Man's Destiny--Forced or Free


Mr. Chamberlin is a skilled observer and re­porter of economic and political conditions at home and abroad. He has written a number of books, has lectured widely, and is a contributor to The Wall Street Journal and many nation­ally known magazines.

The underlying basis of a free political system and a free econ­omy is moral. Unless man is in­wardly free—able to distinguish between good and evil, right and wrong, capable of making intelli­gent and prudent decisions in his own interest on his own account—the whole fabric of free institu­tions rests on a foundation of sand. This conception of the self-reliant individual, able within reasonable limitations to shape his own des­tiny, with the choice between suc­cess and failure mainly in his own hands, has been under heavy at­tack from many modern theorists.

They would substitute for the self-reliant individual who helps himself the image of a semi-robot who must be helped and guided in every step he takes by the state and its proliferating welfare agencies. Consider, for example, how America‘s young people are wrapped in a thick wadding of cotton-wool protective legislation.

From the colonial and frontier days down to the more recent times, when a tide of mostly poor immigrants from Europe swelled the population, America’s national success story has been an amal­gam of the individual success stories of boys, born in poor fami­lies, who started at an early age to help their parents and them­selves by taking any available odd jobs, combining this with school and college study, and later be­coming more or less prominent business and professional men. Looking back to their boyhood, these men almost invariably rec­ognize that this early experience in work and self-reliance was im­mensely beneficial to them in adult life.

But today’s well-meaning law­makers have added so many mini­mum wage and other restrictions that it is impossible, in many cases, for an employer to hire young people without paying them more than they are worth. Here is one of the most obvious artificially created causes of youth unemployment and of juvenile de­linquency. For it remains just as true now as in the days when the proverb was more frequently quoted that Satan finds plenty of mischief for idle hands.

Marx and Freud

Two European thinkers, Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud, have done much to undermine the ideal of the free responsible individual by representing man as a tool in the hands of blind impersonal forces, incapable of making moral and rational choices and decisions. In Marx’s view of the world, the overshadowing issue is the strug­gle between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, which is fatalisti­cally predestined to end in the tri­umph of the latter and the estab­lishment of socialism. Besides be­ing a dogmatic atheist, Marx brushed aside moral ideas as nothing but inventions of the capitalists to justify the continued enslavement of the workers. His whole philosophy is suffused with implacable determinism and with the conviction that human deci­sions, judgments, and feelings are the mechanical result of class re­lationships.

Freud’s theory of psychoanaly­sis leads, although by a different road, to the same conclusion: that man is not responsible for his ac­tions and is incapable of exercis­ing free will. According to Freud, the subconscious, over which the individual can exercise no control, tends to dominate his character. Another article in the Freudian creed is that all experiences in the stage of infancy are of supreme importance to the individual. These experiences, in combination with his inherited sex constitu­tion, are supposed to shape his character.

To be sure, not many Ameri­cans have acquired a firm grasp of the ideas of Marx and Freud. Both authors employ a highly technical style and, with few ex­ceptions, their works are not easy reading. But it has often been the case that ideas, even if fully understood only by a small minority, strongly affect the in­tellectual climate of an age. The theories of state and society put forward by Rousseau, Diderot, Condorcet, and other French thinkers of the eighteenth century were not generally familiar to the Paris mobs that supported the Reign of Terror or to the recruits who filled the ranks of the revo­lutionary armies, singing the Mar­seillaise. Yet the connection be­tween the radical thinkers and the course of the French Revolu­tion is close and unmistakable.

"Society Is To Blame"

In the same way, Marx and Freud have done much to under­mine and even destroy the belief that man is a free moral agent, who may properly be held answer­able for his crimes and vices. Now, the fashion is to attribute every crime, however violent, re­volting, and shocking, to some un­specified fault of "society" or to that tired scapegoat, a bad gov­ernment.

The theories that man is a robot product of his environment and that social welfare measures are an effective cure for individual criminality deserve closer exami­nation than they usually receive. For both fly squarely in the face of visible experience.

