Front Page Titles (by Subject) PART II: THE PHILOSOPHY OF FREEDOM - Can Capitalism Survive?
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Search this Title:
PART II: THE PHILOSOPHY OF FREEDOM - Benjamin A. Rogge, Can Capitalism Survive? 
Can Capitalism Survive? (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1979).
About Liberty Fund:
Liberty Fund, Inc. is a private, educational foundation established to encourage the study of the ideal of a society of free and responsible individuals.
The copyright to this edition, in both print and electronic forms, is held by Liberty Fund, Inc.
Fair use statement:
This material is put online to further the educational goals of Liberty Fund, Inc. Unless otherwise stated in the Copyright Information section above, this material may be used freely for educational and academic purposes. It may not be used in any way for profit.
THE PHILOSOPHY OF FREEDOM
In this section I present those papers in which I have attempted to set forth exactly what I stand for and why. The first paper, “The Case for Economic Freedom,” was given as a speech on numerous occasions (particularly at seminars organized by the Foundation for Economic Education at Irvington, New York) before being put down on paper. The second paper was originally prepared for an appearance before the students and faculty of the college where I teach, Wabash College, and was my attempt to tell them the kind of person (in Rogge) they were harboring in their midst. “Who’s to Blame” was presented to an even earlier convocation at Wabash College, at a time when I was serving as Dean of the College. It is presented as a further development of the idea of personal responsibility discussed in the first two papers of this section. “Paradise in Posey County” was another of my chapel messages to young men; in it I explore (and criticize) the idea of Utopia as displayed in two famous experiments in communal living in Indiana.
The Case for Economic Freedom
My economic philosophy is here offered with full knowledge that it is not generally accepted as the right one. On the contrary, my brand of economics has now become Brand X, the one that is never selected as the whitest by the housewife, the one that is said to be slow acting, the one that contains no miracle ingredient. It loses nine times out of ten in the popularity polls run on Election Day, and, in most elections, it doesn’t even present a candidate.
I shall identify my brand of economics as that of economic freedom, and I shall define economic freedom as that set of economic arrangements that would exist in a society in which the government’s only function would be to prevent one man from using force or fraud against another—including within this, of course, the task of national defense. So that there can be no misunderstanding here, let me say that this is pure, uncompromising laissez faire economics. It is not the mixed economy; it is the unmixed economy.
I readily admit that I do not expect to see such an economy in my lifetime or in anyone’s lifetime in the infinity of years ahead of us. I present it rather as the ideal we should strive for and should be disappointed in never fully attaining.
Where do we find the most powerful and persuasive case for economic freedom? I don’t know; probably it hasn’t been prepared as yet. Certainly it is unlikely that the case I present is the definitive one. However, it is the one that is persuasive with me, that leads me to my own deep commitment to the free market. I present it as grist for your own mill and not as the divinely inspired last word on the subject.
The Moral Case
You will note as I develop my case that I attach relatively little importance to the demonstrated efficiency of the free-market system in promoting economic growth, in raising levels of living. In fact, my central thesis is that the most important part of the case for economic freedom is not its vaunted efficiency as a system for organizing resources, not its dramatic success in promoting economic growth, but rather its consistency with certain fundamental moral principles of life itself.
I say, “the most important part of the case” for two reasons. First, the significance I attach to those moral principles would lead me to prefer the free enterprise system even if it were demonstrably less efficient than alternative systems, even if it were to produce a slower rate of economic growth than systems of central direction and control. Second, the great mass of the people of any country is never really going to understand the purely economic workings of any economic system, be it free enterprise or socialism. Hence, most people are going to judge an economic system by its consistency with their moral principles rather than by its purely scientific operating characteristics. If economic freedom survives in the years ahead, it will be only because a majority of the people accept its basic morality. The success of the system in bringing ever higher levels of living will be no more persuasive in the future than it has been in the past. Let me illustrate.
The doctrine of man held in general in nineteenth-century America argued that each man was ultimately responsible for what happened to him, for his own salvation, both in the here and now and in the hereafter. Thus, whether a man prospered or failed in economic life was each man’s individual responsibility: each man had a right to the rewards for success and, in the same sense, deserved the punishment that came with failure. It followed as well that it is explicitly immoral to use the power of government to take from one man to give to another, to legalize Robin Hood. This doctrine of man found its economic counterpart in the system of free enterprise and, hence, the system of free enterprise was accepted and respected by many who had no real understanding of its subtleties as a technique for organizing resource use.
As this doctrine of man was replaced by one which made of man a helpless victim of his subconscious and his environment—responsible for neither his successes nor his failures—the free enterprise system came to be rejected by many who still had no real understanding of its actual operating characteristics.
Basic Values Considered
Inasmuch as my own value systems and my own assumptions about human beings are so important to the case, I want to sketch them for you.
To begin with, the central value in my choice system is individual freedom. By freedom I mean exactly and only freedom from coercion by others. I do not mean the four freedoms of President Roosevelt, which are not freedoms at all, but only rhetorical devices to persuade people to give up some of their true freedom. In the Rogge system, each man must be free to do what is his duty as he defines it, so long as he does not use force against another.
Next, I believe each man to be ultimately responsible for what happens to him. True, he is influenced by his heredity, his environment, his subconscious, and by pure chance. But I insist that precisely what makes man man is his ability to rise above these influences, to change and determine his own destiny. If this be true, then it follows that each of us is terribly and inevitably and forever responsible for everything he does. The answer to the question, “Who’s to blame?” is always, “Mea culpa, I am.”
