All Commentary
Tuesday, November 1, 1960

A Reviewer’s Notebook – 1960/11

When I objected, in a journalistic essay taking off from the first articles in a LIFE magazine series on the “national purpose,” that a government with a set purpose of its own is likely to become an anti­human monstrosity, I found my­self in an unsatisfactory argu­ment with Archibald MacLeish. In the interchange it developed that we thought we were talking about the same thing. The “pur­pose” of our Founders, so I in­sisted at the outset, was to free men from governmental purpose in order that they might pursue a thousand-and-one individual and group purposes of their own. But this, according to Mr. MacLeish, is hardly in contradiction of his statement that our National Pur­pose has always been to Extend Freedom. Freedom means the pur­suit of individual purposes.

If Mr. MacLeish doesn’t pro­pose using compulsion to draft me, whether in my person or in the product of my energies, to fight for his own definition of freedom on a field which I would not myself choose, I have no basic quarrel with his semantics other than to point out a certain vague­ness in the formulation. But the trouble with the LIFE series as a whole is that the argument goes the way of all paradox, to conclu­sions that can mean all things to all men. What do we mean by “na­tional purpose”? Can it be any more certain than Rousseau’s old General Will? Henry Luce, in a foreword to the LIFE articles as they are collected and amplified in a book called The National Pur­pose (Holt, Rhinehart and Win­ston, $2.95), isn’t at all sure. “Peace?” he asks. “Perhaps Peace is the No. 1 Purpose, but what kind of Peace—and, even, what do we do with Peace when we have it or if we get it? Peace, of course. Peace in Freedom. But Freedom to do what? And be what?”

So Mr. Luce comes back to questions that are fundamentally cosmic or religious—and hence out of traditional bounds in a dis­cussion of “national” purpose in a country which accepts the sepa­ration of Church and State. As for the majority of the contributors to this volume, they go round and round, grabbing for the brass ring of certainty but generally falling off the horse just as they are about to reach it. John K. Jes­sup, the editor of the book, is on and off the merry-go-round when he talks about “a consensus of pri­vate purposes.” He doubts that “in the fatness of our pursy times” our private purposes add up to any firm “national” direction. But where does this leave us? Mr. Jessup, quite rightly, refuses to call for the gendarmes. “As T. R. used to say,” he writes,” a patriot will make the most of himself. If enough do, so will the nation.”

But the patriot that is Adlai Stevenson, who follows Mr. Jessup in the book, can only think of es­tablishing “priorities” by govern­mental force. The “patriots” are not to be trusted with their own decisions. Mr. Stevenson speaks of “restoration of compassion,” but the compassion is to be ad­ministered by men like himself, sitting in political office. Mr. Mac­Leish, insofar as he is specific, speaks of “tools of action—mili­tary assistance and above all eco­nomic and industrial and scien­tific aid.” But who is to wield the tools, the volunteer or the im­pressed agent? And are the tools to be freely granted or extorted by force? Clinton Rossiter, a pro­fessor of history, says a “mis­sion” has been our “historic neces­sity.” But if it is currently our “mission” to “show the way to en­during peace,” how does that con­sort with the Soviet “mission” to make the world safe for com­munism? Do we knuckle under to the Russians if they threaten war? In stating a problem Mr. Rossiter has not solved it. Nor does his attack on “threadbare preju­dices about the role of govern­ment”—meaning prejudices against departing from the tradi­tional American commitment to voluntary action—inspire any con­fidence that Rossiter really re­spects freedom. He says “we” lure far too many talented young people into advertising and far too few into city planning, far too many into car-dealing and far too few into teaching. Just whom does he mean by “we”? And would he compel young men and women to become city planners or teachers?

Individuals with a Purpose

The best articles in the book are by Albert Wohlstetter of the Rand Corporation and James Reston, Washington correspondent of the New York Times. Mr. Wohlstetter doubts that we have become a frivolous nation, in need of the compelled sacrifices that Profes­sor Rossiter suggests. “Consum­ers,” he notes, “have increased their spending for such sober pur­poses as medical care and educa­tion faster than the rise in their incomes and faster than the in­crease in spending for recreation or for the iniquitous tail fins.” As for the alleged crisis in “culture,” Mr. Wohlstetter is not certain there is one. “Myself,” he says, “I don’t care for tail fins or Elvis or advertising jingles or even Coca-Cola, but I doubt that their pop­ularity is a national danger. An immense sea of mediocrity sur­rounds but has not submerged poets such as Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop…. the chore­ographers Martha Graham and George Balanchine, and an abun­dance of excellent architects…. New York concert halls offer an extraordinary range of music from ancient to modern that is unmatched in Paris, London, or Rome…

