All Commentary
Tuesday, December 1, 1964

A Reviewer’s Notebook – 1964/12


There are thirty-two contributors represented in this Volume XI of Essays on Liberty (Foundation for Economic Education, $3 cloth, $2 paper). and none of them, in the present U. S. climate of opin­ion, could be elected dogcatcher.

Inasmuch as the thirty-two con­tributors are all on the side of what is incontestably true in eco­nomics and social organization, this might seem a legitimate cause for intense gloom. But no true libertarian can see it this way. My reason for saying this is that the people represented in the Es­says have more important things to do than run for office. And their work cannot be done in a day.

In her essay called “The Nature of Government,” Ayn Rand says: “The source of the government’s authority is the ‘consent of the governed.’ This means that the government is not the ruler, but the servant or agent of the citi­zen; it means that the government as such has no rights except the rights delegated to it by the citi­zens for a specific purpose.”

Now, the distinguishing charac­teristic of the thirty-two contribu­tors to this volume is that they are not, by nature, fitted to be agents. They all have the temperament of prime movers. If, by some strange chance, they were elected to office in this age of the “mixed econ­omy” and the reign of the doctrine that it is the mark of the reason­able man to move crabwise toward the ultimate end of socialism, they would make an unholy mess of things. For who among them would be able to abide acting the role of “agent” for the current middle-of-the-road majority? How be an honorable “agent” for a people that, in Edmund Opitz’s words (page 401), accepts a trend “toward a centralized society run from the top down”? How be an honorable “agent” in a “national government” that “commands each year an increasing portion of the people’s earnings”?

Freedom of Choice

The United States, as the autumn campaign of 1964 has proved, is not yet ready for a re­turn to the historic choice system that is outlined in this volume so persuasively by Ben Rogge. (We will be lucky to get, at this mo­ment, a stabilization at the current level of error.) Says Rogge, “In the Rogge system, each man must be free to do what is his duty as he defines it, so long as he does not use force against another.” Well, who is free today to use his energy to his own ends, even when they are wholly peaceful? As Leonard Read says (page 37), “there are ever so many who favor prohibit­ing our freedom of choice in order to: pay farmers for not growing wheat and other crops; support socialist governments all over the world; put three men on the moon (estimated at $40,000,000,000); subsidize below-cost pricing in air, water, and land transportation, education, insurance, loans of countless kinds; socialize security; renew downtowns, build hospitals and other local facilities; give fed­eral aid of this or that variety, endlessly.”

The Read list of prohibitions on freedom of choice is, as he says, practically interminable. If the electorate had the guts of mice, it would get rid of at least some of them. But no politician, in 1964, whether Republican or Democrat­ic, really dares to give support to the full “Rogge system.” Nobody offers himself as an “agent” for Ben Rogge or for Leonard Read. If anyone had done so on Novem­ber 3 last, he would presumably have been snowed under.

So there is work to do, work that involves the patient under­standing of the freedom philos­ophy that Leonard Read calls for in the essay called “Keep Freedom a Secret?” Ideas, as Mr. Read says, have a “mysterious radia­tion,” and they do not become ma­jority ideas until their time has come.

Wasted Resources

The majority idea, today, as ex­pressed by Secretary of the In­terior Udall and Supreme Court Justice Bill Douglas, is that the “government” must step in to “conserve our resources.” So we have “wilderness bills” presented and passed in Congress. Paul Poirot, in his essay on “The Greatest Waste,” laughs at the whole idea of talking about “waste” in a world that has seen whale oil lamps superseded by electric lights, and wood supple­mented by all sorts of plastics. If, as the chemurgists say, “anything can be made of anything else,” the world will not soon run out of what it needs. As new gas wells are drilled under the North Sea and new iron ore deposits are dis­covered in Alaska, it is obvious even to the nonchemurgists among us that the hullabaloo about “waste” is vastly overplayed. Nevertheless, Dr. Poirot could not run for political office against a Udall or a Douglas in today’s intellectual climate and get elected. Dr. Poirot still has a decade or so of talking ahead of him before he will seem a proper “agent” for the people. He could get there, as­suming he would ever want to be an agent, for even as he is busy attacking the Udalls and the Douglases, a big company, the Con­tinental Can Corporation, is hard at work reforesting acres of land in Georgia and North Florida to provide wood for its paper con­tainers. Proving thereby that in­dividuals have a natural interest in voluntary conservation. Dr. Poirot patiently makes the point, and it is good at this period that he chooses to be a prime mover, not an “agent.”