I believe as well that man is imperfect, now and forever. He is imperfect in his knowledge of the ultimate purpose of his life, imperfect in his choice of means to serve those purposes he does select, imperfect in the integrity with which he deals with himself and those around him, imperfect in his capacity to love his fellow man. If man is imperfect, then all of his constructs must be imperfect, and the choice is always among degrees and kinds of imperfection. The New Jerusalem is never going to be realized here on earth, and the man who insists that it is, is always lost unto freedom.
Moreover, man’s imperfections are intensified as he acquires the power to coerce others; “power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
This completes the listing of my assumptions, and it should be clear that the list does not constitute a total philosophy of life. Most importantly, it does not define what I believe the free man’s duty to be, or more specifically, what I believe my own duty to be and the source of the charge to me. However important these questions, I do not consider them relevant to the choice of an economic system.
Here, then, are two sections of the case for economic freedom as I would construct it. The first section presents economic freedom as an ultimate end in itself and the second presents it as a means to the preservation of the noneconomic elements in total freedom.
Individual Freedom of Choice
The first section of the case is made in the stating of it, if one accepts the fundamental premise.
Major premise: Each man should be free to take whatever action he wishes, so long as he does not use force or fraud against another.
Minor premise: All economic behavior is “action” as identified above.
Conclusion: Each man should be free to take whatever action he wishes in his economic behavior, so long as he does not use force or fraud against another.
In other words, economic freedom is a part of total freedom; if freedom is an end in itself, as our society has traditionally asserted it to be, then economic freedom is an end in itself, to be valued for itself alone and not just for its instrumental value in serving other goals.
If this thesis is accepted, then there must aways exist a tremendous presumption against each and every proposal for governmental limitation of economic freedom. What is wrong with a state system of compulsory social security? It denies to the individual his freedom, his right to choose what he will do with his own money resources. What is wrong with a governmentally enforced minimum wage? It denies to the employer and the employee their individual freedoms, their individual rights to enter into voluntary relationships not involving force or fraud. What is wrong with a tariff or an import quota? It denies to the individual consumer his right to buy what he wishes, wherever he wishes.
It is breathtaking to think what this simple approach would do to the apparatus of state control at all levels of government. Strike from the books all legislation that denies economic freedom to any individual, and three-fourths of all the activities now undertaken by government would be eliminated.
I am no dreamer of empty dreams, and I do not expect that the day will ever come when this principle of economic freedom as a part of total freedom will be fully accepted and applied. Yet I am convinced that unless this principle is given some standing, unless those who examine proposals for new regulation of the individual by government look on this loss of freedom as a “cost” of the proposed legislation, the chances of free enterprise surviving are small indeed. The would-be controller can always find reasons why it might seem expedient to control the individual; unless slowed down by some general feeling that it is immoral to do so, he will usually have his way.
So much for the first section of the case. Now for the second. The major premise here is the same, that is, the premise of the rightness of freedom. Here, though, the concern is with the noneconomic elements in total freedom—with freedom of speech, of religion, of the press, of personal behavior. My thesis is that these freedoms are not likely to be long preserved in a society that has denied economic freedom to its individual members.
Before developing this thesis, I wish to comment briefly on the importance of these noneconomic freedoms. I do so because we who are known as conservatives have often given too little attention to these freedoms or have even played a significant role in reducing them. The modern liberal is usually inconsistent in that he defends man’s noneconomic freedoms, but is often quite indifferent to his economic freedom. The modern conservative is often inconsistent in that he defends man’s economic freedom but is indifferent to his noneconomic freedoms. Why are there so few conservatives in the struggles over censorship, over denials of equality before the law for people of all races, over blue laws, and so on? Why do we let the modern liberals dominate an organization such as the American Civil Liberties Union? The general purposes of this organization are completely consistent with, even necessary to, the truly free society.
Particularly in times of stress such as these, we must fight against the general pressure to curb the rights of individual human beings, even those whose ideas and actions we detest. Now is the time to remember the example of men such as David Ricardo, the London banker and economist of the classical free-market school in the first part of the last century. Born a Jew, married to a Quaker, he devoted some part of his energy and his fortune to eliminating the legal discrimination against Catholics in the England of his day.
It is precisely because I believe these noneconomic freedoms to be so important that I believe economic freedom to be so important. The argument here could be drawn from the wisdom of the Bible and the statement that “where a man’s treasure is, there will his heart be also.” Give me control over a man’s economic actions, and hence over his means of survival, and except for a few occasional heroes, I’ll promise to deliver to you men who think and write and behave as I want them to.
The case is not difficult to make for the fully controlled economy, the true socialistic state. Milton Friedman, professor of economics at the University of Chicago, in his book, Capitalism and Freedom, takes the case of a socialist society that has a sincere desire to preserve the freedom of the press. The first problem would be that there would be no private capital, no private fortunes that could be used to subsidize an antisocialist, procapitalist press. Hence, the socialist state would have to do it. However, the men and women undertaking the task would have to be released from the socialist labor pool and would have to be assured that they would never be discriminated against in employment opportunities in the socialist apparatus if they were to wish to change occupations later. Then these procapitalist members of the socialist society would have to go to other functionaries of the state to secure the buildings, the presses, the paper, the skilled and unskilled workmen, and all the other components of a working newspaper. Then they would face the problem of finding distribution outlets, either creating their own (a frightening task) or using the same ones used by the official socialist propaganda organs. Finally, where would they find readers? How many men and women would risk showing up at their state-controlled jobs carrying copies of the Daily Capitalist?
There are so many unlikely steps in this process that the assumption that true freedom of the press could be maintained in a socialist society is so unrealistic as to be ludicrous.
Of course, we are not facing as yet a fully socialized America, but only one in which there is significant government intervention in a still predominantly private enterprise economy. Do these interventions pose any threat to the noneconomic freedoms? I believe they do.
