Front Page Titles (by Subject) Part I: The Political Mentality - Fugitive Essays: Selected Writings of Frank Chodorov
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Part I: The Political Mentality - Frank Chodorov, Fugitive Essays: Selected Writings of Frank Chodorov 
Fugitive Essays: Selected Writings of Frank Chodorov, Compiled, Edited, and with an Introduction by Charles H. Hamilton (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1980).
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The Political Mentality
The Dogma of Our Times
This essay first appeared in The Freeman (June 1956) and then in a slightly different form as the introduction to The Rise and Fall of Society.
What history will think of our times is something that only history will reveal. But, it is a good guess that it will select collectivism as the identifying characteristic of the twentieth century. For even a quick survey of the developing pattern of thought during the past fifty years shows up the dominance of one central idea: that society is a transcendent entity, something apart and greater than the sum of its parts, possessing a suprahuman character and endowed with like capacities. It operates in a field of its own, ethically and philosophically, and is guided by stars unknown to mortals. Hence, the individual, the unit of society, cannot judge it by his own limitations or apply to it standards by which he measures his own thinking and behavior. He is necessary to it, of course, but only as a replaceable part of a machine. It follows, therefore, that society, which may concern itself paternalistically with individuals, is in no way dependent on them.
In one way or another, this idea has insinuated itself into almost every branch of thought and, as ideas have a way of doing, has become institutionalized. Perhaps the most glaring example is the modern orientation of the philosophy of education. Many of the professionals in this field frankly assert that the primary purpose of education is not to develop the individual's capacity for learning, as was held in the past, but to prepare him for a fruitful and “happy” place in society; his inclinations must be turned away from himself, so that he can adjust himself to the mores of his age group and beyond that to the social milieu in which he will live out his life. He is not an end in himself.
Jurisprudence has come around to the same idea, holding more and more that human behavior is not a matter of personal responsibility as much as it is a reflection of the social forces working on the individual; the tendency is to shift onto society the blame for crimes committed by its members. This, too, is a tenet of sociology, the increasing popularity of which, and its elevation to a science, attest to the hold collectivism has on our times. The scientist is no longer honored as a bold adventurer into the unknown, in search of nature's principles, but has become a servant of society, to which he owes his training and his keep. Heroes and heroic exploits are being demoted to accidental outcroppings of mass thought and movement. The superior person, the self-starting “captain of industry,” the inherent genius—these are fictions; all are but robots made by society. Economics is the study of how society makes a living, under its own techniques and prescriptions, not how individuals, in pursuit of happiness, go about the making of a living. And philosophy, or what goes by that name, has made truth itself an attribute of society.
Collectivism is more than an idea. In itself, an idea is nothing but a toy of speculation, a mental idol. Since, as the myth holds, the suprapersonal society is replete with possibilities, the profitable thing to do is to put the myth to work, to energize its virtue. The instrument at hand is the state, throbbing with political energy and quite willing to expend it on this glorious adventure.
Statism is not a modern invention. Even before Plato, political philosophy concerned itself with the nature, origin, and justification of the state. But, while the thinkers speculated on it, the general public accepted political authority as a fact to be lived with and let it go at that. It is only within recent times (except, perhaps, during periods when church and state were one, thus endowing political coercion with divine sanction) that the mass of people has consciously or implicitly accepted the Hegelian dictum that “the state is the general substance, whereof individuals are but the accidents.” It is this acceptance of the state as “substance,” as a suprapersonal reality, and its investment with a competence no individual can lay claim to, that is the special characteristic of the twentieth century.
In times past, the disposition was to look upon the state as something one had to reckon with, but as a complete outsider. One got along with the state as best one could, feared or admired it, hoped to be taken in by it and to enjoy its perquisites, or held it at arm's length as an untouchable thing; one hardly thought of the state as the integral of society. One had to support the state—there was no way of avoiding taxes—and one tolerated its interventions as interventions, not as the warp and woof of life. And the state itself was proud of its position apart from, and above, society.
