It's Fun to Fight
On Doing Something
This article was written for analysis (April 1946). Parts of it appeared in chapter of Out of Step.
Every diagnostician is faced with the demand for a cure. Readers of analysis have found fault with its lack of a “constructive program” of some kind, of a proposal for action leading to a correction of the incongruities which it points up month after month. The editor here meets the demand, although he insists that the charge of critical aloofness is unwarranted; every issue, every article, every item has insinuated the remedial measure. The demand, however, is for a specific program.
Let us first sum up the diagnosis. Society is sick, we say, because it is divided into those who live by their own production and those who live by the production of others. This we put down as an injustice, because we postulate the unquestionable right of every man to himself, and therefore to the results of his labor; the transfer of such property from one person to another, without adequate compensation, violates our sense of correctness.
Leaving aside charity, gifts and family obligations, nobody willingly relinquishes possession of that which he produces without obtaining possession of that which he prizes as highly. Therefore, we are compelled to the conclusion that where such transfer does take place force or fraud, which is the same thing, must be present. This is so even when habitual acquiescence to force has dulled our power of perception, even when custom has regularized the robbery; inurement to slavery does not deny its existence.
What, then, is the nature of the force causing the economic injustice at issue? All inquiry along these lines leads to the law. The law is the flux through which political coercion works, and hence we trace the cause of the trouble to our political organization. It is by the power lodged in this political organization that some men aquire property at the expense of those who produce it. Those thus advantaged we call the privileged classes.
First among these classes is the group that exercises authority. We place it at the head of the list for several reasons. The total of the group's appropriations comes to an astounding half of all we produce; then, its power of enforcing exactions increases with every draught, putting us more and more under its domination in all matters; finally, it is on the authority exercised by this group that all privileges rest. For these reasons the politician must be put at the head of the predatory hierarchy.
Taxation is the lifeblood of political authority. If political authority were deprived of this method of exacting “dues and charges,” it would collapse. But, this collapse would also bring down the entire structure of privilege supported by the power of the law. Hence every privileged group, consciously or unconsciously, and even though it grudgingly makes its contribution, favors the general scheme of taxation. The economic tie-up between privilege and political power is strong. This tacit partnership, which is rooted in historic practices, is called the state. However, usage correctly limits the name to the political branch of the partnership, for its power of coercion is the keystone of the entire business.
The privileges handed down by power are various, and the identity of the groups enjoying them changes with the need of the political arm for support. Some participate directly in the returns from taxation; among these are subsidized industrialists and farmers, bondholders, pensioners of all sorts. Then there are the indirect beneficiaries of the tax system, primarily manufacturers and merchants who in the course of business pyramid profits on the taxes they are entrusted to collect, while those who are protected from foreign competition by our tariffs exact higher prices for their products. Others profit from legally made patent and franchise monopolies. Those who gain most from the tie-up with the law are the few, estimated at five percent of the population, who hold title to the “eminent domain” over which the state exercises authority; their privilege of collecting rent from producers, for whom the use of natural resources is a prime necessity, makes them, in the final analysis, the residuary legatees of all privilege.
This is the condition which causes the injustice complained of. The only way to correct it is to do away with the cause; that is, to abolish the state. Any attempt at reform is ruled out on the ground that there is no way of transmuting a malignant growth into a healthy one. It is abolition or sufferance.
If we are agreed on what must be done, the next question is: How? Before we go into the matter of method, let me say that I assume the willingness of those readers who have asked for it (and to whom I shall refer as “you”), to carry their share of the load. My experience with many who demand social action is that they speak for others, not themselves, being content to limit their cooperation to “moral support.” I am sure that such are not among those who have criticized analysis for its lack of a program.
You will admit that the force of resistance must be considerable to be effective; the number of those who recognize the antisocial character of the state must be enlarged. Many minds must be brought to the common purpose, and the only known means of accomplishing this is education. It is a laborious job, but it must be done. That you may be an effective educator, carrying conviction as well as knowledge, it is necessary that you be in full command of all the arguments and facts which bear on your thesis. Are you familiar with the historic genesis of the state? How well grounded are you in economic theory, so that you can demonstrate how political coercion channels goods from producer to nonproducer? Can you explain how the cost of social services, necessary for organized living, will be met when taxation is done away with? Are you prepared to prove that justice will be better served when individual integrity replaces political power? Unless you know all this, and more, your job must begin with self-education.
Satisfied that you are well enough along to tackle the job of disseminating knowledge, you seek minds capable of absorbing it. That I assure you, and I speak from long experience, is a fishing expedition that will yield picayune results; you must console yourself with the quality of your few recruits and hope that your movement will make progress because it is all wool and a yard wide. You pummel your students with arguments, you put them in the way of reading (and please don't forget analysis), you convince them that the state is the root of all evil. They, in turn, carry on likewise, and in time you have a roster respectable enough to make its influence felt.
