The American Tradition, by Clarence Carson
PART 14: THE RESTORATION OF THE TRADITION
Can the American tradition be restored? Supposing it were desirable to do so, has the time not passed when it might have been done? Once embarked upon a course, must a people not pursue it to its end? Anyhow, would it not be a revolutionary undertaking to attempt to restore the tradition? Appearances would indicate that a new tradition has been erected upon the remains of the old in America, that the reformers have succeeded in developing a tradition of positive governmental action, of collective security, of intervention in the economy, of integration of the population, of government by men, and of direct group action. They have created numerous institutions—Interstate Commerce Commission, Federal Communications Commission, welfare and education agencies, and so on—and the bureaucracy which operates these certainly has become a vested interest. It looks as if the task of restoring the American tradition might be akin to the effort to put Humpty Dumpty together again—in a word, impossible.
My opinion is that this way of formulating the problem greatly exaggerates the difficulties of restoring the tradition. The difficulties are two-fold, not manifold. They consist, in the first place, of convincing a sufficient portion of the American people that it would be worth while restoring.
Second, it would involve overcoming the tenacious and determined resistance of the vested interests (that is, those who stand to gain personally by a multitude of governmental programs and practices) who will raise a deafening hue and cry at every effort to pry them loose from their privileges, perquisites, and benefices. As things now stand, they will be given the maximum aid, comfort, and coverage in their outcries by the press and other media of communication. The resultant noise might frighten the timid into supposing a revolution was going on, but a resolute Congress should be able to undo in short order what it has done in decades.
Remove the Restraints
Some might suppose that the above vastly oversimplifies the problems. But I am not attempting to maintain that the two things mentioned above will be easy to do. They require a resoluteness in politicians and populace that has not been in much evidence lately. What I am saying is that the restoration of the tradition does not involve any deep social revolution or profound metaphysical difficulties. There is no tradition of interventionism to be uprooted, only forcefully imposed restraints to be removed.
The belief that the twentieth century innovations in America constitute a tradition stems from a confusion of ideology with tradition. Throughout this work, I have tried to keep clear the distinction between the two. An ideology, as I understand it, is a completed version of reality. It is a product of the mind of a man or of the minds of several men. It may begin with some facts drawn from experience, though it is more apt to start with an interpretation of these facts. One might, for example, start with the observed facts that some people do not have as many clothes as others, nor are their houses as warm, their salaries as high, their cupboards as well stocked, and so on. So far, so good, but at this point the ideologue usually begins to intrude assumptions and value judgments, whose validity he has not tested, if they are testable.
The ideologue will say, to continue the example, that everybody ought to have the necessities of life. He may insert the notion that the universe was created in such a way that these things would be provided, if no one interfered. Things are not the way they should be. He casts around for a villain. The villain, of course, is whoever is doing the exploiting, and that will be those who have more than others, possibly those who have the most. Depending upon his predilections and his patience or spare time, the ideologue may spin out his interpretation to embrace a philosophy of history and a vision of what things will be like when injustice has been removed and utopia has arrived. Indeed, it is the essence of ideologies that they are utopian and that they have an implicit philosophy of history. At least, this has been so since around 1850, and not many ideologies go back before this time.
Ideologies Always Collectivist
Ideologies, then, are the products of intellectuals. But so, possibly, are ideas, philosophies, theologies, artistic creations, inventions, discoveries, and so on. It is a mistake to confuse even a collection of ideas which has been rounded out into a philosophy with ideologies, however. Ideologies have distinguishing features by which they can almost always be recognized. (1) They contain a completed version of reality. Everything that has or will happen is already explained. (2) They are utopian, and Marx’s protestations to the contrary should mislead no one as to the heady utopianism of Marxism. (3) They have a plan for the realization of utopia. Marxism is confusing again because he apparently believed that the change would come automatically. But his disciples have had to devise plans. These plans involve centralized control and planning of the social and economic life of a people, or all people. (4) Ideologies must always be imposed upon a people and maintained by force or threat of force. Some of the people may cooperate in their own enslavement, but there will always be dissidents, and the realization of utopia requires that everyone participate, willingly or not. (5) Ideologies are always collectivist in character. This is made necessary by the other characteristics.
