All Commentary
Sunday, January 1, 1961

A Reviewer’s Notebook – 1961/1


If, as the poets assure us, there are nine and ninety ways of con­structing tribal lays and thirteen ways of looking at a blackbird, there must be at least a dozen ap­proaches to Volume VII of Essays on Liberty, the 1959-60 compila­tion of selections from The Free­man and from Leonard Read’s Notes from FEE (Foundation for Economic Education, $3.00 cloth, $2.00 paper).

One approach would be to stress the ability of Freeman writers to clarify fundamentals. This would involve singling out such essays as Edmund Opitz’s “The Religious Foundation of a Free Society” or Sartell Prentice, Jr.’s, “Our First Thanksgiving” or Ludwig von Mises’ “The Economic Founda­tions of Freedom,” which really stick to fundamentals.

Well, let’s begin that way. Every human being who is worthy of the name is born with a sense of his own separateness and dignity. His ability to exist and to improve his estate may depend on a f requently fortuitous meshing of “chance, love, and logic,” but of his right to exist he cannot ex­press doubt without striking his flag. Mr. Opitz, who has pondered long on the sources of religious feeling, knows how the sense of individual separateness and dig­nity got into our Declaration of Independence: our forefathers, feeling that they were born free, accepted it as axiomatic that their rights as human beings came from the same mystic source as their lives—i.e., from “nature’s God.”

It wasn’t so with the French revolutionists who, thirteen years after the American Declaration of Independence, made it known to the world that their “imprescript­ible and unalienable rights” came, not from God, but from the “na­tion,” which they thought of as “the source of all sovereignty.”

The Pilgrim Fathers, taking their rights to corn as a grant from the commonality, experi­enced “generall wante or famine” (the words are Governor Bradford’s) from December of 1620 on through the winter of 1623. In the spring of that third year on the inhospitable Plymouth shore, men who had “languished in miserie” debated the ways in which they might “obtaine a beter crope.” With the “advise of ye cheef est amongest them,” their “Govr… gave way that they should set come every man for his owne per­ticuler…. and so assigned to every family a parcell of land.” The result, as Sartell Prentice re­minds us, was the first Thanks­giving—which occurred only after a single growing season with in­dividuals in charge. It had taken the Pilgrims some three years to see the connection between the fundamental human right to live and worship in their own way and the fundamental economic right to work “every man for his owne perticuler.”

Ludwig von Mises puts the “felt necessities” of human beings an­other way: “All the teachings and precepts of ethics, whether based upon religious creeds or whether based upon a secular doctrine like that of the Stoic philosophers, pre­suppose this moral autonomy of the individual and therefore ap­peal to the individual’s con­cience.” And the man who is re­sponsible for his own autonomous conduct must insist on his right to choose in economic matters, lesthis dependence on masters and “planners” should result in the enslavement of his will along with the compulsion of his energies and tastes.

Accepting the moral autonomy of the individual, other contribu­tors to this volume naturally re­frain from bludgeoning tactics when they urge the benighted to give the philosophy of freedom a fair hearing. J. Kesner Kahn, Ed­mund Opitz, and Leonard Read are content to “bear witness,” looking to their own understand­ing before presuming to button­hole others. These writers are agreed on the virtue of being so clear in the statement of princi­ple that even the casual eavesdrop­per must be willing to pursue the subject further. None of them likes the hortatory, or superheated, method of proselytizing; each of them knows that forebearance has its own way of evoking the curios­ity of “teachable” men.

Free Trade in History: Sixteenth Century to Date

Cutting into the Essays another way, let us relate them to history. When William H. Peterson goes back to the Dutch experience of the sixteenth and seventeenth cen­turies (in “Growth—the Dutch Example”) or when the author of the First National City Bank Let­ter presents “Hong Kong—a Success Story” or when Lawrence Fertig invokes the German 1948­55 experience (“The Only Way to Sound Growth”), the reader can see for himself that the principles of freedom always pay off in a certain way when they are hon­estly applied. Looking back to nineteenth century history, the value of the “let alone” philosophy to Americans of past and present generations is particularly appar­ent in Dean Russell’s essay, “The Silent Partner.” As Mr. Russell says, the U. S. government didn’t concern itself in any way with what Charles Goodyear might do with his method for vulcanizing rubber in 1844 after it had granted him a patent. Nor did the govern­ment even know about it when E. L. Drake drilled the first oil well at Titusville, Pennsylvania, in 1859. When the Duryea brothers and other early automobile build­ers used some of Goodyear’s rub­ber and Drake’s oil to put cars in motion, the officials in Washington couldn’t have cared less.