Meanwhile you consider strategy. The historical pattern for doing something about it is to confront political power with organized opposition, which is, of course, political power. While vengeance is sometimes satisfied by this head-on collision of forces, the record shows that the principles of justice remain exactly where they were before. And this is so whether the conflict takes the form of violent revolution or a battle of the ballot box. The reason for this invariable outcome is found in the technique necessary to political action.
Leadership is the first requirement, for an army without direction is a mob, easily dispersed by the first concentrated charge. I nominate myself for the job, not because of any particular qualifications, but because I know myself and believe I can prognosticate my behavior as leader, Well, then, we have brought the opposition to terms, under my leadership, and it is now my duty and desire to carry out the mission entrusted to me. But, I know I am a human being, with the usual run of desires and the usual aversion to labor, and these impulses keep tugging at me while I am carrying out the common purpose. If in putting this purpose into practice the opportunity to barter power for self-betterment presents itself, I am afraid I might be tempted; it has happened with other leaders, and why should I deem myself exempt? Under the head of “realism” I will find justification enough for swerving from my appointed course. Or, I might be pushed into expediency by the self-interest of those who share power with me, for they too, despite their devotion to principle, are human.
The failure of every political movement to bring about social betterment is thus inherent in its technique, and we are forced to the conclusion that politics can never do the job. Something else must be tried. The state itself suggests an alternative.
THE VULNERABLE STATE
The weakness of the state is that it is an aggregate of humans; its strength lies in the general ignorance of that fact. From earliest times the covering up of this vulnerability has engaged the ingenuity of political power; all manner of argument has been adduced to lend the state a superhuman character, and rituals without end have been invented to give this fiction a verisimilitude of reality. The divinity with which the king found it necessary to endow himself has been assumed by a mythical fifty-one percent who in turn ordain those who rule over them. To aid the process of canonization, the personages in whom power resides have set themselves off by such artifices as high-sounding titles, distinctive apparel, and hierarchical insignia. Language and behavior mannerisms—called protocol—emphasize their separatism. Nevertheless, the fact of mortality cannot be denied, and the continuity of political power is manufactured by means of awe-inspiring symbols, such as flags, thrones, wigs, monuments, seals, and ribbons; these things do not die. By way of litanies a soul is breathed into the golden calf and political philosophy anoints it a “metaphysical person.”
But Louis XIV was quite literal in proclaiming, “L'etat c'est moi.” The state is a person or a number of persons who exercise force, or the threat of it, to cause others to do what they otherwise would not do, or to refrain from satisfying a desire. That is, the state is political power, and political power is force exerted by persons on persons. The superhuman character given it is intended to induce subservience. The strength of the state is Samsonian, and can be shorn off by popular recognition of the fact that it is only a Tom, a Dick, and a Harry.
THE ONLY CURE
We must disabuse our minds of the thought that the state is a thief; the state are thieves. It is not a system which creates privileges, it is a number of morally responsible mortals who do so. A robot cannot declare war, nor can a general staff conduct one; the motivating instrument is a man called king or president, a man called legislator, a man called general. In thus identifying political behavior with persons we prevent transference of guilt to an amoral fiction and place responsibility where it rightly belongs.
Having fixed in our minds the fact that the state is a number of persons who are up to no good, we should proceed to treat them accordingly. You do not genuflect before an ordinary loafer; why should you do so in the presence of a bureaucrat? If someone high in the hierarchy hires a hall, and with your money, stay away; the absent audience will bring him to a realization of his nothingness. The speeches and the written statements of the politician are directed toward influencing your good opinion of political power, and if you neither listen to the one nor read the other you will not be influenced and he will give up the effort. It is the applause, the adulation we accord political personages that records our acquiescence in the power they yield; the deflation of that power is in proportion to our disregard of these personages. Without a cheering crowd there is no parade.
Social power alone can bring down the top layer of political skulduggery to its moral level. Those whose self-respect has not dropped below the vanishing point will get out of the business and put themselves to honest work, while the degenerates who remain will have to get along on what little they can pick up from a noncooperative public. Below the top layer there are the millions of menials who are more to be pitied than scorned; you find it difficult to censure the man whose incompetence forces him to the public trough. Yet, if you take the “poor John” attitude toward him you keep him reminded of a higher moral standard, and you may thus help him save himself.
A government building you regard as a charnel house, which in fact it is; you enter it always under duress, and you never demean yourself by curtsying to its living or dead statuary. The stars on the general's shoulders merely signify that the man might have been a useful member of society; you pity the boy whose military garb identifies his servility. The dais on which the judge sits elevates the body but lowers the man, and the jury box is a place where three-dollar-a-day slaves enforce the law of slavery. You honor the tax dodger. You do not vote because you put too high a value on your vote.
THE DOCTOR's RESPONSIBILITY
Social power resides in every individual. Just as you put personal responsibility on political behavior, so must you assume personal responsibility for social behavior. It is your own job. You think poorly of legislator Brown not because he has violated a tenet of the Tax Reform Society to which you belong, but because his voting for a tax levy is in your own estimation an act of robbery. It is not a peace society which passes judgment on the warmaker, it is the individual pacifist. All values are personal. The good society you envision by the decline of the state is a society of which you are an integral part; your campaign is therefore your own obligation.