It’s still “seed time” for the next revolution in America, and there are some mighty promising seeds planted in this Volume XI of Essays on Liberty. Walter B. Wriston quotes Thomas Braniff as telling Juan Perón, the then dic­tator of the Argentine, that “capi­tal goes where it is wanted and it stays where it is well treated.”

They still don’t quite realize this in most countries of South Amer­ica, but in Brazil, it seems, they are finally waking up. Murray Rothbard, in his essay titled “Mer­cantilism: A Lesson for Our Times?” recalls that King James I and his son, Charles I, tried to compel employers to remain in business even when they were los­ing money. We have had a modern echo of this bit of Stuart absolut­ism in court decisions involving the modern textile industry, but it is just as impossible today to squeeze blood from stones as it was in the seventeenth century. Someday the U. S. will elect “agents” to represent antimercan­tilists, but meanwhile Murray Rothbard will have to wait for his seed to sprout.

Ideas Precede Action

One reason why it is good to for­get political “agents” and concen­trate on prime movers at this mo­ment is that history shows that politics will respond in its own good time to the force of ideas. Even as I was reading Volume XI of Essays on Liberty I picked up the recent Fortune magazine ar­ticle by Philip Siekman on the Brazilian Revolution, “When Ex­ecutives Turned Revolutionaries.” Mr. Siekman tells how a Brazilian friend of Leonard Read, a busi­nessman named Paulo Ayres Filho, started circulating Foundation for Economic Education booklets in his inflation-ridden country. This was in the early fifties. The FEE ideas took hold among Bra­zil businessmen as the political leaders of the country persisted in their Leftist frenzies. Within a decade the seed had sprouted, and when the Brazilians, just re­cently, threw out the communist-infiltrated Goulart government, it was at last possible for a prime mover on the freedom philosophy side to accept a job as political “agent” of the people in Brazil without stultifying himself. The point to be stressed here is that the work of being a prime mover is a real work for a man. The “agency” of government is some­thing that follows after.

It astounded Leonard Read that FEE ideas, as expressed in books and pamphlets that have preceded this Volume XI of Essays on Lib­erty, should have had anything to do with a South American revo­lution. “The political culmination in Brazil,” he says, “was not nor could it have been planned by us… Instead, the FEE eye was fixed only—as always—on a better un­derstanding of the freedom phil­osophy and how to explain it to any interested person. Ideas do, indeed, work in wondrous ways their miracles to perform.”

The moral: Stop worrying about political “agents.” When the free­dom philosophy prime movers have done their work, we’ll get the “agents” we want. Volume XI of Essays on Liberty contains the work of thirty-two prime movers, and their work must be spread throughout more countries than Brazil.

 

MEMOIRS OF A SUPERFLU­OUS MAN by Albert Jay Nock (Chicago: Henry Regnery Com­pany, 1964), 326 pp., $5.95

Reviewed by Robert M. Thornton

The brisk sale of the Memoirs when it first came out twenty-one years ago prompted Mr. Nock to remark that perhaps something was wrong with his book. For Mr. Nock wrote with an eye to future generations; what he had to say—and he “preached the Word” with the bark on it—was not calculated to soothe the reader who wor­shiped the idols of the day. There are books that work their way slowly and unobtrusively into the thought stream and have conse­quences out of all proportion to the fuss made over them at the time of publication. So it has been with Mr. Nock’s work. He has be­come one of the most articulate spokesmen for the individual per­son trapped in a society rushing hell-bent down the road to col­lectivism. And without a doubt his finest effort was this “autobiogra­phy of a mind.”