A good case could be made for the proposition that it is not slums that make people, but people who make slums. It is not a bad en­vironment that creates bad in­dividuals, but rather, it is vicious and depraved individuals who cre­ate a bad environment.

Never in American history has there been so much subsidization, coddling, and spoon feeding of groups which sociologists and so­cial workers like to refer to as underprivileged. The unemploy­ment figures which are supposed to cause alarm are unconscion­ably padded; public relief in one form or another is so easy to ob­tain, and granted with so few re­strictions, that few people can be found to perform unskilled and semiskilled jobs. "Collecting se­curity" has become one of the largest and most popular of Amer­ican unlisted occupations. How else can one explain the discrep­ancy between official high figures and percentages of unemployment and the near impossibility of get­ting help in the household or for jobs that pay comparatively little?

There was a time when it would have seemed as absurd for the government to pay a man’s rent as to take over his bills for grocer­ies. Now, big new apartment houses, equipped with all modern conveniences, have been put up in all large cities—for the benefit of the "underprivileged," at the expense of the general taxpayer. But in all too many cases these houses have rapidly deteriorated in cleanliness and general upkeep and have become centers of crime and vice. Could there be a better illustration of the basic impor­tance of individual character and the relative unimportance of the much-emphasized "environment"?

I sensed this point from a dif­ferent angle when, shortly after the end of World War II, I got ac­quainted with a group of people of German origin whose homes had been in Yugoslavia. They had es­caped before Tito completed his take-over and were living in pretty rough improvised quarters in a suburb of Stuttgart. Although the shacks in which they were living lacked many conveniences, there was no filth or squalor. And on a second visit two or three years later, I found that most of them had advanced from temporary refugee quarters to houses and apartments of their own. Put sturdy, hard-working, self-respect­ing people of this type in slums, and they would make the slums habitable. Put many of the people who inhabit slums into modern apartments, and the process of deterioration is quick to set in.

Assuming Personal Responsibility: Some Examples

There are many illustrations of the changed attitude toward moral responsibility. Two distinguished figures in the nineteenth century, General Ulysses S. Grant and Sir Walter Scott, through no direct fault of their own, became in­volved in the heavy losses of un­successful business ventures of partners. Both worked unremit­tingly, to the point of shortening their lives, in an effort to dis­charge every penny of debt for which they felt a moral liability. The preferred course in modern times would be to apply to the Reconstruction Finance Corpora­tion or some other handy govern­ment agency existing for the pur­pose of bailing out individuals from the consequences of their mistaken judgments.

Herbert Hoover, although he has fortunately lived far into the twentieth century, has always dis­played that keen sense of moral re­sponsibility which was more char­acteristic of the nineteenth; and he communicated this quality to his sons. At the time he was President, his older son was offered a position at a salary far above what his ex­perience at that time would have warranted. The son’s reply was prompt and decisive: "My father’s name is not for sale."

There was a time when the American creed of opportunity for all implied the risk and pen­alty of failure as well as the chance and reward of success. This was the philosophy behind Grover Cleveland’s declaration, when it was suggested that the govern­ment appropriate money to aid farmers of a drought-stricken area, that "though the people sup­port the government, the govern­ment should not support the peo­ple."

Now, the fashionable theory is that the government possesses some mysterious, magical, inex­haustible source of wealth, out of which it can and should compen­sate everyone for errors in judg­ment or bad luck. Of course, this theory is as illusory as the South Sea Bubble. Its fallacy was spotted long ago by the French economist, Frederic Bastiat, who accurately described the state as "the great fiction through which everybody endeavors to live at the expense of everybody."

Another sign of the times is the widespread use, in some academic circles, of the contemptuous ex­pression, "value judgment," in dep­recation of any distinction be­tween tyranny and liberty, good and evil, right and wrong, as ex­emplified in historical figures. Classical histories are full of stud­ies of the characters of prominent rulers and actors on the historical stage, of balanced appraisals of their virtues and faults, of the strong and weak points in their records. Any approach of this kind is now brushed aside with a disparaging reference to "value judg­ments."