In short, Mr. Wohlstetter has a sense of individuals pursuing their own purposes without hurting their fellows or wishing to control them to the end of imposing any particular set of purposes on ev­erybody. As for Mr. Reston, he suspects that “public debates on the national purpose” give 180 mil­lion Americans a pain. “The Amer­icano, circa 1960,” says Mr. Res­ton, “is in no mood to rush off on his own initiative to ‘emancipate the human race,’ or to set any new records as the greatest benefactor of all time, or engage in any of the other crusades mapped out for him in Cambridge, Mass.” But the “Americano” has made a genuine effort to clear the wreckage of the last war, and if he has turned away from settling all the affairs of the Middle East, the Far East, and Africa, it has been a turn without panic toward “the com­munity and the family.” In the fifteen years of the atomic age, says Mr. Reston, the American people “have increased the popu­lation of the nation by more than 40 million, which is not the action of a frightened people….” Mr. Reston thinks Americans will do what they have to do to maintain themselves as a free people, pro­vided they have leaders to show them the way. But he, too, is vague when he speaks of bringing “spunk and spirit” into service of the nation “by free methods.”

The “Purposeless” Past

Walter Lippmann’s summa­rizing article speaks of the domi­nant “national purpose” of the past. We fought the French, the Indians, and the British, and the Spanish, the Mexicans, and the Indians again, to “consolidate the national territory.” But was this ever the “national purpose”? Or was it the more or less automatic result of innumerable individual purposes, which kept demanding more room for the expansion of individual energies?

Indeed, it is entirely arguable that intellectuals have always been wrong about the necessity for blueprinting the future of the Republic. Ralph Waldo Emerson once complained that “from 1790 to 1820, there was not a book, a speech, a conversation, or a thought in the state” of Massa­chusetts. Mr. Emerson was obvi­ously not privy to what his fore­bears had been thinking during a thirty-year span; what he meant to convey is that Harvard College had not been producing writers. But, as Samuel Eliot Morison has pointed out, the Bostonians of the 1790-1820 period were sending their ships to the uttermost ends of the earth to open up new enter­prises, to give employment to farmers’ sons who might otherwise have starved to death, and to bring home a wealth that, in later years, was to open copper mines in Michigan and to tie the United States together with railroads. Was all of this to be dismissed merely because it wasn’t written down in advance, as a “program” for national aspiration?

The springs of purpose are what they are, and they flow most freely in a climate in which intel­lectuals do not have the power to coerce those whom they regard as their inferiors. It is only when people are enslaved or oppressed (as in the Prussia of Napoleonic times, or in the America of 1775) that a single “national purpose” can be cultivated without danger to the individual human spirit. In a nation that is already free, the urge to force energies into a single channel can have the most unto­ward results. It is amid spasms of unitary thinking that nations do violence in the name of Manifest Destiny or impose censorships or cause dissenters to jump out of windows or establish concentration camps for those who refuse to ac­quiesce in the “general will.”

The Economic Point of View by Israel M. Kirzner. D. Van Nostrand

. (228 pp. $5.50)

Reviewed by George Reisman

Is economic theory merely a body of deductions from a highly tenu­ous assumption concerning a par­ticular human motive? A motive which may be present or absent, or present in varying degrees of strength, at different times and in different places? Are the teachings of economics true of nineteenth century England, but not of twentieth century Africa or first cen­tury Rome? Must the economist constantly endeavor to “test” whether or not his basic “assump­tion” concerning this particular human motive holds? Or is eco­nomics a body of deductions from a logically necessary truth, a state­ment which is true of human mo­tivation in general at all times and in all places? And is the be­havior of men in the real world always capable of being subsumed under this statement as a special case? These are some of the vital questions dealt with by Professor Kirzner in his valuable and schol­arly book.