Thus it was that “horse and buggy” political principles, leaving men to their own devices, got us out of the horse and buggy age. If this doesn’t provide its own ef­fective commentary on the pre­sumption of certain politicians who like to disparage the Age of McKinley, then human beings are unteachable.

Fallacies Exposed

Still another way of reviewing the Essays would be to concentrate on their exposure of fallacies. There is the fallacy of supposing that you can maintain a dangerous monopoly over a long period with­out active government aid. In “The Phantom Called ‘Monopoly’ ” Hans Sennholz deftly uncovers the sources of monopoly in political coercions of one sort or another. The “trusts” of 1897-1904 are re­lated to the Dingley Tariff, the “mother of trusts” which kept for­eign competitors off the necks of home-grown cartelizers. And in “Competition, Monopoly, and the Role of Government,” Sylvester Petro shows how the big union monopolies are dependent on State support and favoritism to main­tain their position.

Another fallacy to which a Free­man writer turns his attention is the one which sees a vital connec­tion between Welfare State meas­ures and the multiplication of wealth. P. M. Fox, generalizing from the Canadian experience in his “The Welfare State Doctrine,” shows just why this is a delusion. And Paul Poirot, in “The Web of Intervention,” traces the metas­tasis, the cancerous spread, that results from even the slightest sort of interference with free mar­ket processes.

Varying the approach to the subject of fallacies, one might concentrate on semantics. Fred­erick A. Manchester is very con­vincing in his distinction between true and false “rights” in an essay called “The Tricky Four Free­doms.” And both Sennholz and Petro have some good acerbic fun with those who practice monopoly in the name of preserving “com­petition.”

The Bitter Consequences

In general, Freeman writers ad­dress themselves to those who are capable of following a logical train of thought to its natural conclusion. They want their read­ers to go back home and look at themselves in the mirror. But if the sense of personal rectitude which they hope to spread is rooted in logic, they occasionally make a reader see red. One sta­tistic turned up in a footnote by Paul Poirot caused this particular reviewer to boil with rage. The footnote reads: “For a premium of $432 a year from age 20, a man can secure from private (insur­ance) companies a life annuity averaging about $216 a month after he reaches 65. This is in con­trast to the monthly benefit of $127 promised through Social Se­curity.”

When you consider that, by 1969, the Social Security tax on the first $4,800 of a man’s wageswill be 9 per cent, or $432, the barefaced robbery of the whole Social Security program is brought home in a flash. As Dr. Poirot says, the only way a government can provide a windfall for the old­sters is to fleece the youngsters.

And America professes to care for its young. Does it really? If it does, it would get so angry at the implications of Dr. Poirot’s sta­tistic that it would cleanse the air of the social “insurance” cant in a single year.   

Jefferson by Albert Jay Nock.

Hill and Wang, 1960. Paper $1.45, cloth $4.50

Reviewed by Robert M. Thornton

Jefferson, published in 1926, was Albert Jay Nock’s first book—un­less one counts the collection of Freeman pieces put together as The Myth of a Guilty Nation and published in 1921. Nock waited until he was over fifty before pub­lishing this volume—an example of restraint recommended to would-be authors. Jefferson “isn’t a life, nor does it pretend to be, but a study, in Nock’s peculiar style, and immensely interesting and valuable,” wrote Brand Whit­lock, A. J. N.’s friend and contem­porary, in one of his letters. And Henry Mencken, another friend, in his review of the book, said that “what emerges here is in no sense a formal biography, nor even a political history. It is, rather, an elaborate psychological study of the man…. In brief, the book is a sort of critical analysis of Jeffersonism, done with constant sympathy and yet with a sharp outlook for fallacy and folly. I know of no other book on Jeffer­son that penetrates so persuasively to the essential substance of the man.”

Albert Jay Nock as a biog­rapher was concerned with gain­ing an understanding of the sub­ject and setting it down on paper. Simply putting together all the known facts about a man, while of importance, did not interest him in the least. Nor did A. J. N. have any wish to violate the privacy of his subject, a sign of good man­ners not often seen in these days of “intimate” biographies. The au­thor of a biography or autobiog­raphy should tell the public only what is the public’s legitimate concern, Mr. Nock has said, and he practiced what he preached in his “biography” of Mr. Jefferson and in his own “autobiography.” A. J. N., like Mr. Jefferson, never hesitated to speak out frankly on public affairs but always remained silent on private matters.

Not to be overlooked is the in­troduction to this new edition, written by Merrill D. Peterson.

Very perceptive, I would say, and extremely helpful to anyone wish­ing to “get the feel” of A. J. N. himself. One only wishes that Mr. Peterson had not been so stingy with his introductory remarks.