First of all, the total of coercive devices now available to any administration of either party at the national level is so great that true freedom to work actively against the current administration (whatever it might be) is seriously reduced. For example, farmers have become captives of the government in such a way that they are forced into political alignments that seriously reduce their ability to protest actions they do not approve. The new trade bill, though right in the principle of free trade, gives to the President enormous power to reward his friends and punish his critics.
Second, the form of these interventions is such as to threaten seriously one of the real cornerstones of all freedoms—equality before the law. For example, farmers and trade union members are now encouraged and assisted in doing precisely that for which businessmen are sent to jail (i.e., acting collusively to manipulate prices). The blindfolded Goddess of Justice has been encouraged to peek and she now says, with the jurists of the ancient regime, “First tell me who you are and then I’ll tell you what your rights are.” A society in which such gross inequalities before the law are encouraged in economic life is not likely to be one which preserves the principle of equality before the law generally.
We could go on to many specific illustrations. For example, the government uses its legislated monopoly to carry the mails as a means for imposing a censorship on what people send to each other in a completely voluntary relationship. A man and a woman who exchange obscene letters may not be making productive use of their time, but their correspondence is certainly no business of the government. Or to take an example from another country, Winston Churchill, as a critic of the Chamberlain government, was not permitted one minute of radio time on the government-owned and monopolized broadcasting system in the period from 1936 to the outbreak of the war he was predicting in 1939.
Each Step Leads to Another
Every act of intervention in the economic life of its citizens gives to a government additional power to shape and control the attitudes, the writings, the behavior of those citizens. Every such act is another break in the dike protecting the integrity of the individual as a free man or woman.
The free market protects the integrity of the individual by providing him with a host of decentralized alternatives rather than with one centralized opportunity. As Friedman has reminded us, even the known communist can readily find employment in capitalist America. The free market is politics-blind, religion-blind, and, yes, race-blind. Do you ask about the politics or the religion of the farmer who grew the potatoes you buy at the store? Do you ask about the color of the hands that helped produce the steel you use in your office building?
South Africa provides an interesting example of this. The South Africans, of course, provide a shocking picture of racial bigotry, shocking even to a country that has its own tragic race problems. South African law clearly separates the whites from the nonwhites. Orientals have traditionally been classed as nonwhites, but South African trade with Japan has become so important in the postwar period that the government of South Africa has declared the Japanese visitors to South Africa to be officially and legally “white.” The free market is one of the really great forces making for tolerance and understanding among human beings. The controlled market gives man rein to express all those blind prejudices and intolerant beliefs to which he is forever subject.
Impersonality of the Market
To look at this another way: The free market is often said to be impersonal, and indeed it is. Rather than a vice, this is one of its great virtues. Because the relations are substantially impersonal, they are not usually marked by bitter personal conflict. It is precisely because the labor union attempts to take the employment relationship out of the marketplace that bitter personal conflict so often marks union-management relationships. The intensely personal relationship is one that is civilized only by love, as between man and wife, and within the family. But man’s capacity for love is severely limited by his imperfect nature. Far better, then, to economize on love, to reserve our dependence on it to those relationships where even our imperfect natures are capable of sustained action based on love. Far better, then, to build our economic system on largely impersonal relationships and on man’s self-interest—a motive power with which he is generously supplied. One need only study the history of such utopian experiments as our Indiana’s Harmony and New Harmony to realize that a social structure which ignores man’s essential nature results in the dissension, conflict, disintegration, and dissolution of Robert Owen’s New Harmony or the absolutism of Father Rapp’s Harmony.
The “vulgar calculus of the marketplace,” as its critics have described it, is still the most humane way man has yet found for solving those questions of economic allocation and division which are ubiquitous in human society. By what must seem fortunate coincidence, it is also the system most likely to produce the affluent society, to move mankind above an existence in which life is mean, nasty, brutish, and short. But, of course, this is not just coincidence. Under economic freedom, only man’s destructive instincts are curbed by law. All of his creative instincts are released and freed to work those wonders of which free men are capable. In the controlled society only the creativity of the few at the top can be utilized, and much of this creativity must be expended in maintaining control and in fending off rivals. In the free society, the creativity of every man can be expressed—and surely by now we know that we cannot predict who will prove to be the most creative.
You may be puzzled, then, that I do not rest my case for economic freedom on its productive achievements; on its buildings, its houses, its automobiles, its bathtubs, its wonder drugs, its television sets, its sirloin steaks and green salads with Roquefort dressings. I neither feel within myself nor do I hear in the testimony of others any evidence that man’s search for purpose, his longing for fulfillment, is in any significant way relieved by these accomplishments. I do not scorn these accomplishments nor do I worship them. Nor do I find in the lives of those who do worship them any evidence that they find ultimate peace and justification in their idols.
I rest my case rather on the consistency of the free market with man’s essential nature, on the basic morality of its system of rewards and punishments, on the protection it gives to the integrity of the individual.
The free market cannot produce the perfect world, but it can create an environment in which each imperfect man may conduct his lifelong search for purpose in his own way, in which each day he may order his life according to his own imperfect vision of his destiny, suffering both the agonies of his errors and the sweet pleasure of his successes. This freedom is what it means to be a man; this is the God-head, if you wish.
I give you, then, the free market, the expression of man’s economic freedom and the guarantor of all his other freedoms.
The Libertarian Philosophy
I intend to spend the next seventeen minutes answering a question that a disappointingly small number of people even bother to ask. The question is this: Just what is Ben Rogge’s social philosophy? or to put it the way a few who have heard me speak have put it: “Rogge, just what kind of a nut are you?” This way of putting it, although accurate perhaps, is distressing to me because I am essentially a button-down-collar, Kiwanis Club-type conformist. My only attention-drawing eccentricity has been a tendency to give myself all putts under five feet.