Misplaced Sympathies

An unfortunate and growing characteristic of life in America‘s big cities is insecurity of persons and property against the assaults of thugs and criminals. Not infrequently the newspapers publish accounts of assaults, accompanied by serious injury, of youthful criminals against old men and women. But public opinion seems completely indifferent. There is no insistent demand for more ade­quate protection and sterner meas­ures of retributive justice. The most shocking, wanton crimes are brushed off as just somehow the responsibility of an anonymous entity called "society."

Indeed, when campaigns of sympathy are aroused, these are usually in favor of the murderer, the rapist, the criminal, not of his victims. This kind of maudlin sen­timentality has not been unknown in the past. Mark Twain, who was anything but lacking in the qual­ity of human compassion, hit it off well in this paragraph about the demise of Injun Joe, the mur­derous outlaw of Tom Sawyer:

This funeral stopped the further growth of one thing—the petition to the Governor for Injun Joe’s pardon. The petition had been large­ly signed; many tearful and elo­quent meetings had been held and a committee of sappy women been appointed to go in deep mourning and wail around the Governor and im­plore him to be a merciful ass and trample his duty under foot. Injun Joe was believed to have killed five citizens of the village, but what of that? If he had been Satan himself, there would have been plenty of weaklings ready to scribble their name to a pardon petition and drip a tear on it from their permanently impaired and leaky waterworks.

Government Aid Breeds Crime

Two indisputable facts stand out as impressive refutation of the de­terminist interpretation of man’s character and destiny. Juvenile and adult delinquents, the so-called underprivileged, are cod­dled today as never before in America‘s history. Federal and state welfare budgets are at an all-time high. Really acute, grind­ing poverty can scarcely be said to exist. If providing expensive cushions against poverty, indo­lence, and misfortune were the answer, America today should be a social worker’s paradise.

But every year J. Edgar Hoover publishes a new set of fig­ures showing that crime has leaped again. Crime figures and social welfare expenditures have been moving upward in parallel columns, indicating that whatever the answer to crime may be, it cannot be found in ever-expanding social expenditures. A much more logical place in which to look for this answer is in the breakdown of the conception of the morally responsible individual, equally ac­countable for his good deeds and his misdeeds.

Whether man’s destiny is forced or free; whether he is a robot product of his environment or whether he can shape his environ­ment; whether he is a moral, in­telligent being who should be left free to plan his own life or whether he should be considered a pawn, to be planned by the state—these are among the most im­_ortent questions of our time. Several years ago, it was the fashion to project for America so-called national goals or purposes; a rather futile undertaking be­cause America, like any free so­ciety, is many million purposes—all combining toward end results far richer and finer than any totalitarian state has produced.

But it would be a worth-while national goal to rekindle in Amer­ican public opinion those attitudes and responses—social, economic, and moral—appropriately based on the assumption that man is in­ternally free and, regardless of environment, able to shape his life, for better or for worse.


¹ Reprints of Bastiat’s "The State" are available at 10 cents each from the Foundation for Economic Education, Irvington-on-Hudson, New York.



Ideas on Liberty

Admiral Ben Moreell

It must not be assumed that the profound thinkers who shaped our institutions were advocates of an undisciplined individuality.


August 1963

comments powered by Disqus


* indicates required


November 2014

It's been 40 years since F. A. Hayek received his Nobel Prize. His insights, particularly on the distribution of knowledge and the impossibility of economic planning, remain hugely important today. In this issue, we look back on the influence of his work. Max Borders and Craig Biddle debate whether liberty must be defended from one absolute foundation, further reflections on Scottish secession, and how technology is already changing our world for the better--including how robots, despite the unease they cause, will only accelerate this process.
Download Free PDF