The present disposition is to liquidate any distinction between state and society, conceptually or institutionally. The state is society; the social order is indeed an appendage of the political establishment, depending on it for sustenance, health, education, communications, and all things coming under the head of “the pursuit of happiness.” In theory, taking college textbooks on economics and political science for authority, the integration is about as complete as words can make it. In the operation of human affairs, despite the fact that lip service is rendered to the concept of inherent personal rights, the tendency to call upon the state for the solution of all the problems of life shows how far we have abandoned the doctrine of rights, with its correlative of self-reliance, and have accepted the state as the reality of society. It is this actual integration, rather than the theory, that marks the twentieth century off from its predecessors.
One indication of how far the integration has gone is the disappearance of any discussion of the state as state—a discussion that engaged the best minds of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The inadequacies of a particular regime, or its personnel, are under constant attack, but there is no faultfinding with the institution itself. The state is all right, by common agreement, and it would work perfectly if the “right” people were at its helm. It does not occur to most critics of the New Deal that all its deficiencies are inherent in any state, under anybody's guidance, or that when the political establishment garners enough power a demagogue will sprout. The idea that this power apparatus is indeed the enemy of society, that the interests of these institutions are in opposition, is simply unthinkable. If it is brought up, it is dismissed as “old-fashioned,” which it is; until the modern era, it was an axiom that the state bears constant watching, that pernicious proclivities are built into it.
A few illustrations of the temper of our times come to mind.
The oft-used statement that “we owe it to ourselves,” in relation to the debts incurred in the name of the state, is indicative of the tendency to obliterate from our consciousness the line of demarcation between governed and governors. It not only is a stock phrase in economics textbooks, but is tacitly accepted in many financial circles as sound in principle. To many modern bankers a government bond is at least as sound as an obligation of a private citizen, since the bond is in fact an obligation of the citizen to pay taxes. Those bankers make no distinction between a debt backed by production or productive ability and a debt secured by political power; in the final analysis a government bond is a lien on production, so what's the difference? By such reasoning, the interests of the public, which are always centered in the production of goods, are equated with the predatory interests of the state.
In many economics textbooks, government borrowing from citizens, whether done openly or by pressure brought upon the banks to lend their depositors' savings, is explained as a transaction equivalent to the transfer of money from one pocket to another, of the same pants; the citizen lends to himself what he lends to the government. The rationale of this absurdity is that the effect on the nation's economy is the same whether the citizen spends his money or the government does it for him. He has simply given up his negligible right of choice. The fact that he has no desire for what the government spends his money on, that he would not of his own free will contribute to the buying of it, is blithely overlooked. The “same pants” notion rests on the identification of the amorphous “national economy” with the well-being of the individual; he is thus merged into the mass and loses his personality.
Of a piece with this kind of thinking is a companion phrase, “We are the government.” Its use and acceptance are most illustrative of the hold collectivism has taken on the Amercian mind in this century, to the exclusion of the basic American tradition. When the Union was founded, the overriding fear of Americans was that the new government might become a threat to their freedom, and the framers of the Constitution were hard put to allay this fear. Now it is held that freedom is a gift from government in return for subservience. The reversal has been accomplished by a neat trick in semantics. The word “democracy” is the key to this trick. When one looks for a definition of this word, one finds that it is not a clearly defined form of government but rather the rule by “social attitudes.” But, what is a “social attitude”? Putting aside the wordy explanations of this slippery concept, it turns out to be in practice good old majoritarianism; what fifty-one percent of the people deem right is right, and the minority is perforce wrong. It is the general-will fiction under a new name. There is no place in this concept for the doctrine of inherent rights; the only right left to the minority, even the minority of one, is conformity with the dominant “social attitude.”
If “we are the government,” then it follows that the man who finds himself in jail must blame himself for his plight, and the man who takes all the tax deduction the law allows is really cheating himself. While this may seem to be a farfetched reductio ad absurdum, the fact is that many a conscript consoles himself with that kind of logic. This country was largely populated by escapees from conscription—called “czarism” a generation or two ago, and held to be the lowest form of involuntary servitude. Now it has come to pass that a conscript army is in fact a “democratic” army, composed of men who have made adjustment with the “social attitude” of the times. So does the run-of-the-mill draftee console himself when compelled to interrupt his dream of a career. Acceptance of compulsory military service has reached the point of unconscious resignation of personality. The individual, as individual, simply does not exist; he is of the mass.
