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Thursday, November 1, 1973

A Reviewer’s Notebook – 1973/11

No single person starts a movement. In the late Nineteen Thirties, when the so-called intellectuals were moving in droves to the Left, there were still a few straggling advocates of what Leonard Read speaks of as the “freedom philosophy.” The stragglers, however, weren’t very clear about fundamentals.

To indulge in some personal reminiscence, I was impressed with Albert Jay Nock’s Our Enemy, The State but troubled by Nock’s Single Tax panacea, which would have made the State our universal landlord. The anti-Communists — Eugene Lyons, Ben Stolberg and others in the group that asked for asylum for Leon Trotsky on a purely civil libertarian basis — were fighting an obvious enemy, but they didn’t have any positive theory of individual freedom. Out on the West Coast Leonard Read was reading Bastiat and organizing something called Pamphleteers, Inc., but he was practically unknown on the Eastern seaboard.

It was a strange, confusing time. The New Deal had flopped; if unemployment was coming to an end it was because war industries were starting up. As Randolph Bourne had put it, war was “the health of the State,” proving the futility of expecting government to run a peace-time economy.

I don’t know how it was with others, but it took two books by women, each published in 1943, to put my own groping thoughts about the inequity of government enterprise into focus. The first book was Isabel Paterson’s The God of the Machine; the second was Rose Wilder Lane’s The Discovery of Freedom. In their different ways Mrs. Paterson and Mrs. Lane analyzed the relations between individual rights and the release of energy. Tracing the “long circuit of energy” from its origins in free individual choice to its institutional embodiment in voluntary associations of one sort or another, the two women arrived at an identical conclusion: only under a Madisonian checks-and balances system, with government limited to defense, police power and courts-of-justice functions, could humanity thrive.

The odd thing about it was that the two women were not friends; Isabel Paterson could not forgive Rose Wilder Lane for having been a socialist in the days when Jack London was helping to organize the Intercollegiate Socialist Society. This was Isabel’s mistake: she could not see that some people have to learn from experience, as Mrs. Lane learned when she observed, from close up, what Fabianism and its harsher brother, Leninist Bolshevism, had done to stop the flow of energy in Europe and countries of the East. Significantly, both Mrs. Paterson and Mrs. Lane had grown up on the American frontier, where freedom was most uninhibited. They should have been friends.

Working from Principle

When Rose Wilder Lane really latched on to a principle, she lived it. Although she insisted that she never did things out of a desire to be of “service” (she hated professional Do-Gooders because they usually worked with extorted “other people’s money”), she could be a twelve – hour – a – day letter writer in behalf of spreading her philosophy. In the Thirties she gave up writing her best-selling fiction because she objected to paying income taxes to finance compulsory social security and the various bureaucracies of the Rooseveltian Welfare State. Her torrential energies were spent on raising her own food on a few acres outside of Danbury, Connecticut (she refused to have anything to do with ration cards during the war), and on defending and amplifying the “freedom philosophy” in her correspondence with numerous people.

There must be hundreds of Rose Wilder Lane letters in various files. Roger Lea MacBride has limited his selection for The Lady and the Tycoon (Caxton Printers, $5.95) to the “best of letters between Rose Wilder Lane and Jasper Crane.” There are 387 pages of these, which is surely enough to present an entirely representative sample of Mrs. Lane’s thinking over a quarter of a century.

Jasper Crane, the “tycoon” to whom Mrs. Lane addressed her thoughts about freedom, had mapped out a “freedom philosophy” for himself partly by long and arduous thinking about his experience in industry (he was a Du Pont Company executive) and partly by his reading, which extended from Biblical studies to the papers of James Madison. He was a most understanding correspondent whose short commendations and ripostes brought out the most able sort of exposition from Mrs. Lane. The fact that he happened to be a tycoon (meaning a monied industrialist) meant little to Mrs. Lane, who didn’t think movements thrived on money. The Fabians and early socialists had worked best when lean and hungry. She liked Jasper Crane because he was an activist who agreed with her that all too many Big Businessmen had no sense of the philosophical underpinnings of their own originally free system.

Organizational Activity

Rose Wilder Lane had no belief in organizations as such; she felt in her bones that the end of the Twentieth Century would see a great renascence of individualist thinking simply because dedicated young people had begun to see through the pretensions of the Welfare State. She was not, however, wholly consistent in her attitude toward organizations. Many of her letters to Jasper Crane were devoted to thinking about ways and means of making the Mont Pelerin Society more effective, which meant that she approved of its founding in the first place.

Reading this selection from the Lane-Crane correspondence, one gets a very real sense of how the opposition to State interventionism of all sorts has grown from practically nothing in 1943 to become a most impressive movement in the early Nineteen Seventies. Where once there were two women writing books, a handful of Vienna school economists (Von Mises and his followers) teaching in odd corners of our educational system, and a Leonard Read with the idea of the Foundation for Economic Education at the back of his head, there are now a score of freedom publications (The Freeman, Human Events, National Review, New Guard, The Alternative, Modern Age, et cetera), a plethora of “conservative” (meaning old-fashioned liberal) newspaper columnists, good schools (Hillsdale and Rockford College, to name a couple), flourishing societies (Mont Pelerin, the Philadelphia Society), foundations (FEE itself, the Institute for Humane Studies, et cetera) and a scattered but effective base in the older university world (the Hoover Institution at Stanford, for example).