You are ineffective alone? You need an organization before you can begin? Individuals think, feel, and act; the organization serves only as a mask for those unable to think or unwilling to act on their own convictions. In the end every organization vitiates the ideal which at first attracted members, and the more powerful the organization, the surer this result. This is so because the organization is a compromise of private values, and in the effort to find a workable compromise, the lowest common denominator, descending as the membership increases, becomes the ideal. When you speak for yourself you are strong. The potency of social power is in proportion to the number who are of like mind, but that, as was said, is a matter of education, not organization.
Let's try social ostracism. It should work.
Freedom Is Better
“Freedom Is Better” appeared in Plain Talk (November 1949).
Too bad you never knew Grand Street and its cafes in the old days. The coffee was mostly milk, or it might be tea with lemon, served in a glass, but the chunk of sponge cake was quite liberal in size. The whole cost a dime, and thrown in gratis, whether you liked it or not, you got a dissertation on truth. You always got it, in polysyllabic dosage, from some co-customer who had established himself as the custodian of truth in this particular “coffee saloon.”
Grand Street, on New York's Lower East Side, was no mere thoroughfare; it was the symbol of an era. Before Tovarich Lenin had got himself boxcarred into dictatorship over the proletariat, and thence into mummified immortality, Grand Street typified the eternal search for the Absolute—the Holy Grail containing the positive specific of the good society. In one coffee saloon the Sir Galahad of dialectical materialism would dilate on its inevitability to those who were already convinced of it, while next door a Knight of Kropotkin would diagnose the case of “direct action.” Each eating place had its own philosophy—which was the Only Truth in every case—giving the impression that the philosophy and not the food was its stock-in-trade.
Characteristic of the Grand Street era was the certainty of each protagonist that only his doctrine was on the side of the angels, that all others were frauds, to say the least. Objectivity was looked down upon as a weakness of character, and questioning as a manifest expression of innate sinfulness. All of which gave life exhilaration and charm. People who are sure of themselves, downright sure, are always exciting. It is only when they abandon argument and proceed to “do something about it” that they become dull. In the Grand Street days there was a lot of talk about action, but you got the impression that for these delightful exponents of truth, action would be the most distasteful thing in the world. They enjoyed talking too much. Action does to a philosophy what a kitchen does to a beautiful woman, and then there is nothing to talk about. Action killed Grand Street.
Every doctrinaire dreams of “doing something about it”— of demonstrating his truth in the field of human affairs. If only he could try it out! There is no question that the good society is guaranteed by his mosaic of words, for he has checked and cross-checked it at every point and nowhere has he found a logical leak. It must work. It is truth. The obstinacy of selfish, ignorant, and sinful people who deny it is all that stands between the cure-all and the sick world.
Well, something was done about it in Moscow. To be historically exact, Grand Street, the era of dreams and discussion, was murdered on the battlefields of World War I, for there was nothing to palaver about after the Brest-Litovsk treaty. The time for action had come. Truth would now prove itself.
Thirty years of experience have somewhat diluted the Truth According to Marx; the promise of Grand Street has not been fulfilled, for Moscow seems to have fallen short of the expected Eden. Evidently there was a flaw in the mosaic.
When we go back over the argument, applying the Moscow experience to it, we find that the neglected and defective element in it is the human being. The basic assumption of the Moscow truth—and of every truth that ever came down the pike of social science—is that the human being is absolutely and indefinitely malleable. There is nothing in him that can resist the force of environmental influences. When lie is fitted into the ideal mold, the institutional pattern of truth, he will come out the ideal man. He is the putty, not the sculptor.
From this assumption follows another, which is never expressed but always implied. And that is that some sculptor of society is needed. Who shall fill the bill? Quite obviously, one whose capacity for understanding truth automatically raises him above the level of human being. He is something special, endowed with gifts that are denied the run-of-the-mill anthropoid, picked by nature to do the work of truth. His anointment both qualifies him and puts upon him the obligation to “do something about it.”
These two assumptions, absolutely necessary in Grand Street to make the truth stand up, tend to show up its deficiency when put to the test. At Moscow and Berlin and Rome the absolute truth came crashing to the dust simply because the sculptors did not measure up to the assumption of infallibility, while the human being denied the assumption as to his plasticity. They proved incapable of ridding themselves of the very inadequacies which he was supposed to shed in his new environment. They wanted material satisfactions without end and advantages over their fellow men. He was not malleable, at least in his inclination to hold on to what he produced, and proved it by lying down on the job when his claim to property was denied; and they lost all their lofty pretensions simply because their resignation from the human race was not accepted. They were human beings, after all.
The spirit of Grand Street lingered on after World War I, even though sickish and apologetic, and kept cracking that “something be done about it.” Between wars, the truth underwent some alterations, in the light of its European experience, and its perfection was undertaken by the London School of Economics and Harvard University. Statistics replaced coffee and cake. But the two assumptions that wrecked the experiments in truth were retained; that was necessary, for if it is recognized for a moment that the human being has something to say about it, or that omniscience is denied to the oracles of truth, how can one make “progress”?
