to try it.
My point is that we can only persuade men to return to liberty when we can persuade them that there is something at issue worth suffering and dying for, that there are ultimate issues involved. Supported by such a faith, men can recapture the faith and regain the experience that liberty will work. But it will work only to the extent that men are devoted to making it work. That worker will be paid low wages who does not exert himself to attract a higher offer. Those men who band together in a union and strike will find themselves without jobs if they cannot convince the employer that he stands to lose more by giving up their experience than he will gain by the lower wages of those he employs. The farmer will find his income diminished with the loss of price supports if he does not turn to the production of scarce crops that will net him a better return.
Times Have Changed
But circumstances have changed since the eighteenth century, the defender of the status quo will say, and the liberty that was appropriate to those times is no longer practical. Circumstances have changed, indeed. I have been at some pains to point them out. We live in a country that becomes increasingly urbanized and industrialized. Independence is much more difficult to achieve and maintain today than it was in 1800. The economy is much more intricately interrelated, and the inhabitants of the land more interdependent. The mass media play upon us with advertising and propaganda. World-wide problems beset us.
But are these arguments against liberty? They might rather be powerful arguments for liberty. Complexities require more knowledge and better understanding for operating within them, not arbitrary protections from them. To protect a man from the consequences of living in his society is to support him in his ignorance and ineffectiveness. When circumstances change, those who are devoted to liberty will think of new ways to protect it and defend it, not arguments for reducing it. Radio and television are regulated because the minds of men were bent toward regulation. Libertarians would try to think, instead, of ways of freeing these inventions from control and the privileges that pertain to those who have franchises. The difficulties and problems of our time cry out for free and responsible men to deal with them. Men who are protected will become less effective in their thinking and more feeble in their efforts.
The call for a return to liberty should be cast in positive and hopeful terms, too. Free men are vital and alive. Competition is an invigorating and enlivening thing. Apathy receives its due punishment just as effort is likely to receive its just reward when liberty prevails. Liberty dignifies those who support it because it is a noble cause. Americans should reject the way that leads to a pale imitation of the stultifying social-isms which beset and inactivate European countries. They should embrace the only national purpose that was ever defined for America and work for a rebirth of liberty.
The Tyranny of Public Opinion
Protection… against the tyranny of the magistrate is not enough; there needs protection also against the tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling; against the tendency of society to impose, by other means than civil penalties, its own ideas and practices as rules of conduct on those who dissent from them; to fetter the development, and, if possible, prevent the formation, of any individuality not in harmony with its ways, and compel all characters to fashion themselves upon the model of its own. There is a limit to the legitimate interference of collective opinion with individual independence: and to find that limit, and maintain it against encroachment, is as indispensable to a good condition of human affairs, as protection against political despotism.
John Stuart Mill, On Liberty
Editor’s Note: This essay first appeared in the October 1962 issue of THE FREEMAN.
Clarence B. Carson was a frequent contributor to THE FREEMAN, and was Professor of History at Grove City College in Pennsylvania.
Copyright © 2014 Foundation for Economic Education. All rights reserved. Used with the permission