The Eternal Optimist

Rose Wilder Lane, the eternal optimist, kept pointing out the growth of understanding about liberty to Jasper Crane, who was inclined on occasion to lament the difficulties encountered by libertarians. Speaking of my own The Roots of Capitalism, Mr. Crane told Rose Lane that I did it “with quite inadequate monetary reward.” I earned enough from it to finance the period engaged in its researching and writing, which means that I got an education for free from doing it, a quite adequate compensation. My only wish is that someone would keep the book in print without worrying about paying royalties until the cost of a new edition had been entirely absorbed.

No mystic, Mrs. Lane felt that moral law existed in the grain of God’s universe on the same plane as the “natural” laws of physics, chemistry and astronomy. As she saw it, one gets one’s comeuppance for murder or theft even as one is hurt if he or she steps out of a second-story window. By the same token societies get their comeuppance when they depart from the “natural” laws that govern the release of human energy. Everything in Rose Wilder Lane’s world moved toward consistency, which is what makes her letters a most treasured experience to read.


THE POLITICAL ILLUSION by Jacques Ellul (New York: Vintage Books, 1972, 258 pp. $1.95)

Reviewed by Haven Bradford Gow

This is not a witty or eloquent work, but it certainly is a book which contains much wisdom. The author, Jacques Ellul, is an eminent French social philosopher, currently professor of law and history at the University of Bordeaux. He is the author of a number of seminal works, among which are The Technological Society and False Presence of the Kingdom.

The Technological Society, the author’s best-known work, is an examination of the technical view of life — modern man’s obsession with means, with techniques, especially in the political order. This preoccupation with techniques in the political sphere is alarming, warns Ellul, for then moral and even personal considerations are shunted aside; and such values as freedom and justice are subordinated to the value of “efficiency.”

False Presence of the Kingdom is an angry discussion of the politicization of the Church. It is not the function of the Church to formulate grandiose social, economic and political programs to achieve The Great Society, Ellul declares, but increasing numbers of church leaders have come to believe that “politics constitutes a sort of ultimate issue.” For them, “Politics becomes a test of the sincerity of one’s faith. The political order takes on such importance that all teaching seems to converge on this entrance into politics… The political issue becomes ultimate to such an extent that persons and churches are judged in terms of political criteria.”

Like the previous work, The Political Illusion concerns the relation of the religious to the social and political orders. But more than that, it deals with contemporary man’s idolization of politics, and his conversion of all questions into political questions. “It is no longer true,” Ellul tells us, “that the better part of all questions facing a society is not political. And even if a question is in no way political, it becomes political and looks to the state for an answer. It is wrong to say that politics is everything, but it is a fact that in our society everything has become political…”

The evidences of our political obsession are everywhere around us, contends Ellul, and we only have to reflect upon our common experience to know that this is so. For example, there is an increasing tendency to view events and persons exclusively in terms of politics; to place everything in the hands of the state; to appeal to  the state in all circumstances; to subordinate the dilemmas of the individual to those of the group; to believe that everyone is qualified to deal with political affairs. All these, the author tells us, reveal modern man’s obsession with politics and the widespread acceptance of “the political illusion.”

There are three aspects to this illusion. The first concerns control of the state. The author observes that, despite what those living in a democracy have been led to believe, “the people” do not really control the state by their ballots. While “the people” control to a certain extent who is on top of the pyramid, they do not in fact control the state, for their elected representatives cannot effectively deal with the behemoth under them. Even when the leaders at the top are changed, there is little chance for reform, since the leaders are slaves to political pressure groups, the bureaucracy, and the technical experts they employ.

The second aspect concerns popular participation and the notion that, though they do not control the state, “the people” nevertheless participate substantially in its doings. This is just another illusion, says Ellul, for even as their ballots cannot control the course of events, the organizations of “the people”— for example, parties and trade unions — do not channel popular desires so as to make them effective. Why? Because these organizations demand men at the top who are professional politicians whose main and probably only concern is to attain and conserve power against rivals in their own and in other camps.

The final aspect involves the belief that ultimately all problems are reducible to the political order, and therefore demand purely political “solutions.” This doctrine, contends the author, has contributed to the growth of the state, its powers of organization, and its responsibilities. Not only is governmental action’ being applied in increasing numbers of realms, but the means through which the state can act are growing too. All this seems to go hand in hand with inevitable centralization and with the total organization of society in the hands of the state.

The perennial problems of the human condition are, at bottom, moral and religious; the crisis we face in the West is of the spirit, and it is a crisis which for better or worse is beyond the competence of politics to deal with. It is our good fortune to have the likes of Jacques Ellul around to remind us that when we disregard that truth, when we mistakenly assume that political remedies can resolve what really are disorders of the spirit demanding religious solutions, the tragic and inevitable result is not heaven-on-earth, but rather hell.

  • 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.