In this day when political par­ties advocating the Welfare State claim Thomas Jefferson as a cham­pion for their cause, a study such as A. J. N.’s is even more valu­able than at the time of its origi­nal publication. It was not too much noticed then, but, as Mr. Peterson points out, was “left to work its way in the quieter corri­dors of the mind”—just as Mr. Nock, with his great patience and wisdom, knew it would.   

The New England Clergy And The American Revo­lution By Alice M. Baldwin.

Published by Frederick Ungar Publishing Company, New York, 1958. 222 pp. $3.75

Reviewed by Edmund A. Opitz

Some sort of religion plays a role in all the higher cultures, and the major spiritual influence in the United States has been Protestant Christianity. The primary spokes­man for this faith in the eight­eenth century was the local parish minister. Sunday sermons in those days were tests of endurance for pulpit and pew alike, but even so the demand for the spoken word outran the supply. The clergy responded with special sermons and lectures and on these occasions spoke out on political subjects.

Professor Baldwin’s important book appeared in 1928 and has long been out of print. It rests upon much painstaking research in town records, old sermons, pam­phlets, diaries, newspapers, and other writings. The clergy came down squarely on the side of liberty. They were versed in Greek and Latin studies, referred fre­quently to John Locke, but their reliance was on the Bible. From this source they derived their no­tions of a covenant or compact, the laws of nature, and Christ’s “law of liberty.” They expounded the thesis that “Life, Liberty, and Property are the gifts of the Crea­tor,” and a new kind of nation was brought forth.

United States Foreign Policy: Ideology And Foreign Affairs.

Study by Center for International Affairs, Harvard University, No. 10, for the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, 86th Congress, 2nd Ses­sion. Committee print, Washing­ton, Government Printing Office. 82 pp. 20 cents.

Reviewed by Kurt Glaser, Asso­ciate Professor of Government, Southern Illinois University.

THIS report is significant, not only because some of the Senators might read it, but also because the seven contributors are seen frequently in Washington as con­sultants to agencies concerned with foreign relations. It thus rep­resents the type of advice which the Department of State is cur­rently receiving, at least from the codfish sector of the Ivy League.

It is with no intent to detract from the several excellent features of the report that attention is focused on its most glaring flaw: an almost total breakdown when it comes to defining the American ideology.

The Harvard report labels the American and Western ideology “constitutional democracy” in the caption and “constitutional or liberal democracy” in the text. After a five-word genuflection to the “Judeo-Christian heritage” there is no further mention of God or religion. The statement of the premises and practices of “consti­tutional democracy” is an extract of Locke tempered by Mill and Holmes, with a dash of Fabianism.

Perhaps unwittingly, the Har­vard experts have revealed why the United States has never suc­ceeded in shaping and executing the strategy and tactics needed to win the Cold War. In a struggle of political systems it is neces­sary to assert and practice an ideology which effectively contra­dicts that of the enemy. If the enemy ideology involves commit­ments—which communism defi­nitely does despite the perversion of Leninist “ethics”—then it is necessary to offer moral commit­ments of equal intensity.

The period since the American War of Independence has wit­nessed a general decline of re­ligious faith, the reasons for which cannot be assessed here. In Europe, much of the resulting vacuum was filled by isms, great and small: nationalism, positiv­ism, Hegelianism, Marxism, Fabianism, vitalism, fascism, ex­istentialism—and, of course, com­munism. The United States has had a few minor isms, but we found an American Way to fill the vacuum: liberal democracy—as modernized by Mill and his succes­sors—was upgraded from a means into an end. Being fully compati­ble with hedonism and demanding nothing in the way of self-denial, American liberalism could never really become an ideology. It is, however, precisely the attempt to make it one which causes modern liberals to be so intolerant.

Despite their assertion that the liberal democratic ideal is univer­sal, the authors of Ideology and Foreign Affairs are realistic enough to add: “not quite.” It is, for instance, “neither understood nor presently sought by the Arabs,” and there are many coun­tries in which it simply won’t work. Recognizing in a back­handed way that “constitutional or liberal democracy” is after all a container which needs ideologi­cal content to compete effectively with communism, the Harvard savants proceed to fill it. With what?

With abundance, of course. That magic word keeps reappearing whenever the discussion turns to what the United States ought to do. “It has become an article of democratic faith,” the Harvard professors declare, “that the con­ditions of human life can be stead­ily improved by technology and science and by the application of capital and investment.” Let us, in any case, get on with the abun­dance: liberal democracy will per­haps follow by itself!

A more promising approach to a world ideology which would effectively contradict godless com­munism would be to look for the common denominators of the higher religions. There are uni­versal values in Christianity, as well as in non-Christian religions, which express the dedication and fulfillment of the free man in lov­ing communion with God and with his fellows. If we can raise the standard of a social order based on these principles, the abundance now sought directly will come as a by-product.


  • 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.