In the eyes of the early econ­omists, the author points out, economics was a science of the laws of wealth, a science thought to deal with a class of external objects. It was impossible for economists to maintain this view, however, as soon as greater atten­tion began to be called to the role of man in economics, particularly in exchanges. Emphasis shifted from the treatment of wealth to man’s desire for wealth. In short order, economists constructed as the starting point of their science a hypothetical being known as the homo economicus, a creature whose sole desire was to amass the greatest possible amount of wealth. Naturally, such a cons­truction was open to the most serious criticisms by those who sought to escape the logical con­straints imposed upon the actions of governments by a science of economic law. For, it was argued, such beings simply do not exist, and any inferences drawn from the postulation of such a being can have no validity for the real world.

How Money Helps

This criticism, Professor Kirz­ner shows, is not true of economics as such, but only of the doctrines of a few economists. Most modern economists, he argues, have come to realize that the starting point of economics is not the groundless assumption that men seek to ac­quire the greatest possible amount of wealth, but the logically neces­sary fact that men seek to achieve the most important of their pre­viously unachieved purposes. Necessarily, if men have purposes, they must seek to achieve them, and to achieve their more impor­tant purposes in preference to their less important ones. To the extent that men have purposes, they must desire the means to their achievement and take the actions necessary to accomplish them whatever the specific pur­poses may be.

It is only insofar as the posses­sion of money affords a means of achieving one’s purposes that money and the things which can be exchanged for money are de­sired by men. The desire for money, the author shows, is in no sense a reflection of a specifically economic motive, because money may be desired for all sorts of rea­sons—artistic and “spiritual” as well as “materialistic,” altruistic as well as egoistic, reasons. In no sense, therefore, does one act “un­economically” in giving money to charity, for example, or buying at a higher price from a nearby store rather than at a lower price from a store less conveniently located. For in both cases one acts purposefully. It is more important to give to charity, in this instance, than to acquire whatever else the money might buy; the greater convenience of the nearby store outweighs the value attached to whatever else the additional money might be used to acquire.

Only insofar as other things are equal does one desire to amass the greatest possible amount of wealth, to buy at the cheapest price, and sell at the dearest, and then necessarily so. For then—where there is no conflict between the acquisition of additional wealth and the achievement of purposes which cannot be achieved by means of the possession of wealth, and the possession of ad­ditional wealth is still a means to the achievement of some purpose—its acquisition becomes identical with the means of achieving pur­poses, and, hence, must be desired.

In Many Voices by Edward Hunter.

(Published by Norman Col­lege, Norman Park, Georgia. 190 pages, cloth $3.00; paper $2.00. Available from The Bookmailer, 209 East 34th Street, New York 16, N. Y.)

Reviewed by August W. Brustat

The auithor of Brainwashing in Red China and The Black Book on Red China, experienced editor, foreign correspondent, and propa­ganda specialist, has, in this vol­ume, “scooped” the foreign-lan­guage press. This area of our national life has never been fully explored until now. In eleven in­formation-packed chapters this book discloses the unsuspected, powerful undercurrent in our so­ciety which influences the thinking of millions of Americans of more recent foreign ancestry.

Sixty-five daily newspapers in twenty foreign languages are cur­rently printed and circulated in the United States. Adding the weekly, semimonthly, monthly, and quarterly foreign-language publi­cations to the dailies, the number of such periodicals reaches the astounding figure of 655. The ma­jority of these are pro-American, edited by men who are grateful for liberty and the opportunities provided for them in this favored land. But the enemies of freedom also use the foreign-language press to prey upon the minds of foreign-born and even second gen­eration Americans. These anti-American publications peddle the Communist Party line, endeavor to induce defectors to return to the “Soviet Utopias” with prom­ises of reward, and tighten the grip of blackmail upon those who still have relatives in the “home country.”

Because many of the foreign-born are employed in large stra­tegic industrial centers vital to America‘s security, the communist press concentrates its propaganda efforts mainly in these industrial areas. In this way many publica­tions, even with comparatively small circulations, exert a tre­mendous impact and wield a great influence on these people. The printed material serves as a dis­cussion medium in their clubs, lodges, social and business gather­ings, and thus exerts its weight through personal contact, if not always by wide circulation. In addition, of course, tons of com­munist propaganda annually enter the United States from behind the Iron and Bamboo curtains.

The foreign-language press is an influence seriously to be reck­oned with in our continuing fight for freedom.

  • John Chamberlain (1903-1995) was an American journalist, business and economic historian, and author of number of works including The Roots of Capitalism (1959). Chamberlain also served as a founding editor of The Freeman magazine.