This is the fulfillment of statism. It is a state of mind that does not recognize any ego but that of the collective. For analogy one must go to the pagan practice of human sacrifice: when the gods called for it, when the medicine man so insisted, as a condition for prospering the clan, it was incumbent on the individual to throw himself into the sacrificial fire. In point of fact, statism is a form of paganism, for it is worship of an idol, something made by man. Its base is pure dogma. Like all dogmas this one is subject to interpretations and rationales, each with its coterie of devotees. But, whether one calls himself a communist, socialist, New Dealer, or just plain “democrat,” each begins with the premise that the individual is of consequence only as a servant of the mass-idol. Its will be done.
There are stalwart souls, even in this twentieth century. There are some who in the privacy of their personality hold that collectivism is a denial of a higher order of things. There are nonconformists who reject the Hegelian notion that “the state incarnates the divine idea on earth.” There are some who firmly maintain that only man is made in the image of God. As this remnant—these individuals—gains understanding and improves its explanations, the myth that happiness is to be found under collective authority must fade away in the light of liberty.
Washington: A Psychosis
This piece appeared in Human Events (April 11, 1951).
Psychology could do the country a valuable service by making a thoroughgoing analysis of the political mind. It should be done. Much of the confusion that bedevils the social body stems from the assumption that its frame of thought, its way of thinking, is identical with that of the political world, whereas even superficial observation shows that the political mind runs on tracks of its own. It is sui generis.
Just by way of analogy, and with no intent to be insidious, psychology recognizes the distinctive makeup of the criminal mind; it has complexes all its own, and criminal behavior is explained within the context of those complexes. In the same way, if the operations of the political mentality were clearly defined, the confusing incongruities of political behavior would fall into a meaningful pattern. It would be like opening the window of a room filled with foul air to be able to say: “What else can you expect from the political mind?”
The matter is of utmost importance at this time. Political thought is fast crowding out all other patterns, so that if it is not scientifically set apart it might cause a general mental unbalance. A community infested with gangsterism must take on the character of its dominant group, for, like Gresham's law, decadent values tend to push out of circulation the values that call for integrity. So, as the area of private life is more and more constricted by political pressures, and we are compelled by necessity to adjust ourselves to the political mentality, it is entirely possible that its pattern may supersede what we still call common sense. Assuming that political psychology is essentially an aberration, it is not inconceivable that we may all go insane and not know it.
That the politician must have an indigenous mental arrangement follows from the fact that his way of getting on in life is different from that of any other human. The impact of one's livelihood on one's psyche cannot be discounted. The bellhop in Waterloo, Iowa, will make conversation as all other bellhops do by remarking on the miserable weather; but this one will add: “It's good for the crops.” In Detroit, the impending strike is the obbligato to all thought, and even the cigar-store clerk in Wall Street is conscious of Dow-Jones averages. In Washington—but we will leave that until we have explored the basic idea, that whatever circumstance determines our livelihood determines our thinking.
In that respect, the thief (used merely for illustrative purposes) is no different from any other human. The premises of his thinking may have been distorted by a phobia, but from there on his mind works as his business demands. He lives by breaking the law; his values are shaped accordingly. He cannot conceive, for instance, of a self-contained right of property. The idea is nonsensical, because experience tells him that the only inviolable property is that which cannot be got to.
To be sure, the criminal, because he has to live with himself, covers his business with an ethical cloak. He contends (like Karl Marx) that the robbery he is condemned for is common practice in all legitimate business; making a profit is only legalized thievery. Even in the matter of apprehension and punishment he finds comparison between his and legitimate business; in the latter, risks are covered by insurance, and he covers the risk of his trade by buying “protection” from complacent officials and by hiring devious legal talent. His thinking is shaped by his livelihood.
What we call the “normal” pattern of thought is so only because it is the pattern of the majority—those who live by producing goods and services. Its “principles” are made necessary by the operation of the marketplace. The merchant, the doctor, the shoemaker all have a common objective, that of satisfying the need for their services, and all their thinking is shaped by the exigencies of trade. They fall in line with community customs because that way lies acceptance of their services. The fixation of acceptance is so strong in the marketplace psychology that when an individual breaks from it he is judged abnormal; he needs “adjustment.” And the values that attain top rating in the productive world—honesty, dependability, thrift, and so on—got there only because without them this world would fall apart.