After World War II, when the consequent confusion gave them the opportunity to “do something about it,” the Back Bay successors to Grand Street set up their polished versions of truth in London and Washington. For the selfsame reason that truth failed in Moscow, Rome, and Berlin, it is proving itself quite fallible in a “democratic” locale, and despite its statistical veneer. Far from bringing about the good society, it is again turning out to be a pattern for disharmony. Even its advocates admit by constant revision that it is not what it was cracked up to be in the erudite Grand Streets.
The spirit of Grand Street is eternal; it never dies. For it is man's treadmill search for the key to happiness, yearning for the monistic principle of the good life. Every one of us, deep down, is certain that the “mess we are in” could be cleaned up with one application of the perfect formula, and so anxious are we to get at it that a good peddler has only to buttonhole us at the propitious moment to make a sale. We are suckers for the infallible.
Seeing how the market is never oversold, this writer, a confessed Ancient Mariner, comes at you with, believe it or not, the truth and nothing but the truth. It is all wool and a yard wide and carries the money-back-if-not-satisfied guarantee. It is called—freedom. Now, counterfeiters have helped themselves to this label only too often, and since you have been fooled before, you may be inclined to pass my booth with a sneer. However, if you will but listen to a short sales talk, a few hundred words, you will realize that my elixir is genuine, entirely different from the ersatz you have tried.
First, I am compelled to violate the first principle of good salesmanship; I must talk about my competitors' products, by way of contrast. Take them all down the line—socialism, anarchism, communism, single tax, prohibition, monetary reforms, controlled economies, ad nauseam—and you find a common essential ingredient: political power. In that respect they are all alike; not one of them can stand on its own feet, not one can work without a law. When their proponents say “let's do something about it,” they mean “let's get hold of the political machinery so that we can do something to somebody else.” And that somebody else is invariably you.
Freedom has nothing to do with political power. Freedom makes concessions to the law, as a matter of necessity, but always with the reluctance of a child taking castor oil. The ideal of freedom is a social order without law, but since the nature of man is not prepared to live in so rarefied an atmosphere, since he will on occasion covet his neighbor's property, which is a denial of freedom, it is necessary that the ideal be somewhat watered down with law. A free man is one capable of noninterference in the affairs of his neighbor, while the legally conscious man is consumed with a desire to control or dominate his neighbor. When a man says “there ought to be a law,” he confesses his incapacity for freedom.
It is obvious that a free society is one in which the law concerns itself with minimizing the interferences of men in one another's affairs, and never presumes to interject itself; and it is obvious from that rule that freedom is quite unlike the various reforms that are being peddled on any Grand Street. Every one of them is labeled with a “legal directions for taking.”
Freedom is essentially a condition of inequality, not equality. It recognizes as a fact of nature the structural differences inherent in man — in temperament, character, and capacity — and it respects those differences. We are not alike and no law can make us so. Parenthetically, what a stale and uninteresting world this would be if perfect equality prevailed. When you seek the taproot of reform movements you find an urgency to eradicate these innate differences and to make all men equal; in practice, this means the leveling-off of the more capable to the mediocrity of the mass. That is not freedom.
However, we must not be too hard on the spirit of reform. Every social integration fosters practices and institutions that deny the adequacy of freedom; envy, cupidity, and ignorance fertilize these weeds of the social order, and the impulse of reform is to root them out. But experience has shown that the law is ineffective in that purpose, that the law is in fact the instrument by which these iniquitous institutions came about. Whatever may be said of it as an expedient, as a steady diet castor oil is no good; the dosage of law is important.
The reforms will come of themselves, automatically, when instead of asking for a law we learn to shout, “Let us alone.” For then we will have assumed the responsibility for our behavior; we will ask no favors, seek no advantages over our neighbors. We will get along with the capacities with which nature has endowed us and make the best of it. In the final analysis, freedom is an individual experience.
Let's Try Capitalism
This article was written for analysis (October 1945).
Babies born out of wedlock—the original custom—did not acquire a secondary position in social life until the right of inheritance loomed large. Just as the offspring of promiscuous quadrupeds are not estopped by the accident of birth from winning championships, so bastards even as late as the eighteenth century could attain positions of prominence. The odium came upon the descriptive word by way of profit.
That is a way with words. When someone has an end to gain, a purpose, he attaches a moral connotation to some altogether descriptive symbol; its original meaning is lost in the emotional coloration which, by usage, becomes its definition. Take the word capital or, particularly, its derivatives, capitalist and capitalism. Before Karl Marx hooked onto the morally loaded idea of exploitation, capital described an accumulation of wealth. It was a thing, utterly amoral. It was not a man or a class of men. It was a herd of cattle, an ax, a stock of goods or gold, a house, a machine, or store fixtures. The word was used to differentiate wealth which satisfied the immediate needs of the owner from wealth he set aside for further production. The shoes which the cobbler offered for sale constituted his capital, while the shoes he wore were not in that category. His anvil was the blacksmith's capital, but not the nails he used to fix his wife's cupboard. When a man spoke of his capital he referred to the surplus he had accumulated for the purpose of increasing his output. That was all it was. That is all it is today.
