All Commentary
Thursday, March 1, 1973

A Reviewer’s Notebook – 1973/3

In the early Nineteenth Century William Miller, using Scripture for his authority, confidently predicted the end of the world would come in 1843. He had thousands of disciples. When the year of doom passed and nothing happened, he revised his calendar: the funeral date for humanity on this earth would coincide with the Second Coming of Christ in October of 1844.

Miller was a religious fanatic, and we laugh at his kind in a secular age. But are our secular doomsayers any more credible in their extrapolations and prophecies? I was an early ecologist, and I wrote about — and practiced — organic gardening back in the Thirties.

Chemurgy, which advocated the recycling of practically everything, was an exciting movement of the times. So, when the ecologists had their grand revival in the Sixties, I felt a sympathetic stirring in old bones. There is a pollution problem, and it must be tackled. The Long Island Sound coast where we dug for clams and harvested mussels when I was a boy is now verboten as a source of consumable shellfish, and to swim at low tide is to risk a bath in oil. The ecologists have many good points in decrying such a state of environmental affairs. Unfortunately, the secular Millerites among them started running away with the predictable result that the sensible parts of the movement have been discredited along with the palpable idiocies.

It is with the hope of saving ecology from its fanatic friends that John Maddox, the editor of Nature magazine in England, offers his The Doomsday Syndrome (McGraw-Hill, $6.95). Mr. Maddox grew tired of hearing that the world was about to asphyxiate itself. The “numbers game” of the population explosionists, which predicted the starvation of “hundreds of millions of people” in the Nineteen Seventies, seemed to him a vastly overdramatic posing of unreal scarecrows. He doubted that DDT, which had eradicated malaria in many tropical areas, was a universal menace, even though it may have had some as yet undetermined impact on the birthrate of a few species of birds. He couldn’t accept the claim that we must suffer from a shortage of metals; after all, the junk piles can become the new mines, and the uses of plastics as a metal substitution are practically infinite.

Scared to Death?

Rachel Carson had started the doomsayers on their way with her Silent Spring, which scared thousands with its warning that “a few false moves on the part of man may result in destruction of soil productivity and the arthropods may well take over.” Looking back on such a statement, Mr. Maddox asks if there was ever any reason to fear that the entire surface of the earth would be treated in exactly the same way at exactly the same time, with all vegetation dying and the insects proliferating despite the insecticides and the lack of foliage to eat?

When Mr. Maddox looked at a map of the Amazon basin, or the Congo, or even of Wiltshire in England, it was more than obvious to him that even the worst agricultural practices would still leave plenty of trees and plenty of photosynthesis around to keep somebody and something, even a few robins, alive. Playing around with his own figures, Mr. Maddox says the atmosphere of the earth, which weighs more than 5,000 million million tons, has more than a million tons of air for each human being. The earth’s water is so voluminous that each living person’s share would fill a cube half a mile in each direction. Denying the utility of comparing “spaceship earth” to one of the Apollo moon capsules, Mr. Maddox says human activity, “spectacular though it may be, is still dwarfed by the human environment.”

Dirty Old Nature

Nature itself has provided instances of pollution that make even the multiple car exhausts of all the Los Angeles freeways seem piddling by comparison. Mr. Maddox mentions the disappearance of the Pacific island of Krakatoa in a volcanic eruption in 1887. The explosion threw more than a million tons of dust into the stratosphere, and for years thereafter this dust provided the world with gorgeous sunsets. The dust also reduced the amount of solar energy reaching the earth, and we had lower temperatures for four or five years. Eventually the atmosphere purified itself. This is not an argument for defective carburetors or smoke belching chimneys, but it should convey something to the gloom-and-doom boys who think the internal combustion engine is about to do us all in.

Mr. Maddox recognizes that Malthus, whose “law” insists that populations must continue to outstrip the food supply, has some contemporary relevance in places like India. As an Englishman, however, he is quite aware of what happened to his own nation as it became industrialized. The pace of population growth slows down in countries whenever the need for juvenile farm hands becomes less important to families, and Mr. Maddox is sure that the British experience of a lowered birth rate will be repeated in all the underdeveloped countries as the factories move in. A family with a two-child preference in countries that have decent hygiene doesn’t need a third and a fourth child for “insurance” as it did in the days of yellow fever and diphtheria epidemics. Mr. Maddox wrote his book before the statisticians pointed to a real approach to zero population growth in the United States, but he was sure the curves were about to level off here as they had already leveled off in Sweden, Bulgaria, Japan and elsewhere. His verdict: the population explosion “has all the signs of being a damp squib.”

The Green Revolution

Even in the Asiatic countries that are not yet industrialized, the so-called green revolution is enabling the local farmers to keep a jump or two ahead of Malthus. Mr. Maddox may sound over lyrical in his praise of miracle rice and the new “Mexi-Pak” wheat, but in spite of the risk of disease in highly specialized strains of cereals the green revolution is a demonstrated success. What is now happening in Asia has yet to happen in Africa and South America, but if Mexican wheat can help save India there is no reason to believe it can’t thrive in Latin American lands that look to Mexico for leadership.