On the contrary, a tradition arises out of the lives of a people. It is not imposed from above; indeed, it is not ordinarily imposed at all. Whereas an ideology is operative in the area where force is used, traditions stem from the area of freedom available to a people. They are the customary ways a people develop for carrying on relationships with one another, the habitual forms for conduct and activity, the usual means for going about doing something or other. Ideas may contribute to the development of a tradition, theologies may buttress it, philosophies may comprehend it, but it can no more stem from these than ideas can exert force without the instrumentalities of men. Many traditions probably take shape in the same fashion that a path through a wooded area will in the country. Someone discovers that a certain route from one point to another is the nearest one which will encounter the fewest obstacles. He customarily takes this course until his tread has begun to shape the path. Others follow it, and in time this path becomes the way from one point to another.
The Natural Growth of Tradition
Traditions are apt to lie close to the nature of things and to be constantly modified by experience. Thus, it is easy to understand how a tradition would be formed of a family consisting of a man and a woman and their progeny. By nature, it takes a man and a woman to produce a child. It does not appear to conflict with any reality that they should assume the responsibility of rearing the child. The chances are good that they will become devoted to the child, and it may well be that they will sacrifice for its benefit. These practices may be, and usually are, given social and religious sanctions, in addition to legal support, but they accord well with the experience of mankind.
Traditions, then, take shape by the efforts of men to cope with circumstances and conditions in regular ways. They exist whether men have a word to stand for them or not. No law is necessary, ordinarily, for them to be observed, though a law running contrary to them will be hardly enforced. The whole of them, in their complexity and variety, constitute the paths which men follow in leading their lives in a given society. Any large-scale disruption of the traditions will result in the disorientation of the populace. In the modern era, the great revolutions—i.e., English, French, Russian, Chinese, and so forth—have been the efforts to overturn traditions by the use of force under the guidance of ideology.
My point is this: the reverse does not appear to occur. When ideology is abandoned or discarded revolution does not occur. When force is removed from behind it, ideology collapses, and people resume the tenor of their lives, following old and developing new traditions. I have in mind Germany and Italy after World War II, or England after the collapse of the Puritan regime.
Of course, two conditions are probably particularly important to a smooth transition from ideology to tradition. Law and order would need to be maintained after the collapse of the forcefully imposed ideology. Second, the extent to which the tradition had been disrupted would determine how readily it might be resumed. For example, if private property had been outlawed, there might be considerable difficulty in re-establishing property. Even so, when force was removed, this is likely to be one of the first things to which most people would attend today. Of course, Americans do not face any such difficulties in restoring their tradition.
The Ideology of Reform Is Imposed by Force
The validity of two propositions needs to be established before the above analysis can be made relevant to the present American condition. First, it must be shown that Americans have been guided by an ideology in reforming the government and its relation to the populace. Second, it must be clear that the practices informed by this ideology have been imposed by force.
It is easy to show that the Soviet Union was founded upon an ideology imposed by force. Lenin made no secret of the fact that he was a communist. The bloody imposition of their programs upon the Russians should have left no doubt that brutal force was used to implement the programs. But Lenin and Stalin were proclaimed revolutionists. The vast assault upon the body of traditions of the Russian people could not have been covered up, if the leaders had desired to do so. They acted too swiftly and decisively for that.
In America, however, things have been quite different. There has been no proclaimed nor bloody revolution in the twentieth century. Instead, changes have occurred gradually, in an evolutionary manner, with the possible exception of a short period in the early New Deal. Efforts have usually been made to show how each departure from it was really in keeping with the American tradition. When President Franklin D. Roosevelt made his court reorganization proposal, for instance, he maintained that he was attempting to revitalize the “true” American tradition. Moreover, reformers have sought to use the institutional framework for their changes rather than simply destroying it. They have even managed to use such institutions as the Supreme Court, whose authority rested upon a profound tradition, to advance their programs. The ideology has usually been obscured behind a scientistic and pragmatic cover.