The germ of capital is man's capacity for taking thought. The fellow who domesticated the wild animal was a simonpure capitalist. He put himself to that trouble in order to profit by an abundance of milk, or to reduce the labor of hauling firewood. The one who first made use of the wheel was the archcapitalist of all time, for he fathered mankind's most important labor-saving devices. A capitalist was he who observed nature's fecundity at certain times of the year and, recalling the unpleasantness of scarcity, thought up the principle of storage. Nor can we overlook the first trader, the man who learned that he could better his lot by giving up some of his abundance to obtain possession of what he lacked; thus arose the cooperative system known as the marketplace.
We cannot know when capitalism began, but we can be sure it is rooted in the gift of reason which identifies Homo sapiens. Therefore, it is probably as old as man. Let us say it began when the first human being went in for “overtime” work. Aiming to shortcut the irksomeness of labor, or seeking to better his enjoyment of life, he put in effort over and above that required for his immediate necessaries in making devices which would lighten tomorrow's chores or yield him an increased output for the same exertion. He stored up labor in what he called capital, with the intent of bettering his circumstances. Anything immoral in that?
Marxist usage has twisted this human tendency to save for increased enjoyment, for delayed and greater consumption, into something reprehensible. This it accomplished not only by the misuse of words but more so by unscientific inference. Observing the prevalence of poverty when capital came into great use, Marx made the ready inference of cause and effect. The enigma of accumulations and destitution existing concurrently had to be explained, and what was more obvious than that the means for accumulating was the cause for the destitution? It was easy to infer that the instrument by which labor increased its output is the instrument by which labor is deprived of its output. Capital, then, is exploitative. The plausibility, by providing a culprit, fitted in with the bitterness which involuntary poverty induces. Something definite, visible could be blamed and hated.
The purpose served by this perversion of words was to prove a hypothetical notion—namely, that socialism is inevitable. It is predestined in a theory of history. According to this theory, the story of man is a succession of “modes of production.” Each mode results in a conflict between the haves and have-nots; the conflict is resolved by a new mode. The machinery mode is capitalism, and the conflict is between those who own capital and those who do not. Out of the conflict between these two will come socialism, the final mode, in which there will be no conflict; that is, the millennium.
Capitalism was not a “new” mode of production, as the Marxist thesis contends. The use and ownership of capital, as has been noted, began when man first learned how to employ means toward ends; it is a mode of production indigenous to man and will continue to be his method of getting along until he ceases to be man.
Furthermore, poverty prevailed long before machinery (and trade) came into great use, and exploitation, which is the robbery of the producer's products, was common practice long before the Marxist “discovery.” What is the essence of slavery, a very ancient institution, but the exploitation of labor? Ages before the invention of the steam engine, which to Marx definitely dated the advent of pure capitalism, the custom of collecting tribute for permission to work on land had been in use. And since earliest times armed bands collected tolls on controlled highways. Exploitation, as Marx himself finally saw, antedates by untold centuries the widespread use and private ownership of “the means of production and distribution.” The association of exploitation with capitalism was gratuitous and unfounded in fact. It was done by legerdemain in logic, by giving descriptive words moral values, by appealing to passion rather than thought—and all for the purpose of proving an historical theory.
In the final, predestined mode of production there will be no conflict because by substituting public for private ownership of capital its exploitative power will vanish. Here again words are used to confuse thought and moralisms are used to obscure facts. What is “public” ownership? Is it not in practice the control of property by persons wielding political authority? If capital has the capacity for exploitation, cannot these persons use it to better themselves at the expense of others? What warrant have we that a political person is more moral than a private person or is, in fact, a different kind of person? Is man in the mass—the “public”—transformed into an all-wise, all-good being? That is the ethical thought which socialism implies in its defamation of capitalism. The evil of it is transmitted into good by a mere transference of title from private to political persons. What could be simpler—or more appealing to the exploited? Let's steal from the thieves and stop thievery.
Socialists, however, have not been alone in this befuddlement of language; they have had some powerful, though subrosa, confederates. As might be expected, the confederates took to the socialistic jargon because it suited a purpose of their own, which happens to be—exploitation. When we define exploitation as any means of robbing labor of its products we can see how nonsocialists find socialistic usage convenient; it diverts the attention of the robbed from the real culprits. Now robbery involves the use of sufficient coercive power to overcome resistance. The quintessence of coercive power is vested in the state. It follows that every kind of effective and continuing exploitation must in some way make use of that power; occasional illegal robbery does not count in the long run because it cannot compete with the state. The exercise of state power is regularized by the law, acquiescence in which becomes habitual by the common inclination to let things be. Thus, exploitation in the final analysis is legalized robbery, and the exploiters are those who gain control of the power vested in the state.