But I suppose that any man must expect to create both suspicion and confusion when he demands, at one and the same time, that prostitution be legalized, that the social security system be abolished, that the laws making it a crime to use marijuana be repealed, along with the laws against child labor, and that we sell Yellowstone Park to the people who operate Disneyland. This is indeed a mixed bag, but it is my very own bag and to me these apparently diverse elements represent simply different applications of a single guiding principle. To anticipate, this principle is that each man and each woman should be permitted to do his or her thing, singly or in pairs or in groups as large as the Mormon Church or General Motors, so long as it’s peaceful.
Now, to the heart of the matter. First, is my social philosophy properly described as one of the competing ideologies of our day? To this the answer is no. In the first place, it is so far out of fashion that it can hardly be said to be competing; second, it is thought by many to be not of our day, but of the last century; and third, I see it as not an ideology at all but rather the negation of ideology. I quote now from Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary: “ideology—the integrated assertions, theories and aims constituting a politico-social program.” To me, this identifies the ideologue as someone, be he Christian or Moslem or Marxist or Fascist or Liberal Reformer or Monarchist, who has a clear vision of what man is or should be or could become and who has some kind of socio-political program for bringing about the desired state of affairs. To the ideologue, the ideal social system is to be defined in terms of certain ends or goals to be attained, such as the elimination of poverty or the elimination of racial prejudice or the maximizing of the growth rate or the establishment of one true religion or the dominance of the master race or the implementation of the General Will or the eternal glory of the American or the French nation. Usually, but not always, there are certain restraints placed on the means to be used, but the emphasis is upon the vision of the proper goal of man’s existence here on earth, as revealed by voices from burning bushes or by prophets or by the magnificently objective results of science or in the massive and blind forces of history or in the dark and mysterious processes of the human mind or what-have-you.
To the libertarian, in a certain sense, it is not the ends of man’s actions that count but only the means used in serving those ends. To each of the ideologues he says: “You may be right and you may keep on trying to convince me and others that you are right, but the only means you may use are those of persuasion. You may not impose your vision by force on anyone. This means not only that you are not to stone the prostitute or the hippie or the college dean or the Jew or the businessman or even the policeman; it means as well, and most importantly, that you are not to get the policeman or the sheriff to do your stoning for you.”
In saying this, the libertarian is not necessarily declaring himself to be agnostic in his attitude toward any and all ideologies. He may in fact have some clear preferences as among ideologies. At the same time, men who feel deeply about something are rarely tolerant with respect to that something. I, Ben Rogge, do not use marijuana nor do I approve of its use, but I am afraid that if I support laws against its use, some fool will insist as well on denying me my noble and useful gin and tonic. I believe that the typical Episcopal Church is somewhat higher on the scale of civilization than the snake-handling cults of West Virginia. Frankly I wouldn’t touch even a consecrated reptile with a ten-foot pole, or even a nine-iron, but as far as the Anglican Church is concerned, I am still an anti-anti-disestablishmentarian, if you know what I mean.
Well, so what? How does all this set the libertarian apart (whether for better or for worse) from all others? Let us take first the traditionalist or conservative, with whom the libertarian is often linked, largely erroneously. True, together they sing the chorus of damn the unions, damn the minimum wage laws, and damn the progressive income tax. But when the libertarian starts a chorus of damn the Sunday blue laws, he ends up singing a solo.
Let me be careful about this. What I am asking for is precisely what men like Albert Jay Nock have asked for in the past—that the society be distinguished from the state and that the society not be absorbed by the state. Society, with its full network of restraints on individual conduct, based on custom, tradition, religion, personal morality, a sense of style, and with all of its indeed powerful sanctions, is what makes the civilized life possible and meaningful. I am not proposing an anarchic society; on the contrary I am essentially a conservative on most questions of social organization and social process. I do believe in continuity, in the important role of tradition and custom, in standards for personal conduct, in the great importance of the elites (imperfect though they may be).
But unlike the political conservative, I do not wish to see these influences on individual behavior institutionalized in the hands of the state. As I read history, I see that everywhere the generally accepted social processes have been made into law, civilization has ceased to advance. For one, the penalty to be paid by the innovator, which is severe even without the law, and perhaps properly so, is made so severe (even including death) as to stop that healthy and necessary and slow process of change through which civilizations move to higher levels of achievement.
For another, the elites, if given the power to implement their views with the use of force, are almost certain to be corrupted by that power and to cease playing their essential and beneficial role in society. The pages of history are strewn with the wreckages of superior men who have been undone by the corrupting influence of possession of the power to coerce.
Now to the modern liberal. How does the libertarian differ from the modern liberal? Well, he cuts in where the conservative cuts out and cuts out where the conservative cuts in. Like the libertarian, the modern liberal is all for sin, so long as it’s peaceful. But unlike the libertarian, the modern liberal is perfectly willing to use the sheriff to attempt to bring about whatever outcomes he desires in economic life. Should there be a Pure Books, Plays and Films administration? Never, says the modern liberal. Should there be a Pure Food and Drug Administration? Of course, says the modern liberal. If two consenting adults engage in an unnatural act in private, should the law intervene? Never, says the modern liberal. If two consenting adults arrive at a wage contract calling for the payment of $1.00 an hour to the one, should the state intervene and require that the payment must be no less than $1.60 per hour (even if, by the very act, that leads to no contract; to no job at all)? Of course, says the modern liberal. These examples could be multiplied indefinitely.
