Is Freedom High on Today's Agenda?


Mr. Brownfeld of Alexandria, Virginia, is a free-lance author, editor and lecturer especially interested in political science.

It is sad, but may be true, that many, perhaps most, Americans really do not care very much about being free.

Two candidates for public office recently told this writer that when they advocated a policy of the least coercive kind of government, they were rebuffed by the voters.

One of these men was John Hospers, the Libertarian Party candidate for President in 1972. When voters asked, "If you are elected, what will you do for me?" he responded: "I’ll leave you alone." The other man, Michael Feld, a Republican, was running for Congress in Iowa. When he was asked the same question in Dubuque, he responded that, "I’ll do my best to see to it that the people in this city run their own affairs, and are not told what to do by bureaucrats in Washington." Neither Mr. Hospers’ audience nor that of Mr. Feld were interested in being left alone. What they wanted was, unfortunately for freedom, far different.

Much the same happened when this writer addressed a group of high school students visiting Washington, D. C. from Rhode Island. When they were told that the Founding Fathers were suspicious of government, and fearful of the centralization of power, the young people were mystified. "Do you mean to say," one asked, "that we should not have faith in our politicians and should not look to government for the answer to our problems?" Such an idea — the traditional American idea of freedom and carefully limited governmental power — had never really occurred to these students. One wonders what is being taught in the schools of Rhode Island. Unfortunately, it is the same philosophy of dependence upon the state which seems to be the common program of much of our public education. And why, after all, shouldn’t state-supported schools seek to foster dependence upon the state? It seems to be in the nature of things.

The fact is that more aspects of our lives than ever before are subject to the intervention of men in Washington, some elected, some appointed. We are told by them to buckle our automobile seat belts, to hire given percentages of women and selected minority groups, to answer intimate questions on census forms and to turn over ever larger portions of our incomes in the form of taxes and social security levies. The government keeps files upon us, sometimes spies upon us, and is always ready to tell us what to do — always, of course, "for our own good."

A generation ago the great economist Joseph Schumpeter described the performance of intellectuals, politicians and others who sought to expand government power at the expense of individual freedom and of traditional rights to private property this way: "Capitalism stands its trial before judges who have the sentence of death in their pockets. They are going to pass it, whatever the defense they may hear; the only success victorious defense can possibly produce is a change in the indictment."

Thus, while the issues may change, the answer is always the same: an increase in the power of the state and a diminution in the rights of individual men and women.

For the Good of Society

Today those who seek to expand state power say that they are doing this in the name of ecology, of the environment, of zero population growth, and a host of similar euphemisms for a planned and controlled society. They propose legislation which will tell individuals what they may do on and with their own property. They propose tax legislation which would include penalties upon those having more than the legally mandated number of children. They propose environmental standards which would limit growth and, as a result, reduce the expansion of business, industry, and jobs.

Long ago, Justice Louis Brandeis declared that a nation’s freedom was never taken from it "except for a good reason." Those who wish to limit freedom at the present time have many "good reasons" for their actions. The average citizen, unfortunately, is not aware of the consequences of these proposals and, as a result, becomes their naive supporter and defender.

More and more, Americans are becoming subjects rather than citizens. Many don’t realize it. Many who do, don’t mind it.

After all, Capitol Hill is filled each day with men and women with their hands out for what they like to think is "federal money." They are farmers, veterans, teachers, businessmen, welfare recipients — each one wants a government subsidy for his own particular group. In return for such government subsidization, they are quite willing to submit to government rules and regulations. For them, freedom is simply the asking price for a form of guaranteed security. Many are eager to pay it.

The illusion which those who care about freedom have operated under from the beginning was that such freedom would be taken from them either by demagogues at home or tyrants abroad. It is, of course, necessary to guard against both of these very real phenomena. This, however, remains a somewhat mythical construction, for the real world does not work quite that way. Freedom is rarely taken from men and women who are jealous of it. Quite to the contrary — they give it away eagerly for something they want more.

Catering to Weakness

Totalitarians of all sorts —whether Nazis or Fascists or Communists — understand this flaw in human nature very well, and they play upon it very effectively. The Nazi spokesman Goebbels declared that, "To be a socialist is to submit the I to the thou; socialism is a sacrificing of the individual to the whole." Sacrificing the individual and reducing him to a bit of dust, to an atom, implies, according to Hitler, the renunciation of the right to assert one’s individual opinion, interests and happiness. The individual, under such a system, ceases to be important. Hitler declared that, "The individual renounces his personal opinion and his interests." Hitler praises "unselfishness" and teaches that "in the hunt for their own happiness, people fell all the more out of heaven into hell." It was the aim of education in Nazi Germany to teach the individual not to assert himself. Precisely the same is true of education in the Soviet Union and in Communist China.

Freedom begins to be lost the moment the "public interest" replaces what an individual believes to be the truth and the wishes of the group assume an authority which cannot be rebuked. In his important book, Escape From Freedom, Erich Fromm notes that in the course of modern history the authority of the Church has been replaced by that of the State and today is being replaced as well "by the anonymous authority of… public opinion. Because we have freed ourselves of the older, overt forms of authority, we do not see that we become the prey of a new kind of authority. We have become automatons who live under the illusion of being self-willing individuals… The loss of the self has increased the necessity to conform, for it results in a profound doubt of one’s identity… if we do not see the unconscious suffering of the average, automatized person, then we fail to see the danger that threatens our culture: the readiness to accept any ideology and any leader, if only he promises excitement… and offers meaning and order to an individual’s life."