These are the allies of socialism. Like Bismarck, the wily aristocrat who recognized in socialism an instrument useful to his purpose, the fellows who profit by use of state power are strong for any increase of it. Since they are not essentially owners and operators of capital, although that may be a sideline with them, the scapegoat provided by socialistic usage has proven quite convenient.
In the first instance, the gang that lives on taxes is by trade the vanguard of socialism. How can it suffer by the proposed transfer of title into its hands? Then there are those who by virtue of legalized deeds hold possession of natural resources and are thus in position to demand tribute from laborers; for life without access to land is impossible. Since what they own is not capital, they can well go along with the socialists. Those who profit by monopolies or subsidies of one sort or another, are to that extent in favor of the centralized power; state capitalism, whatever it may do to them ultimately, is in line with their present interests. When we see how during the last fifty years the growing acceptance of socialistic usage has kept pace with an increase in the emoluments of those who profit by privilege, it is easy to understand why capital and its derivatives have fallen into disrepute.
True capitalism—the undisturbed ownership and use of capital—has never been man's lot. For never, except among primitive peoples, whose employment of capital is extremely limited, has the human race been free of the political means of acquiring economic goods. We ought to try out capitalism and see how it works. As a preliminary step, we should rid our minds (and our schools) of its Marxist bastardization.
This article appeared on the front page of the last issue of analysis (January 1951). It was reprinted in One Is a Crowd.
It is agreed that the world is knee-deep in a social revolution. What is not so obvious is that embedded in the present revolution are the seeds of another. Yet that must be so simply because it was always so. No sooner do men settle down to a given set of ideas, a pattern of living and thinking, than faultfinding begins, and faultfinding is the taproot of revolutions.
Many reasons are offered in explanation of this historical restlessness. One reason that will serve as well as any other is that we are born young, very young. It is the natural business of the young mind to ask why, and since nobody has answered that question with finality, the field for speculation is wide open. And so, as soon as youth finds flaws in the going answers he makes up his own, and because they are new, as far as he is concerned, they are guaranteed against flaw. Somehow, the flaws do show up and another generation mounts its hobbyhorse in quest of the Holy Grail, the Brave New World. Revolution is inherent in the human makeup.
Suppose we came into this world with all the disabilities and disillusions of, say, the age of sixty. In that event, mankind would never have moved out of its cave apartments, never would have heard of the atom bomb or the New Deal. The only function of old men—or, at least, their only occupation—seems to be to find fault with the panaceas that possessed them in their youth. The price of experience is loss of faith. With disillusionment comes resistance to change, and the obstinacy goes so far as to find fallacies in the infallible panaceas of their sons. Nevertheless, youth hangs on to the ideas in which it has a proprietary interest, and change does come.
A revolution is a thought pattern born of curiosity and nurtured on an ideal. Every generation thinks up its own thought pattern, but because the preceding generation hangs on to what it is used to, the transition from the old to the new must be gradual. From the perspective of history it seems that on a certain date one revolution died and another was born. We think of the nineteenth century, with its tradition of natural rights, and its laissez-faire doctrine, as suddenly ushering in a reversal of the feudal tradition. But Voltaire, Adam Smith, Rousseau, and others were plowing and planting some time before 1800, and if you do some digging you'll find the roots of the nineteenth century in much earlier times. Even so, while we are enjoying, or rueing, our own revolution, it is a certainty that youth is critical of it and is building its successor.
There is a measure of fun, if you are inclined that way, in trying to discern in the prevailing current of ideas the direction of the next revolution. It is an interesting game, even if you know you cannot be on hand to say “I told you so.” It is a game that takes the bitterness out of disillusion and robs pessimism of its gloom.
THE CURRENT TRADITION
Our own revolution, the one that seems to have started on the first day of January 1900, is identified by the doctrine of collectivism. Briefly, the doctrine holds that improvement in our way of living is attainable only if we discount the individual. The mass is all that matters. The doctrine does not deny the existence of the individual, but relegates him to the status of a means, not an end in himself. To support itself, the doctrine insists that the individual is only the product of his environment, which is the mass, that he could not exist outside of it, that he could not function except as an accessory to the mass.
The mass, on the other hand, is lacking in self-propelling force, and needs pushing. For this purpose a political machinery comes into existence, presumably by way of something called the democratic process. The individual serves the march of progress by submitting himself to the direction of that device. In the end, the doctrine holds, the individual will prosper because of the equal distribution of the abundance that comes from collective action.
That is the central idea of our current tradition. It is the idealization of the mass and the negation of the individual; its panacea, its method of realization, is political direction; its goal, as always, is the undefined good society.
So dominant is this doctrine in our thinking that it amounts to a dogma. It is implied, if not explicitly stated, in every field of thought. The aim of pedagogy today is not to prepare the individual for his own enjoyment of life, but to enable him better to serve the mass machine; the psychologist makes adjustment to mass thought the measure of healthy thinking and living; jurisprudence puts social responsibility ahead of individual responsibility; the concern of the scientist in the discovery of principles is secondary to his preoccupation with mass production; the economist studies institutions, not people; and philosophy rejects speculation as to the nature of man or the purpose of life as effort that might better be put to the practical problems of society. Ours is the culture of “the all,” rather than “the one.”