Now perhaps there are real differences in circumstances that make these differences in evaluation consistent. Perhaps the modern liberal is right and the libertarian is wrong. What I am trying to point out is that the libertarian is opposed to intervention by the state in any of the peaceful actions of individuals or groups, whether the relationship involves sex, games, or the marketplace, and this sets him apart from both the modern conservative and the modern liberal.
Now what of the New Left? Here too there are some family resemblances, and some of my libertarian friends are now involved in a love affair with the New Left, such as writing for Ramparts magazine and lecturing at the Free University in New York. In some ways this makes sense. The New Left and the libertarians share a common suspicion of concentrated power, and particularly of the power to coerce; they join in not wishing to be ruled by any establishment, even of the elite. But there the love affair comes to an abrupt end.
To the libertarian, private property is an extension of the human personality and an absolutely necessary element in the structure of a society of free men; to the New Lefter, private property is largely an invention of the establishment to suppress the free human spirit and is a barrier to the full expression of human concern and relatedness. To the libertarian, or at least to Ben Rogge, the “politics of confrontation” is neither peaceful as a means nor acceptable as an end, if the end is what it so often seems to be, the imposing of a minority view on the majority by what amounts to blackmail. “Give in to my demands and I’ll leave your office; throw me off your property and you are guilty of breaking the peace. Call in the cops to protect that which is yours and you are a fascist.” To the libertarian this is nonsense and very dangerous nonsense indeed. The goal of the victory of persuasion over force in human affairs can hardly be well served by what amounts to the use of force.
But of course the goal of the New Left is not the goal of the libertarian—the right choice of means. In fact the goals of the New Left are difficult to identify, particularly in terms of the kind of social arrangements they wish to see brought into being out of the ashes of that which we now have. There seem to be three main possibilities: (1) an essentially anarchist arrangement, with no government; (2) a syndicalist-communalist arrangement, with minimal government; or (3) an out-and-out Marxist-socialist dictatorship of the proletariat. To the libertarian, the first would soon become the tyranny of the strong, and life would indeed be mean, nasty, brutish and short; the second would mean economic chaos and starvation for most; the third would mean tyranny, bold and bloody and bright.
To all of these—the conservative, the modern liberal, and the New Left—the libertarian says, with Huckleberry Finn, “No thank you, I have been there before.” He insists that what marks the civilized society is not so much what goals its people are seeking as what means are used and accepted in the seeking of goals. He insists that to the opinions and ideas and revelations of even the best of men must still cling the mortal, the human uncertainty. If even those who come to be least imperfect in knowing and acting cannot be identified in advance (or even clearly identified after the fact), surely it follows that each imperfect man must be given (indeed, has) the right to follow his own imperfectly selected star in his own imperfect way, to march to the music that he hears and not to the music that you and I hear.
The libertarian is in no sense a utopian. He argues only that in a world in which each individual, imperfect man was left free to make his own imperfect decisions and to act on them in any way that is peaceful, enjoying the fruits of his successes and suffering the agony of his mistakes, man could at least fully attain to the dignity and tragedy and comedy that comes with being a man. And here, somewhere east of Eden, there is little more that we can expect out of life.
Who’s To Blame?
In some 63.7 percent of all interviews in my office, the person across the desk is there to tell me who’s to blame. And in 99.6 percent of the cases where that is the question, the answer is the same: He isn’t.
Now if these were just simple cases of prevarication, we could all shake our heads at the loss of the old Yes-father-I-chopped-down-the-cherry-tree spirit and turn to some other problem, such as the danger presented to the stability of the earth by the buildup of snow on the polar icecaps. But the denial of responsibility is rarely that simple, and herein lies the story.
Today’s George Washington, on the campus and elsewhere, says, “Yes, I chopped down the cherry tree, but—” and then comes ten to ninety minutes of explanation, which is apparently supposed to end in my breaking into tears and forgiving all, after which he goes home to sharpen his little hatchet.
The little Georges of today say, “Yes, I chopped down the cherry tree, but let me give you the whole story. All the guys over at the house were telling me that it’s a tradition around here to cut down cherry trees. What’s that? Did any of them ever actually cut down any cherry trees? Well, I don’t know, but anyway there’s this tradition, see, and with all this lack of school spirit, I figured I was really doing the school a favor when I cut down that crummy old tree.” [Lights up, center stage, where our hero is receiving a medal from the president of the Student Council as the band plays the school song.]
Or it may run like this: “Now this professor, see, told us to collect some forest specimens; he may have told us what trees to cut, but, frankly, I just can’t understand half of what he says, and I honestly thought he said cherry tree. Now actually I wasn’t in class the day he gave the assignment and this friend of mine took it down and I can’t help it if he made a mistake can I? Anyway, if the callboy had awakened me on time, I’d have made the class and would have known he said to get leaves from a whortleberry bush.”
Society on Trial
So far we have run through the simpler cases. Now let’s move to more complex ones. In this one, little George says to his father, “Yes, Dad, I cut down the cherry tree, but I just couldn’t help it. You and mother are always away from home and when you are home all you do is tell me to get out of the house, to go practice throwing a dollar across the Rappahannock. I guess I cut down the tree to get you to pay a little attention to me, and you can’t blame me for that, can you?” [Lights up, center stage, revealing the kindly old judge admonishing the parents to show more love and affection to little George, who is seated right, quietly hacking away at the jury box.]