In consequence, both ideology and force have been rather well hidden from the view of an idle onlooker. Nonetheless, there was and is an ideology. It has almost always been just beneath the surface in the speeches of the reform politicians, the writings of the theorists, and the fulminations of the discontented. Their “four” (or “eight”) year plans even burst into view and became a part of the language of the people under such interesting names as Square Deal, New Freedom, New Deal, Fair Deal, and New Frontier. Back of these, the ideology is more difficult to discern, but it is there.
The Ideology Outlined
There is not space here to explore the ideology in detail, but it should suffice to call attention to its outline. Where such ideologies as the Marxist, socialist, and fascist were set forth in detail and considerable distinctness, the ideology of the American reformers is fuzzy, blurred, implicit, and lacking in clarity. It is quite possible that some of the most ideological of the reformers today are unaware that they are ideologues. Several reasons can be given for this state of affairs. Many of the progenitors of present-day reformers subscribed to rather explicit ideologies; they were socialists, Marxists, devotees of the Social Gospel, or “sociocrats.” But they were usually repudiated by their American contemporaries, and for various reasons they or their disciples got out of the organizations and parties by which they could have been identified. Too, the decay of language and the decline of philosophy have made it possible for ideologues to hide from themselves and from others the fact that they are. There are advantages, too, in avoiding explicit affirmations of the ideology. Most of the assumptions upon which it is based have been discredited, and if the doctrines were openly affirmed they could be debated. No such difficulties are raised when the ideas are kept conveniently beneath the surface. Ideologues can operate from day to day—”pragmatically and experimentally,” as they like to claim—advancing their ideology without having to defend it.
The ideology is made up of a composite of ideas drawn from progressivism, meliorism, utopianism, pragmatism, collectivism, with overtones of the class struggle, elitism, egalitarianism, and scientism. The name for them all taken together is “democracy,” or so its proponents would have us believe. Those who advance this ideology in America are usually called “liberals.” The elements of the ideology are loosely linked together and some of them are, in fact, antithetical to one another. For example, egalitarianism and elitism are patently in conflict with one another, on the surface anyhow. Beneath the surface where they operate, however, they are made compatible by scientism.
Thus, the society would be supposed to move toward equality, but this would be done by an elite of “scientists.” This explains the myriad experts, braintrusters, and college-trained bureaucrats who are employed by the politicians to develop and advance their programs. It should be noted, too, that the great variety of “isms” in the ideology permits a continual shifting when the programs come under attack. If the “elite” comes under attack, it can take shelter under progressivism. That is, it maintains that its programs are progressive. Those who attack them are reactionary.
We might suppose, then, that there would be a general lack of consistency in the programs advanced by the “liberals.” It does not appear. True, there appears to be confusion quite often, and they do like to have debates on what they are pleased to call “issues.” But what they usually debate is whether or not the federal government should do this or that at this time, whether the minimum wage should be raised to $1.15 or $1.25 an hour, whether more federal aid should be given for urban renewal or education, whether foreign aid should be reduced in order to build more federal housing projects, whether foreign aid should be economic or military, whether strings should be attached to foreign aid or not, and so forth. In short, much of the apparent confusion is window dressing. There is sufficient consistency in the general direction to conclude that their programs are informed by ideology.
Programs almost invariably call for more central government activity, more centralization of power in the federal government, more power in the hands of the President and of “independent” agencies, more spending by all governments, more deficit financing, more aid to the “underprivileged,” more benefits under Social Security, more control and regulation over the economy, more uniformity of practice throughout the country, and more integration of the population. The direction is always toward a diminution of property rights and a redistribution of wealth. We move further and further away from individual responsibility toward collective responsibility for everything. The direction is almost always away from government by law toward the arbitrary decisions of judges, boards, commissions, committees, and administrators. The press reported that Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy was unconcerned with drawing a precise bill for Civil Rights. Let it be a very general measure, and let the courts determine its scope and limits.