The end result of this kind of thinking, the practical result, is the worship of the state. This is a necessary consequence of the idealization of the mass, for since the mass can operate only under political power, then that power becomes the necessary condition of all life. It is a self-sufficient agency. It operates on a plane higher than not only that of the individual but also that of the mass. It is not only superpersonal, it is supermass. Without the state the mass could not function, even if it could exist. The state, then, is the modern golden calf, with this essential difference, that its power is demonstrable, not assumed; it can and does guide, direct, and harbor all of us. Hence, we adore it, make sacrifices to it, and never question its infallibility, even if we detect imperfections in its hierarchy. The current president may be in error, but the state can do no wrong.
OUR FATHERS' TRADITION
Just how far our revolution has gone along this path is seen when we make comparison with that of the nineteenth century. The dominant doctrine of that era held the individual to be the be-all and end-all of all life. He was the only reality. Society was not a thing in itself, but merely an agglomeration of individuals working cooperatively for their mutual betterment; it could not be greater than the sum of its parts. The individual was not the product of his environment, but the responsible master of it.
The nineteenth century had a dogma too, and it went by the name of “unalienable rights.” These were held to be personal prerogatives, inhering in the individual by virtue of his existence and traceable to God alone. Government had nothing to do with rights except to see that individuals did not transgress them; and that was the only reason for government. Its functions were entirely negative, like a watchman's, and when it presumed to act positively it was not minding its business; it should be called to account.
In the practical affairs of life, doctrines and dogmas have a way of losing their virtues; even integrated philosophies fall apart when men start applying them. The individualism of the nineteenth century suffered considerable mayhem, even from those who paid it most homage—the advocates of laissez-faire. Their insistence on their right to do as they pleased turned out to be the right to exploit others, a right they could not exercise without the help of the very state they were pledged to hold in leash. They built up the power of the state by demanding privilege from it.
By the middle of the nineteenth century, this privilege business had given individualism a bad character. The reality was far short of the earlier dream, Youth was quick to detect the fallacies in individualism as it was practiced, condemned it, and went to work on a replacement. The cure-all they hit upon was the doctrine of egalitarianism. Curiously, they promoted this new idea in the name of natural rights: if we are all endowed with an equal amount of natural rights, then it follows that we all have an equal right to what everybody else had. That was, at bottom, not only a revolt against the injustices of privilege, but also a rationalization of covetousness. At any rate, egalitarianism called for an extension of privilege, not the abolition of it; and since privilege is impossible without political enforcement, the egalitarians turned to state power for help. All kinds of reforms were advocated, and all of them strengthened political power at the expense of social power. It never occurred to those who, like Dickens, struck a blow for bigger and better “poor laws” that they were preparing the ground for social security, which reduces the individual to wardship under the state. Meanwhile, Karl Marx was developing his rationale of collectivism. The collectivistic revolution was born in the matrix of individualism.
REVOLUTIONS BREED REVOLUTIONS
That is the point to keep in mind when we speculate on the future, that revolutions are born in revolutions. And they are always being born. Curious youth never fails to detect inadequacies in the tradition it inherited and is impatient to write a new formula. On paper, the formula is always perfect, and perhaps it would work out just as predicted if the human hand did not touch it. lake the case of liberalism, which was the political expression of the individualistic thought pattern. At the beginning of the last century, when liberalism was emerging from adolescence, its only tenet was that political intervention in the affairs of men is bad. It traced all the disabilities that men suffered from to the power of the state. Hence, it advocated the whittling away of that power, without reserve, and proposed to abolish laws, without replacement. This negativeness was all right until the liberals got into places of power, and then it occurred to them that a little positive action might be good; they discovered that only the laws enacted by nonliberals were bad. The fact is—and this is something the state worshippers are prone to overlook—that the comforts, emoluments, and adulation that go with political office have great influence on political policy; for the state consists of men, and men are, unfortunately, always human. And so, liberalism mutated into its exact opposite by the end of the nineteenth century. Today it is the synonym of statism.
Who knows what revolutionary ideas youth is toying with right now? We live entirely too close to the present to judge the direction of its currents. We are either pessimists or optimists, and in either case are poor witnesses. Those of us who are enamored of “the good old times” point to the prevalence of socialistic doctrine, particularly in classrooms and textbooks, as evidence that the “world is going to hell,” while the proponents of socialism take the same evidence as proof of the immediacy of their millennium. Both sides are probably in error. It should be remembered that the present crop of teachers, who are also the textbook writers, are the product of the socialistic tradition built up during the early part of the century, and are necessarily convinced of its virtue. Their denial of natural rights, for instance, is as natural as was the espousal of that doctrine by the teachers of 1850. However, the pessimists can take comfort in this fact, that though the professors do exert some influence on their students, they cannot stop curiosity. If the history of ideas is any guide as to the future, we can be sure that a change is in the making, that youth is brewing a revolution; it has been at the job throughout the ages.