These can get messy. Here’s another. In this one, young George has hired himself a slick city lawyer who has read all the recent books on the sociology of crime. The lawyer pleads G.W.’s case as follows: “It is true that this young man cut down the tree, marked exhibit A and lying there on the first ten rows of the courtroom seats. Also, there can be no question but that he did it willfully and maliciously, nor can it be denied that he has leveled over half the cherry trees in northern Virginia in exactly the same way. But is this boy to blame? Can he be held responsible for his actions? No. The real crime is his society’s, and not his. He is the product of his environment, the victim of a social system which breeds crime in every form. Born in poverty, raised in the slums, abused by his parents,” and on and on. The lawyer closes by pointing a finger at me and saying dramatically, “You, Dean Rogge, as a member of the society which has produced this young monster, are as much to blame as he, as much deserving of punishment as he.” The boy gets off with a six-month suspended sentence and I am ridden out of town on a rail.
I do want to refer to just one other possibility. In this one, the lawyer calls as a witness an eminent psychoanalyst who, as a result of his examination of the young man, absolves him of all conscious responsibility for the crime, in testimony that is filled with the jargon of that semi-science—hence obscure, hence somewhat pornographic. It turns out that the cherry tree is a phallic symbol and the boy’s action an unconscious and perverse response to the universal castration complex.
Farfetched? Not at all. As Richard LaPiere writes in his book, The Freudian Ethic:
The Freudian explanation of crime absolves the individual from all personal responsibility for the criminal act and places the blame squarely upon the shoulders of an abstraction—society. Modern society is especially hard upon the individual, since it imposes upon him so many and often contradictory restraints and at the same time demands of him so much that does not come naturally to him. His criminal acts are therefore but a symptom of the underlying pathology of society, and it is as futile to punish him for the sins of society as to attempt to cure acne by medicating the symptomatic pustules.16
Responsibility Is Personal
Where does all this leave us? Who’s to blame? Well, nobody, or rather everybody. The Freudian ethic has eliminated sin (and, of course, that means that it has eliminated virtue as well).
Personally, I can’t buy it. I cannot accept a view of man which makes him a helpless pawn of either his id or his society. I do not deny that the mind of each of us is a dark and complex chamber, nor that the individual is bent by his environment, nor even the potentially baneful influence of parents. As a matter of fact, after a few months in the dean’s office, I was ready to recommend to the college that henceforth it admit only orphans. But as a stubborn act of faith I insist that precisely what makes man man is his potential ability to conquer both himself and his environment. If this capacity is indeed given to or possessed by each of us, then it follows that we are inevitably and terribly and forever responsible for everything that we do. The answer to the question, “Who’s to blame?” is always, “Mea Culpa, I am.”
This is a tough philosophy. The Christian can take hope in the thought that though his sins can never be excused, he may still come under the grace of God, sinner though he be. The non-Christian has to find some other source of strength, and believe me, this is not easy to do.
What does all this have to do with our day-to-day living, whether on or beyond the campus? Actually, it has everything to do with it. It means that as students we stop blaming our teachers, our classmates, our parents, our high schools, our society, and even the callboy for our own mistakes and shortcomings. It means that as teachers and college administrators we stop blaming our students, the board of trustees, the oppressive spirit of society (and even our wives) for our own failures.
As individuals it means that we stop making excuses to ourselves, that we carry each cherry tree we cut down on our consciences forever. It means that we say with Cassius, “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in the stars, but in ourselves.” This is a tough philosophy, but it is also the only hopeful one man has yet devised.
Paradise in Posey County
In these comments I offer three morality tales for your guidance, with the moral to be found in each tailored to the needs of my pre-existing biases. My first and third stories are laid in that romantic region, Posey County in Indiana’s pocket country—once the haunt of Ohio River pirates and moonshiners. My second is laid in the no-less-romantic home of Bobbie Burns, oatmeal, and the theory of infant damnation—to be specific, in New Lanark, Scotland.
One early summer day in 1815, a strange and wonderful armada entered the mouth of the Wabash River. In the lead boat, somewhat obscured by a magnificent patriarchal beard, stood Father Rapp, the leader of this valiant group. In the other boats were some eight hundred men, women, and older children. All were dressed in the quaint costume of German peasants from the region of Wurttemberg. This is not surprising because that is just what they were.
They went ashore just a few miles up the Wabash from its mouth and, kneeling in prayer, dedicated “Harmony” (the name they had selected for their settlement) to the uses of Christian brotherhood. These were the Rappites—German peasants, primitive Christians, practical communists, and the followers of George Rapp. Why were there only older children in the group, you ask? Because some years before they had sworn themselves to celibacy. The reason? God had originally made Adam as part male, part female. The separation of the one into two had led to the fall from grace; hence the celibate state is more pleasing to God. (No man or woman who has been married for any considerable time would wish to reject that hypothesis out of hand.)
These people were also millennialists. They believed that the coming of the One was imminent and that when He came He would deal out destruction to all of man’s futile and evil creations. Particularly marked for destruction was Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, near which the Rappites had lived for their first ten years in America and from the citizens of which city they had apparently suffered numerous indignities. Unfortunately, perhaps, Pittsburgh still stands, sustained no doubt by the combined strength of the United States Steel Company and Mean Joe Greene.
Arising from their knees, where we have kept them for too long, these sturdy souls set to work with a will to bring order to the wilderness. How well they succeeded can be seen in the fact that ten years later Harmony was clearly the most prosperous place in the entire region. The Rappites sold their many products throughout the Mississippi valley—wheat, hides, horses, hogs, shingles, linen, tobacco, furniture, and whiskey reputed to be the best in the West—a whiskey that they themselves were forbidden even to sample for taste. They had their stores in Vincennes, Shawnee-town, and St. Louis, with agents in Pittsburgh, Louisville, and New Orleans.