The result of all these tendencies is arbitrary and authoritarian government. It is arbitrary because the powers are vested in administrators to exercise as they see fit, each case decided according to its “merits.” It is authoritarian because the decisions are usually made by authorities, i. e., experts. It is ideological, because the above have been found to be the conditions for moving toward collectivism in this century, and the programs themselves are collectivist. It is antitraditional because the programs come from intellectuals rather than taking shape out of the lives and habits of the people. It is even anti-intellectual because it lacks a coherently articulated philosophy which could stand the test of reason.
Founded on Force
That this ideology has been and is advanced by force or the threat of force should not need demonstration. But it does. The programs, and the force that is used to impose them, are supposed to be legitimated by being “democratic.” Now modern “liberals” are majoritarians when it suits their purposes, but they do not feel bound to even this requirement of “democracy.” Present indications are that if a Supreme Court decision went contrary to the wishes of over 90 per cent of the populace, and if the decision pleased them, they would favor it. Moreover, many “liberals” have no compunction about belaboring the taste of the great majority of Americans, their taste in automobiles, consumer goods, recreation, and so forth.
Even if they were consistent majoritarians, however, it would not change the fact that force is used to impose the programs. Any positive use of government is predicated upon the use of force upon someone. This is not altered by the number who would vote for it or the desirability of the object sought. If everyone would willingly contribute to the program or participate in it, no purpose would be served by enacting a law. If everyone would willingly give of their substance and time to Social Security, to the Tennessee Valley Authority, to foreign aid, to the support of the Peace Corps, to the redistribution of the wealth, to the support of education, it would be superfluous to make laws about it. The fact that it is made a law means that force or the threat of force is going to be used to make those comply who would otherwise be unwilling. Those who persist in passing positive legislation proclaim their failure at persuasion,their lack of faith in freedom, or their devotion to the use of force.
The evolutionary manner of the imposition of the ideology by force in America has not made the reformist way into a tradition. It is true that many Americans have acquired habits of dependence upon the government, that parents have come to expect that the populace collectively will pay for the education of their children, that some foreign governments have come to rely on foreign aid, that many groups have become accustomed to privileged positions. But none of this can subsist without the support of the state. Repeal the legislation, maintain law and order, and the facade of the reformist “tradition” will collapse, revealing nothing behind it.
Remove Privileges and Restraints
Let me be more specific. Remove the welfare and unemployment program, and nature will take over shortly. For men grow hungry in only a brief interval, and this will be a sufficient prod to drive them to seek remunerative employment. Repeal the minimum wage laws, and the onerous bookkeeping imposed on employers, let the hungry man make himself attractive to an employer, and the “unemployed” will soon be busy doing the millions of jobs that are not now done because it is too expensive or too troublesome to hire someone to do them. Remove the exemptions and protections from labor unions, rigorously and impartially enforce the law, and they will no longer be able to create crises in the nation.
There has been much talk and writing since World War II about the “placid decade,” the lethargy and conformity of youth, the lack of creativity and imaginativeness of people. This can be readily cured. Remove the restraints upon people, the government guarantees of security, and people will soon be inventive once again. Many a youth will begin shortly to improve his “image,” and some will even learn to say “yes, sir” once again. There is no greater spur to invention, to imaginativeness, to creativeness, than the realization that one is responsible for his own well-being. The pressure of circumstances is an invaluable stimulant to human ingenuity.
Voluntary Charity Restored
But—and at this point the reformer plays his ace—what will happen to those who cannot provide for themselves, to the education of the young, to the care of the sick, to the support of the widows and orphans, to the aid of the destitute, to the handicapped and the unfortunate? That so many should ask the question should be the answer to it. Surely those who are so concerned that it be done would be willing to contribute to it themselves. If they devoted all of the energy they put into advancing government programs to the care of the needy, the needy should be well cared for.