While we often declare that individual freedom is of the highest priority, and wonder why state power continues to grow at its expense, and why so few are concerned — this very anguish we feel may indicate that we do not possess a proper understanding of what is happening. It is not politics, or economics, or history which may really be at work, but human nature itself.

Precious to Whom?

The French philosopher Bertrand De Jouvenel, in his classic work On Power, points out that we frequently say that "Liberty is the most precious of all goods" without noticing what this formulation implies in the way of social assumptions.

He writes that, "A good thing which is of great price is not one of the primary necessities. Water costs nothing at all, and bread very little. What costs much is something like a Rembrandt, which though its price is above rubies, is wanted by very few people, and by none who have not, as it happens, a sufficiency of bread and water. Precious things, therefore, are really desired by but few human beings and not even by them until their primary needs have been amply provided. It is from this point of view that liberty needs to be looked at… the will to be free is in time of danger extinguished and revives again when once the need of security has received satisfaction. Liberty is in fact only a secondary need; the primary need is security."

Yet, Americans live in the most prosperous and secure society in the history of the world — but are sacrificing freedom for what they perceive as "security" at an ever-increasing rate. Unfortunately, many predicted that democracy would produce this result.

Macaulay to Randall

Thomas Babington Macaulay, writing to Henry Randall in 1857, lamented, "I have long been convinced that institutions purely democratic must, sooner or later, destroy liberty or civilization or both. In Europe, where the population is dense, the effect of such institutions would be almost instantaneous… Either the poor would plunder the rich, and civilization would perish; or order and prosperity would be saved by a strong military government, and liberty would perish."

Macaulay, looking to America, declared that, "Either some Caesar or Napoleon will seize the reins of government with a strong hand; or your republic will be as fearfully plundered and laid waste by barbarians in the 20th century as the Roman Empire was in the Fifth — with this difference — that your Huns and Vandals will have been engendered within your own country by your own institutions."

There is much discussion today about "equality" by men and women who do not understand that liberty and equality are, in fact, two distinct and diametrically opposed concepts. They would do well to consider the analysis of Alexis de Tocqueville in Democracy in America:

"I think that democratic communities have a natural taste for freedom; left to themselves they will seek it, cherish it, and view any privation of it with regret. But for equality, their passion is ardent, insatiable, incessant, invincible; they call for equality in freedom; and if they cannot obtain that, they still call for equality in slavery. They will endure poverty, servitude, barbarism — but they will not endure aristocracy."

As if shattering the dream of the Founding Fathers, Tocqueville declared that, "Democratic nations often hate those in whose hands the central power is vested; but they always love that power itself. I am of the opinion, in the democratic ages which are opening upon us, individual independence and local liberties will ever be the produce of artificial contrivance; that centralization will be the natural form of government… Americans are so enamored of equality that they would rather be equal in slavery than unequal in freedom."

Discussing the growth of centralized power in the United States, a country created by men who feared such centralization and attempted to write a Constitution which would prevent it, De Jouvenel declares that, " America was a country which was a stranger to compulsory military service, in which the tradition was to elect officials to office, and in which Power was subject to judicial control. Is it not astounding that Power was able in a few years to reduce this control nearly to the vanishing point, to build up a vast bureaucracy, and to invest this bureaucracy with such wide powers that a number of federal agencies have been established simultaneously to formulate rules, to apply them, and to punish breaches of them — to act, in other words, as legislator, executive and judge?"

De Jouvenel concludes that, "The state, when once it is made the giver of protection and security, has but to urge the necessities of its protectorate and overlordship to justify its encroachments. Bismark realized long ago that this was the road which led to enlarged authority."

Whether governments are elected by a majority of citizens, or are elected by no one, tells us simply how they are constituted, not how power is exercised or whether or not freedom of the individual is protected. The fact that Americans, once in four years, elect a President, or once in two years choose a member of the House of Representatives, should not confuse the fact that government power is, nevertheless, arbitrarily imposed. After the depradation of the French Revolution, Clemenceau said that "Had we expected that these majorities of a day would exercise the same authority as that possessed by our ancient kings, we should but have effected an exchange of tyrants." Clemenceau’s words seem to echo those spoken by William Pitt, Earl of Chatham on January 9, 1770: "Are all the generous efforts of our ancestors… reduced to this conclusion, that instead of the arbitrary power of a king we must submit to the arbitrary power of a House of Commons? If this be true, what benefits do we derive from the exchange? Tyranny is detestable in every shape; but in none as formidable as when it is assumed and exercised by a number of tyrants."

Freedom and individualism seem not to be natural to man, but must be carefully cultivated and taught. The American society is failing in this task—and the future of American liberty hangs in the balance.

Total power over the lives of individuals is worst when that total power is exercised in the name of the majority of citizens organized into a powerful state. Lord Acton declared that, "It is bad to be oppressed by a minority, but it is worse to be oppressed by a majority. For there is a reserve of latent power in the masses which, if it is called into play, the minority can seldom resist. But from the absolute will of an entire people, there is no appeal, no redemption, no refuge but treason."

Freedom, unfortunately, does not seem to be high on the American agenda at the present time. Unless that agenda changes, the future for freedom is bleak. It will not, it seems, be taken from us by either force or subterfuge. If we lose it, it will be because we have given it away. The fault will be entirely our own. 


September 1975

comments powered by Disqus


* indicates required


October 2014

Heavily-armed police and their supporters will tell you they need all those armored trucks and heavy guns. It's a dangerous job, not least because Americans have so many guns. But the numbers just don't support these claims: Policing is safer than ever--and it's safer than a lot of common jobs by comparison. Daniel Bier has the analysis. Plus, Iain Murray and Wendy McElroy look at how the Feds are recruiting more and more Americans to do their policework for them.
Download Free PDF