How were these miracles accomplished at a time when Indianapolis was a wilderness and Fort Wayne a place where the whites dressed like Indians and wore scalps at their belts? By a shrewd mixture of communism, the capitalist marketplace, religion, superstition, and the autocratic driving force of George Rapp. Rapp taught his followers obedience, humility, and self-sacrifice; he also used every trick in the bag—not excluding force—to keep his followers in line. We are told (in a probably apocryphal story) that when his only blood-line son broke the vow of celibacy, he had him forcibly emasculated, and the impetuous young man died in the process. Rapp also had frequent visitations from obliging angels who told him what his followers must do. The footprints of one of the heavier of those angels can still be seen impressed in a limestone slab in modern New Harmony (the angel involved was no less than the angel Gabriel). He also had built various tunnels under the settlement, and the young Rappite who thought that he might rest for a moment, perhaps to reflect on the dubious privilege of celibacy, might find himself confronted with the furry head of his ubiquitous leader, emerging from the bowels of the earth to reproach him for having yielded to temptation.
In 1825, Rapp, discouraged by the unfriendly nature of the malaria-bearing mosquitoes and the citizens of Evansville and Princeton who surrounded him, decided to move his flock again and sold the whole operation for $150,000. He led his followers back toward the hated Pittsburgh, where they founded a new community, appropriately labeled Economy.
So much for the first story. Now for the second. It starts on January 1, 1780, in New Lanark, Scotland. A rising young industrialist, Robert Owen, has just assumed control of the New Lanark textile mills. In a new twist on an old story, now that Owen and his partners have purchased the mills, he marries the daughter of the previous owner.
Robert Owen also sees visions, but instead of visions of the millennium, he envisions a paradise here on earth, “a new existence to man” to be attained by surrounding him with superior circumstances only. The mind of the child is a blank page, a tabula rasa, says Owen; let only the rational, the pleasant, the good be written on that page, and the world can be transformed in one generation.
Unrealistic? Impractical? Not so, says Owen, and goes to work on the people of New Lanark, particularly the children. He reduces the hours of work in the mills, organizes schools for the children (where the two teachers can neither read nor write and hence are uncorrupted by unnatural, non-Rousseau mankind), replaces the whip in the mills with various colored blocks which indicate whether a given worker has been good or bad, and sends his inspectors to check on the cleanliness of each home. This his fellow industrialists might have forgiven him had he not also made an incredible amount of money in the process. His textiles command a 50 percent premium in the market and he recoups his investment in four years’ time. Philanthropy is proved to be practical, and modern industrial psychology is born. From Russia comes Grand Duke Nicholas to survey the wonders of New Lanark. The Duke of Kent, whose daughter is to rule England for over sixty years, and who is neither more nor less off his rocker than the other offspring of that addled rustic, George III, is an enthusiastic disciple of Owen’s and a close personal friend. New Lanark is soon known throughout the world.
For most men this would be enough, but Owen is a born chaser after the immortal butterfly. New Lanark today; the world tomorrow. In his book, New View of Society, he presents his science of society, complete with a rational deistic religion, modified free love, abolition of private property, and rectangular communities of two thousand people. Goaded by his critics, he determines to prove the practicability of his scheme, and in 1824 he completes arrangements to buy our old friend, Harmony, from the Rappites for $150,000. Thus, New Harmony is launched, and with it our third story.
This third story is short, like the life-span of the experiment it describes. No model community was ever launched with more fanfare. In the early spring of 1825, Robert Owen delivered an address in Washington, D.C., on his plans to redeem the world. In the audience were most members of both houses of Congress, the judges of the Supreme Court, President John Quincy Adams, and most of his cabinet members. An invitation was issued to all who shared Owen’s desire for a new state of society to join him in New Harmony. Many responded, including some of the best-educated men of the day.
The old Harmony had been composed of ignorant, superstitious peasants. New Harmony was composed of many men of brilliance, including of course Robert Owen, the leading industrialist of the world. The Rappites had had to tame a wilderness. The Owenites were moved into one of the most prosperous pieces of real estate west of the mountains. The Rappites were just putting in their time until the world came to an end; the Owenites were launching the Brave New World. The Rappite settlement lasted ten years and was many times more prosperous when it ended than when it began. The New Harmony experiment lasted less than three years and was a social and financial disaster.
It is instructive to follow the chronology of events. After his triumph in Washington, Owen made his way to New Harmony. In April 1825, in the old Rappite church, he announced, “I am come to this country to introduce an entire new system of society; to change it from an ignorant, selfish system to an enlightened social system which shall gradually unite all interests into one, and remove all causes for contest between individuals.” He proposed to establish a “new empire of peace and goodwill,” which would lead to “that state of virtue, intelligence, enjoyment and happiness which it has been foretold by the sages of the past would at some time become the lot of man.” The truth of his principles would spread “from Community to Community, from State to State, from Continent to Continent, finally overshadowing the whole earth, shedding light, fragrance and abundance, intelligence and happiness upon the sons of man.” Here is the way it was expressed in an Owenite poem:
However, Owen was no foolish optimist; he did not expect this to come about immediately; on the contrary, he admitted that the whole task would probably take at least three years. He then offered the community a constitution (which provided for something less than the ultimate communism), appointed a Preliminary Committee to manage the affairs of the society, issued an invitation to “the industrious and well-disposed of all nations” to come to New Harmony—and promptly took off for England.
Many did respond to this generous invitation, but I must report to you, in sadness, that not all who did so were “industrious” or “well-disposed.” Some were indeed attracted by the intellectual excitement of the society—but were less than excited by the associated labor in the dairy barns. Others were drawn by the alluring combination of free food and free love—neither of which proved in fact to be readily or long available in New Harmony.