The Memoirs is literally chock­full of provocative ideas, any one of which might inspire an essay, or even a book. It is difficult, therefore, for a reviewer to de­cide what to mention. Shall it be Mr. Nock’s warning that to con­fuse training (instrumental knowl­edge—preparation for earning a living) with education (formative knowledge—preparation for liv­ing) will work to the detriment of the latter, for education will not “take” with everyone? Or Mr. Nock’s complaint about the effort to bring all conduct under statu­tory controls instead of leaving major areas of human behavior to the regulation of morality, taste, and manners? Or Mr. Nock’s scof­fing at the theories which confuse money with true wealth, leading to such absurdities as the effort to spend ourselves into prosper­ity? Or Mr. Nock’s strong words against the state—that two-pronged organism comprising those who exercise political power plus those for whose economic ad­vantage the power is wielded—which is everywhere and always the enemy of responsible individ­uals? Or Mr. Nock’s observations on the limitations of human or­ganizations and the three “laws” that threaten every one that has been created by man? Or…. but where shall we stop? In an age given over to “social engineering” and the “social gospel” Mr. Nock was an outcast intellectual. “The only reform that anyone is called upon to attempt,” he wrote, “is reform of oneself.”

Il faut cultiver notre jardin (we must cultivate our own garden). With these words Voltaire ends his treatise called Candide, which in its few pages assays more solid worth, more informed common sense, than the entire bulk of nineteenth-century hedonist literature can show. To my mind, those few concluding words sum up the whole social re­sponsibility of man. The only thing that the psychically-human being can do to improve society is to pre­sent society with one improved unit. In a word, ages of experience testify that the only way society can be im­proved is by the individualist method which Jesus apparently regarded as the only one whereby the Kingdom of Heaven can be established as a going concern; that is, the method of each one doing his very best to improve one.

Just so—and look at the mess made by those who would reform their fellow men by political means instead of patiently relying on the gentle art of persuasion and the example of self-improvement.

The Rev. Robert A. Raines has remarked that “the only kind of change in life which means any­thing because it transforms every­thing in its path is that which changes people’s thinking, their deepest convictions, that which makes them see the world in a different way. This doesn’t happen often.” One man may do this for another by what he says, or by what he writes. Now it takes a very special book to bring about this profound change, one which clearly speaks to our total condi­tion. A book aimed only at the emotions or only at the intellect will seldom do the job. Such a reorientation calls for a book which, like the Memoirs, appeals to the human spirit and so per­meates one’s whole being that, from the first reading on, he is never quite the same person again.

As one who has had this ex­perience (and I make no claim that everyone who reads the book will have a similar one—different minds are unlocked by different keys) I find it difficult to offer the reader a calm appraisal of the Memoirs. Objectivity I must leave to the scholars. My purpose is much simpler—to recommend a book that has meant very much to me, and to hail its republica­tion. The sales of this new edi­tion should provide a reliable in­dex to the state of our civilization today.

 

THE FEDERAL BULLDOZER: A Critical Analysis of Urban Renewal, 1949-1962 by Martin An­derson (Cambridge, Massachu­setts: The M.I.T. Press, 1964), 272 pp., $5.95

Reviewed by Paul L. Poirot

If the negative results of the first fifteen years of the Federal Urban Renewal “experiment” were generally known to be as devastat­ing as just reported in a study fi­nanced by the Joint Center for Urban Studies of M.I.T. and Har­vard operating under a grant from the Ford Foundation, the program surely would be abandoned by popular request.

Dr. Martin Anderson, Assistant Professor of Finance at the Co­lumbia University Graduate School of Business, supervised the study and assumes full responsi­bility for the findings. What began as a simple inquiry as to how pri­vate enterprise would be affected by the program ran into an ex­haustive contrast of the optimistic claims of proponents of urban renewal against the bleak and documented facts and figures that spell failure, leading to the con­cluding recommendation “that the federal urban renewal program be repealed now.”