To predict with any accuracy the tradition of the twenty-first century would require the equipment of a prophet. But, and here again relying on the evidence of history, we are on safe ground in anticipating a renaissance of individualism. For, the pendulum of sociopolitical thought has swung to and fro over the same arc since men began to live in association, and there is no warrant for believing that it will fly off in a new direction. Modern absolutism—going by the various names of communism, fascism, nazism or the less frightening “controlled economy”—is in many superficial quite different from “the divine right of kings”; but in their common rejection of the individual the two frames of thought are alike. Or, the individualistic doctrine of salvation that tarnished the glory of Rome had none of the economic overtones of nineteenth-century individualism; but, though the theologian might object to the observation, the underlying idea of salvation is the primacy of the individual, not the collectivity, and that is the underlying idea of any form of individualism. A discarded tradition never returns in its former garb; in fact, it takes a lot of disrobing to recognize it. Only a historical expert can trace the New Deal of modern America to the New Deal of ancient Rome, or recognize Sparta in Moscow.
THE INEVITABLE FUTURE
Whatever the character of the coming revolution, it will not show itself until the present revolution has run its course. There is some disposition to try to stop it in its tracks, but that is in the nature of things a futile occupation. Even the opposition to the present collectivistic trend is tainted with it, as it must be. Those who fight socialized medicine tooth and nail would fight equally hard against a proposal to drop socialized education, unable to see that both institutions are cut from the same cloth; and those who view with alarm the teaching of collectivistic doctrine in our public school are simply plugging for a politically managed curriculum more to their own liking. Likewise, the “free enterprisers” rail against the subvention of farmers but are strong for the subvention of manufacturers through protective tariffs. We are immersed in the prevailing tradition, and until it wears itself out and is replaced by another, nothing can be done about it. The best we can do is to find fault, which is the necessary preliminary to the coming revolution.
Of this, however, we can be sure: enrolled in some nursery or freshman class right now is a Voltaire, an Adam Smith, a Locke, or a Godwin, some maverick who will emerge from the herd and lead it. Youth, as always, is in a ferment, is dissatisfied with things as they are. Well, since the only direction youth can go is away from the current collectivistic tradition toward its opposite, those who cherish individualistic stock of values must try to peddle them to these embryonic revolutionists. We must polish up our ancient arguments, apply them to the current scene, and offer them as brand new merchandise. We must do a selling job. Youth will not buy us out, lock, stock, and barrel, but will be rather selective about it; they will take what seems good to them, modernize it, build it into a panacea, and start a revolution. God bless them.
A Legacy of Value
“A Legacy of Value” appeared in analysis (August 1950) and perfectly represents many key elements of Frank Chodorov's thought.
A man of means and goodwill said: “But, if we put into office men who believe in private property and the sanctity of the individual, would not the trend toward statism be stopped? After all, it is only a matter of the right legislation.”
The legislation is the product of the general will. What with the common passion for confiscation, contrary-minded men could hardly be elected to office; and, if they happened to slip in, they would be ousted if they tried to oppose the trend.
“Is the case for the free development of the personality in a free society hopeless?”
Yes—unless a demand for it can be generated. Statism is a state of mind, not an historical necessity. There was a time when Americans were opposed to the income tax, to conscription, to public doles, to political intervention in private affairs. They believed in themselves, not the government. They came to collectivism by way of education. The socialists reshaped the mind of America by hard work, by self-sacrifice, by looking always to the future.
“Then, it is a matter of education?”
Only education. And the education must be directed at the mind of the future. The present generation is the product of collectivist thought propagated during the past thirty years. The job of reeducating it is well nigh impossible. It would be far more profitable to work on the mind of the future.
“Where would you start?”
In the kindergarten, if possible. Surely at the college level, where there is an avid market for “something new and different.”
“But, the professors and their textbooks seem to lean to the collectivist philosophy.”
True. The professors and their textbooks are the product of their times, like the rest of the population. Fifty years ago the campus was singularly free of collectivist doctrine. Nevertheless, and in the face of official opposition, the socialists invaded it. They worked on the students.
“There is nothing ‘new and different’ in individualism; it is as old as man.”
It is quite new and quite different these days. And it is, in the true sense of the word, revolutionary. If it is presented that way, as an ideal worth fighting for, it will capture the imagination of youth.
“You are advocating a long-term project.”
What's your hurry? You have only a few years to live and cannot hope to remake society in so short a time. Nobody now living will see a free society in America. But, in fighting for it one can have a lot of fun. Consider the effort as a legacy to your great-grandchildren. What else can you bequeath them? You know that confiscatory taxation will increase, not diminish. You will leave your children part of what you have accumulated. Have you any doubt that your grandchildren will get a smaller part, or that their children will get nothing? In the circumstances, what better heritage could you bestow than some understanding of the principles of freedom and, perhaps, a will for freedom?