In the meantime, though, sustained by the generosity of Robert Owen and William Maclure (a scholarly and wealthy convert to Owenism), the society managed to survive through 1825. The New Harmony Gazette (the uncritical voice of Owen’s philosophy and Owen’s optimism) reported that various businesses and manufacturers were “doing well” but regrettably only “soap and glue” were produced in quantities that “exceeded consumption.” Both medicines and basic foods were available without cost ... except, of course, to Owen. One hundred and thirty children were schooled, boarded, and clothed at public (i.e., Owen’s) expense. Amusements flourished. A band played for a ball each Tuesday night and for a concert each Friday night, both in the old Rappite church—which, I regret to report, was no longer used for the purposes for which it had been so lovingly constructed by the Rappites.
Owen returned to New Harmony in January of 1826, and growing impatient with the step-by-step approach to paradise, proclaimed “The New Harmony Community of Equality,” under the direction of an Executive Council, soon to be replaced, at the request of the membership, by one-man rule by Owen himself. A nucleus of twenty-five of the true believers was created and all others had to apply anew for membership in the community (with Owen having the right of veto). It is instructive to note that there were three classes of memberships outside the nucleus—conditional, probationary, and persons on trial. If a Paradise on Earth, why not a Purgatory as well?
By May of 1826, two communities of dissenters had been established: Macluria and Feiba Pavelli. Those great friends, Owen and Maclure, had come to a parting of the ways over the proper conduct of the educational program. Maclure, a disciple of Pestalozzi, had not followed Owen’s instructions in the education of the young, and the result was a new colony, across the road from the old. Feiba Pavelli was formed largely by a group of English farmers who found Owen’s restrictions on the brewing and drinking of ale vexatious and troubling to the spirit. Its name was the product of a code designed by one of its members which, to those who knew the code, revealed the exact latitude and longitude of the community.
Another source of dissent within the larger community included the vital question of whether the ideal commune should be rectangular or hexagonal in form. (Those of you who have attended a college faculty meeting will recognize the genre. Indeed, the famous “Boatload of Knowledge,” carrying some of the leading scholars of the day, had followed closely behind Owen when he returned in January 1826. The makings of a faculty-type meeting were indeed present.)
Despite these minor defections and difficulties, Owen was encouraged enough, on July 4, 1826, to deliver his celebrated “Declaration of Mental Independence.” I quote:
I now declare to you and to the world, that Man, up to this hour, has been in all parts of the earth, a slave to a Trinity of the most monstrous evils that could be combined to inflict mental and physical evil upon his whole race. I refer to Private or Individual Property, Absurd and Irrational systems of Religion, and Marriage.
But as the oratory waxed, the economy of New Harmony waned. Agriculture, for example, was virtually at a standstill; the fences collapsed from want of repair, and the fields grew up in weeds. In desperation, on August 25, 1826, the people held a meeting at which they abolished all offices then existing and appointed three men as dictators.
On November 11, the Gazette carried a speech of Owen’s in which he spoke in glowing terms of the progress of the community; but by January of 1827, Owen was selling property to individuals, the greater part of the town was resolved into individual lots; commercial enterprises took over most of the stores and sought a clientele with the vulgar signs of the capitalist heresy; a wax-figure and puppet show was opened at one end of the boarding house, and communalism as a way of life vanished as quickly as it had appeared.
In June of 1827, Owen took leave of New Harmony, never to return. Fortunately, he divided the land among his sons, who stayed on in Indiana and proved to be men of great spirit and intelligence, very real assets to the soon-to-be-state—but that’s another story.
In 1842, a student of communalist societies by the name of Macdonald visited New Harmony and reported as follows:
I was cautioned not to speak of Socialism, as the subject was unpopular. The advice was good; Socialism was unpopular, and with good reason. The people had been wearied and disappointed by it; had been filled with theories, until they were nauseated, and had made such miserable attempts at practice, that they seemed ashamed of what they had been doing. An enthusiastic socialist would soon be cooled down at New Harmony.
But not, of course, the dedicated utopian; thus John Humphrey Noyes, historian of American socialisms and one of the founders in the 1840s of the Oneida community in New York, closed his remarkably honest survey of the New Harmony experiment by saying that “we can still be sure that the idea of Owen and his thousand was not a delusion, but an inspiration, that only needed wiser hearts, to become a happy reality.”18 In other words, as with the modern socialisms (all of which, in my opinion, have been failures to the extent that they were socialist), the fault is never with the idea itself but always with its particular form of implementation.
It is with this idea that I take fundamental disagreement. I prefer to Noyes’ evaluation of New Harmony that of a man identified only as L. Bolles and included in Noyes’ section on New Harmony. I quote:
The popular idea is that Owen and his class of reformers had an ideal that was very beautiful and very perfect; that they had too much faith for their time—too much faith in humanity; that they were several hundred years in advance of their age; and that the world was not good enough to understand them and their beautiful ideas. That is the superficial view of these men. I think the truth is, they were not up to the times; that mankind, in point of real faith, was ahead of them. Their view that the evils in human nature are owing to outward surroundings, is an impeachment of the providence of God. But they have taught us one great lesson; and that is that good circumstances do not make good men.19
In my view, the Robert Owen who showed the world the way to a better life for all was not the Owen of New Harmony but the Owen of New Lanark, the hardheaded businessman who proved that the humane treatment of others works, that is, it serves the purposes of both employer and employee. In my view, New Harmony should be seen, not as a monument to man’s idealism, but as a testament to man’s capacity to delude himself about his real nature.
[16. ]Richard La Piere, The Freudian Ethic (New York: Duell, Sloan, and Pearce, 1959) p. 166.
[17. ]Mark Holloway, Heavens on Earth: Utopian Communities in America 1680-1880, 2d ed. (New York: Peter Smith, 1966), p. 101.
[18. ]John Humphrey Noyes, History of American Socialisms (1870), p. 43.
[19. ]Ibid., pp. 54-55.