All Commentary
Friday, March 1, 1991

A Chat with a Mass-Man

Mr. Reed is a technical writer in Portland, Oregon.

      “The only thing a psychically-human being can do to improve society is to present society with one improved unit.”

—Albert Jay Nock

A short while ago, my partner and I were invited to attend a gallery opening for an artist friend of ours. By the time we arrived at the gallery, he had already happily sold several pieces. This did not come as a surprise as our friend is blessed with a marvelous talent. Indeed, we found his new paintings to be sublime, almost dream-like creations that juxtaposed soft air-brushed tones with intensely vibrant hues.

After our tour of the new works, our friend invited a group of us over to his studio for a small, post-opening celebration. Included in the invitation were a husband and wife, I’ll call them Don and Brenda, whom we hadn’t met before. As we wandered back to the studio, we reveled in one of those rare, perfect summer evenings—the warm, lazy breeze whispered its lulling promises, while the huge orange moon hung in magical suspension at the end of the boulevard.

When the cork on the champagne was cheerily popped, we all toasted our friend the artist and warmly congratulated him on a successful opening. Over in the corner, I could hear Don telling someone that he had been out of a job for six months and that his unemployment was running out that month and he was getting worried. But, he added with a sly smile, it had been a great summer—implying that he had been using the unemployment money for goofing off and now he was in a spot. During the course of the evening I learned that Don had been publishing a small, local magazine for a few years and that he had decided voluntarily to stop publishing it and “pursue other interests.”

The conversation turned to recent books, music, and films. The topic of some of the top-notch arts programming on cable television came up. Brenda and Don, who had recently returned from visiting Brenda’s family in Europe, began complaining that in her country the government was going to allow television to become “commercial.” They lamented that this was going to be the end of good TV over there.

I inquired about the current setup and discovered that the government had limited broadcasters to just two channels. As I understood it, people pay for subscriptions to broadcasting companies who produce various programs. These programs are then divvied up between the two channels. However, it seems that sometimes a considerable number of political debates are broadcast and that both of these channels simultaneously broadcast the same debate, but in different .languages. In addition, so they can view this wondrous assortment of channels, everyone needs to buy a license to own a television set. The license fee is, of course, another way of saying “tax.”

I asked what was wrong with having commercial TV and they said they thought the government shouldn’t allow it because it was, well, it was just obviously a bad thing . . . just look at how lousy TV is in America because of the commercialized aspects (totally ignoring the earlier remarks of how good some of the “commercial” cable TV programs are). Of course, I had to ask why the government had to get involved at all.

Don aggressively replied that government is a good thing and that the concept of big government shouldn’t be scary to people, but instead they should be scared of big business.

I said it seemed to me people should be wary of big business when it colludes with the government to receive special treatment that effectively allows them to remove themselves from market competition—much to everyone’s detriment.

As the discussion continued, it became apparent that Don had it all worked out, but I found his arguments fiddled with inconsistencies (“sinking in a sea of buts,” Leonard Read used to call it). Government is good, big business is bad—but only as Don defines government and big business. It seems that the idea of big-business McDonald,s (which sells food he doesn’t care for) disgusts him, but big-business airlines are O.K. because they’ll fly him to Europe. As for government, give him socialism. Yes, people are rejecting the oppressive socialist governments all over Eastern Europe, but, in his estimation, they haven’t totally rejected them, which, of course, is good.

We kept verbally thrusting and parrying for a while and finally he demanded to know how I thought things should be. So, I told him. People should be free to do anything they wish so long as it is peaceful. The government’s job is to uphold voluntary contracts between individuals and to protect life and private property. Period. If people want to set up commercial TV stations, let ‘era. Nobody’s forcing you to watch them.

At this point, all conversation in the room had stopped and I could feel an almost electric sizzle in the tension our discussion was generating. I saw that the questions being asked of me were of the tedious “what is your plan for creating this society” variety, I’ve noticed that people who want to hear master plans are not interested in the prospective creativity of individuals.

And then I felt the peaceful, calming influences of Albert Jay Nock and Leonard Read. I smiled and said that obviously we had great disagreements which we would probably never settle, most certainly not tonight. Someone breathed a sigh of relief and said, “How did we get on that topic anyway?” The conversation quickly veered off onto other matters.

Later, as I reflected on what had been said and why, Mr. Nock came to my assistance again. I realized that Don is a prime example of what Nock called a “mass-man.” He is like a child who “knows everything” yet still needs to hang on to the apron strings of a parental government—a government that tells him what is best—and, when he doesn’t get his way, thinks it is perfectly fine to throw tantrums in the street. The mass-man seems unable to comprehend the ideal of the free individual.

As Mr. Nock so eloquently put it, “The mass-man is one who has neither the force of intellect to apprehend the principles issuing in what we know as the humane life, nor the force of character to adhere to those principles steadily and strictly as laws of conduct . . . . He appears as not only weak-minded and weak-willed, but as by consequence knavish, arrogant, grasping, dissipated, unprincipled, unscrupulous. . . .”

Because of theft inconsistent master plans the mass-men do not (or cannot) understand that theft plans are not the point at all. As Leonard Read affirmed, “Neither we nor anyone else can design or draft or organize a good society. No one person nor any committee can make even a pencil; a good society is more complex than that! A pencil or a good society or whatever is but a benefit or dividend which flows as a consequence of antecedent attention to one’s own emergence toward excellence.” Who knows what unlimited wonders a society of peaceful, creative individuals will devise? But talk of voluntary peaceful agreements between individuals pursuing their own creative interests whirls around the mass-man like so much cotton candy that instantly melts when it meets the inferno of his coercive convictions.

Later that evening, Don unknowingly weakened his case further with a final inconsistency: he and Brenda were gushing over how wonderful Disneyland is and what great things are being done by Walt Disney Productions. Somehow I had the presence of mind to refrain from pointing out that Disneyland and Walt Disney Productions are certainly two of the scariest big businesses on the planet. 

1.   Albert J. Nock, “Isaiah’s Job” reprinted in Notes from FEE (Irvington-on-Hudson, New York: Foundation for Economic Education, July 1962).

2.   Leonard E. Read, Anything That’s Peaceful (Irvington-on-Hudson, New York: Foundation for Economic Education, 1964), p. 237.