There would be some differences, of course. Those who evince such deep concern might be expected to put their money where their mouths now are. Recipients of charity might be expected to show some gratitude for it, rather than accepting the property or the fruits of the labor of others as a right. The virtue of giving would replace the compulsion of taxation. Professional welfare workers would have to convince the populace, not just lawmakers, that they were doing a good job. Those who believe in foreign aid could pour their money into other countries, with or without strings attached. All of this will not work perfectly to relieve all undeserved suffering. No program would. What government programs do is to remove the distinction between deserved and undeserved suffering, take away the right of the individual to the disposal of his property, and relieve him of the responsibility for managing his affairs well.
What I am saying is that if we remove the forcefully imposed ideology, tradition will be reasserted and redeveloped. This does not even depend upon the memory of the tradition, but it might well be aided by it. When individuals are responsible for their well-being once more, thrift, frugality, and industry are almost certain to become virtues again. The consequences of practicing the vices which are their opposites would be apparent even to many simpletons. No one would be likely to fall error to the notion more than once that he could spend his way to prosperity by spending his substance on consumer goods. Those who did so would be marked by the community as wastrels.
It is not for me to say what particular forms will be devised in the reassertion of the tradition, what will be reborn from the past, and what will be developed for the first time. No one need trouble himself to think of all the ways people of a like mind might act to accomplish things, what might be developed as aids to the individual in protecting him from the unscrupulous, how much and in what ways religion may be needed to support virtues and condemn vices. Ideologues have to plan their programs in infinite detail. Their programs always suffer from the deficiencies of a single mind, or of a few minds. Their foresight needs to be good indeed, for they involve huge populaces in their calculation. A society resting on tradition and devoted to liberty does not suffer from these drawbacks. Every individual may have a plan of his own. Most, if not all, of the whole population contributes to the provision of goods, services, ideas, customs, and habits. The failures of foresight hurt most directly the individual who has made them, but the benefits of his plan, if it is a success, may reach to all mankind.
No Need To Plan Details
The restoration of the American tradition does not depend, then, upon elaborate plans for the ordering of peoples’ lives, for what their folkways, customs, patterns of behavior, and habits shall be. These will be taken care of by people themselves, when they are let alone. It does depend, however, upon the restoration of a framework for liberty, so that people can act freely once more. It is in this realm that general agreement would be needed to restore the American tradition. Undoubtedly, there are, or have been, other ways for protecting the liberty of the citizen than those developed in America. But they are not viable alternatives for Americans, nor has it been demonstrated lately that another system would be better. America had a system of constitutionalism, of local government, of government by law, of private rights, for the civilizing of groups, and so on.
The Framework Still Stands
Perhaps had is not the right word. Most of the American political tradition is still there. There is still a Constitution, only significantly altered in two or three instances so far as language is concerned, though greatly altered by misinterpretation. The United States is still a Republic, still has a federal system of government, still has much of the framework for liberty intact. The major task of restoration is to get men to read, understand, and observe the Constitution once more, to limit and balance the powers of the state and central governments once again, to heed the rhetoric and forms of the tradition. This is an educational problem more than anything else. However, more direct action can be taken by unseating those who show no understanding or appreciation of the tradition by the electoral process. If judges persist in ignoring the provisions of the Constitution, they can and should be impeached. In like manner, administrators can and should be impeached if they will not stay within the bounds of the Constitution. Indeed, my guess is that it would not take many impeachments to make even Presidents cautious of exceeding their authority. Congress might contribute much by cleaning its own house, resuming its constitutionally granted authority for appropriations (in the fullest sense, not in the nominal manner it frequently does today), and by dismantling the boards and commissions which it has created to evade constitutional and legal limitations.
By these and similar means the tradition might be restored, without revolution, without severe dislocation, without violence, and it might be that the unemployment of ideologues would be only temporary. On the positive side, it would be a return to the path of liberty which our Founding Fathers marked out for us.
Clarence Carson (1926-2003) was a historian who taught at Eaton College, Grove City College, and Hillsdale College. His primary publication venue was the Foundation for Economic Education. Among his many works is the six-volume A Basic History of the United States. Dr. Carson was serving as Chairman of the Social Science Department, Okaloosa-Walton College when the above work was originally published.. Used with permission of the Foundation for Economic Education (the original publisher); the copyright is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.