We come now to the politician. He is not a criminal, by definition. Nor is he a producer, even though the textbooks on political science go to great lengths to give him credit for aiding production; their insistence on this point is indirect admission of his incapacity to contribute a single economic “good” to the marketplace. So then, if he is neither a criminal nor a producer, his mental processes must be different from both and we must look to the manner of his living for a clue.
The politician lives by taxes. It is not that his personal emoluments are derived from levies on production, but that the entire world in which he moves and finds spiritual comfort is so supported. That is more important than his livelihood, which he could, in a pinch, dig out of the marketplace. But, were taxes miraculously to be abolished, the whole political world would collapse, taking his thought pattern with it. He would most certainly suffer a mental unbalance.
Hence, taxation is of necessity a fixation in the political psyche. Yet, like all mental rigidities, it came by way of a rationalization. The institution of taxation rests foursquare on the axiom that somebody must rule somebody else. Were the notion to get around that people could manage without political power, it would be hard to make out a case for taxes. Therefore, uppermost in the thought pattern of the political cosmos is the doctrine of power. The idea of letting people alone is as far from political thinking as letting property alone is from criminal thinking. (Isn't taxation also a denial of private property?)
Now, political power is nothing but the capacity to impose one will on another, so as to bring about behavior that would not otherwise occur. The consequence of exercising such power is to inflate the ego of the one in whom it is vested. The more power the politician wields, the greater his self-esteem—and the more readily does he justify a widening of his area of power and the consequential increase in taxes. The environment he lives in compels him to think that way.
Much of the criticism of the politician stems from a misconception of the nature of his business. The principles that obtain in the social world, the one built on production, cannot apply to a world that has no interest in production, except to tax it; that world must have its own rules. Politics is, in the best sense of the word, unprincipled; it is concerned only with rulership, and experience has shown that in that trade the only valid rule of thought and behavior is expediency.
That is the clue for the suggested psychological study. Of course, the scientist would hardly be satisfied with such generalities, but would dig for the taproots of political behavior in specific cases. He would then find that there are politicians and politicians. As an instance of the differentials in the political personality pattern, it might be mentioned that Senator Truman presents a case quite different from that of President Truman. For intensified investigation, our psychologist would do well to come to Washington.
There he will find a laboratory made to order: the inevitable cocktail party. This institution plays a far more important part in Washington life than mere sociability, for it is the hatchery of much that affects the business of the nation.
Let us suppose that at one party he meets, among others, the two principal types of politician, the bureaucrat and the congressman. Present will surely be several newspapermen; they attend because they expect to pick up the thread to a headline, and they are invited because of their potential for publicity. The distaff side, being the bulk of the population, will be well represented. All present will show evidences of political-thought infection.
Although the conversation will be marked with trivialities, the investigator will quickly detect a tacit understanding; namely, that Washington is the cement that holds the country together. If our psychologist should suggest that the ordinary folk might rub along without Washington, that the legitimate functions of government could be conducted in a medium-size office building, he would freeze the assemblage into speechlessness. The mind channeled into the political pattern cannot comprehend a world without politics. The psychologist had better not advance the idea until the party is about to break up.
In the meantime, he might observe the marked difference between the demeanor of the congressman and that of the bureaucrat. The latter will display a greater sense of self-assurance; he will be soft and sanguine; he will talk with an ex cathedra air that only a bureaucrat can affect. And that will be so even if his job is only to take charge of the inkwells on the fourth floor of the State Department. The congressman, on the other hand, will be less sanguine but more assertive. He will display an urgency to convince and to please, characteristic of the marketplace psychology. He will show a sense of obligation and responsibility totally absent from the bureaucrat's psyche.
Perhaps the difference between the elected representative and the scion of the executive branch can be explained by the difference in tenure. The congressman is rooted in his constituency, whereas the bureaucrat has only a bureaucrat to please.
One further hint and the psychologist must go it alone. He should not overlook the barber and the taxi driver. They too will reflect the political psychology, so all-pervasive in this voteless city that one suspects it is not so much a place as a psychosis.