Here are some of the “accom­plishments” of the program to date:

1.             “It has made it more difficult for low- and middle-income groups to obtain housing be­cause of the amount of low-rent housing it has destroyed.”

2.             “Over 60 per cent of the people forced to move are either Ne­groes, Puerto Ricans, or mem­bers of other minority groups.”

3.             “It is likely that urban renewal simply shifts slums and thus encourages the spread of slums and blight.”

4.             “So far, urban renewal may have caused a decrease in cities’ tax revenues…. the chances of urban renewal increasing tax revenues are small…”

5.             “For every $1 contributed by the government in the form of grants and loans, private inter­ests invest about $1, not $4.”

6.             “Urban renewal takes a very long time. The typical project takes almost twelve years to complete.”

7.             “The constitutionality of the federal urban renewal program is still an open issue, and a strong case can be made that it is not constitutional.”

In addition to the displacement of families from the urban re­newal areas—most of whom have been obliged to find less satisfac­tory housing at higher rental costs elsewhere—approximately 100,­000 small businesses were scheduled for dislocation from 650 dif­ferent project areas as of the end of 1959. Pilot studies reveal that from 25 to 40 per cent of these business firms never manage to re­locate at all; they simply go out of business, thus aggravating the unemployment problem. Records for the relatively few urban re­newal projects that have reached completion reveal that fewer than 4 per cent of the displaced busi­nesses actually moved back into the renewed areas.

Professor Anderson’s exhaus­tive research also revealed that contrary to the governmental and the popular impression, the dec­ade from 1950 to 1960 probably witnessed “the greatest improve­ment in housing quality ever shown in the United States.” And he could trace no more than a frac­tion of 1 per cent of that improve­ment to urban renewal efforts; by far most of the progress must be attributed to private enterprise.

The author concludes that “the federal urban renewal program conceived in 1949 had admirable goals. Unfortunately, it has not and cannot achieve them. Only free enterprise can.” No careful reader of the study could be ex­pected to agree with such a con­clusion, the reason being that any goal involving the coercion of peaceful persons spells trouble, and cannot be admirable.

 

THE HISTORIAN AND HIS­TORY by Page Smith (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1964), 261 pp., $4.95

Reviewed by Robert M. Thornton

This book comes down hard on those historians who write history that deals with “forces” instead of men and events and substitutes abstract analysis and statistics for meaningful interpretations of hu­man activity. History has been de­humanized, Smith charges, and great history is not being written: “The history that has commanded men’s minds and hearts, has al­ways been narrative history, his­tory with a story to tell that il­luminates the truth of the human situation, that lifts spirits and projects new potentialities.”

Smith is scornful of those who claim to write “scientific history,” who seem to believe that if all the available facts are put together they will, by some magic process, interpret themselves. He believes that the historian will gain an un­derstanding of the past only if he practices humility and patience, and if his mood is one of sympathy instead of detachment.

Professor Smith does not read history as the record of continuous and inevitable progress and he likewise questions the cyclical theory of history propounded by the Greeks. Rather, like the Chris­tian, he views history as the un­folding of God’s purpose in the world. Marxism and other forms of utopianism, unlike Christianity, expect fulfillment in history “rather than at the end of time or outside of time.”

But within the Christian com­munity there were those who ig­nored history and embraced the views of the utopians and secular theorists. “The Social Gospelers associated themselves with the secular reformers. Evil lay not so much in the individual as in the social system…. They were high­ly optimistic about the possibili­ties of reform, were decidedly world-centered, and had a serene confidence in human reason…. The attitude of the Gospelers toward the past was hardly to be distinguished from that of secu­lar liberals. Certainly the Social Gospelers gave no evidence of hav­ing a conception of history as a dramatic encounter between God and Man.”

Page Smith believes that one explanation for the lost, uprooted feeling of recent generations is that history has been denied or forgotten. “To live simply in the present, as so many have under­taken to do in this age, destroying systemically the links which bind them to preceding generations, is to leave oneself at the mercy of all those neuroses for which our society has proved so fertile a breeding ground.” 


  • 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.