Even though the appropriation for cleaning up the atmosphere hasn’t been what the ecologists want, it is not true that pollution is on the increase in American cities. Mr. Maddox says that Chicago reached its air pollution peak in 1965. Since then the carbon monoxide in Chicago air has “decreased most spectacularly.” In New York the peak was reached in 1968. In London smog disappeared after the Clean Air legislation of the Fifties; there is no reason, says Mr. Maddox, why the London experience can’t be repeated in the United States.

Mr. Maddox’s book has special significance in that it comes from an ecologist who is himself in earnest about cleaning up the skies, the streets and Lake Erie. When a bona fide environmentalist tells us that we can continue to have industrial growth and a rise in the standard of living without adding to poisons and litter and overcrowding, it is good news indeed.


THE NEW TOTALITARIANS by Roland Huntford (New York: Stein & Day, 1971) 354 pp., $10.

Reviewed by Allan C. Brownfeld

Sweden, once labeled the middle way, is now totalitarian, reports the London Observer’s Scandinavian correspondent. This total state is benign. Such words as individuality and freedom have lost their traditional meaning, having long been neglected in practice. People are passive, and so there is no need to employ the instruments of incarceration and the firing squad to keep them in line. Sweden reminds Huntford of Brave New World where Huxley told us that “A really efficient totalitarian state would be the one in which the all-powerful executive of political bosses and their army of managers control a population of slaves who do not have to be coerced, because they love their servitude.”

Sweden is run by no elected bureaucrats, and the Diet, which is elected, is virtually powerless. The Diet has neither a say in running the civil service, nor the ability to influence the administrative process. Cabinet ministers and senior bureaucrats are privileged to rule by administrative orders, which the Diet is prohibited from debating and over which it has no say. Most of the rules and regulations that govern Sweden are beyond parliamentary control, and the power of the bureaucracy has been extended to almost all aspects of society, even reaching into the home.

The Directorate of Social Affairs has total authority concerning the custody of children. An administrative order issued by a party official is sufficient to take any child away from its parents and have it brought up by any person or institution and in any way seen fit. Courts of law have no say in this matter, and there is no way that a parent can oppose an order depriving him of custody of his own child.

“At no point is it possible,” states the author, “to invoke the due process of law, and parents may not be present at the civil service boards which discuss the removal of children from their homes…. In 1968, 21,000 children were removed from their parents’ custody. This is about 1 per 350 inhabitants.”

Academic freedom has never been known in Sweden. From the start, university professors have been appointed directly by the government; curricula and even the detailed content of individual lectures were decided by ecclesiastical functionaries and state officials. Mr. Sven Moberg, deputy Minister of Education, explains the goal of education in today’s Sweden: “Education is one of the most important agents for changing society…. Its purpose is to turn out the correct kind of person for the new society. The new school rejects individuality, and teaches children cooperation. Children are taught to work in groups. They solve problems together; not alone. The basic idea is that they are considered primarily as members of society, and individuality is discouraged.”

Culture is also dominated by the state and used for its own political purposes. The center of the Swedish stage is the Royal Dramatic Theater in Stockholm, a state institution. The artistic director, Erland Josephson is of course a member of the Social Democratic Party which has ruled the country since the 1930s. “The purpose of the theater,” he says, “is to expand emotional life. A country must have a rich emotional life. Without this, politicians cannot bring about changes or appeal to the public. You see, our people are emotionally and culturally underdeveloped. The arts, particularly the theater, are being used to accelerate and bring about a maturing of emotional life.”

The drama, says Josephson, must promote the intentions of the Government. Nothing that contradicts the changes in Swedish society is permitted to appear. “Education,” he says, “is turning out people who have learned to fit into society. So that means I won’t allow any plays that glorify the individual. That excludes most of the romantic dramatists, like Schiller. And it definitely cuts out most of Ibsen. Brand and Peer Gynt are two Ibsen plays I definitely do not want to see performed.”

While we are told how happy and content the Swedes are, Mr. Huntford reports that crime in Sweden increased from 250,000 cases in 1960 to 500,000 in 1970. During 1969-70 there was a 20 per cent increase in thefts, 16 per cent in robberies, 62 per cent in check-passing and violent crimes increased by 40 per cent in 1969. Seventy-five per cent of all crimes in Sweden are committed by children and youth between the ages of 10 and 25. Despite “sexual liberation,” rape increased by 65.2 per cent between 1963 and 1967.

There are a few cracks in the unappetizing picture drawn by Huntford. One such is the recent defection from Prime Minister Palme’s majority. Another is the built-in economic inefficiency of a centrally directed technocratic system. A third is the accumulation of evidence that there is a shift in public opinion, denoting a loss of faith in the system. In a new book by Sture Källberg, Report from a Swedish Village, the natives come through as resigned and cynical, complaining of monotony and critical of officialdom, uncertain of where they are or where they want to go. Sweden has matured; those who walked the road to serfdom have finally arrived.


THE POLITICAL CULTURE OF THE UNITED STATES by Donald J. Devine (Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1972) 383 pp., $7.95

Reviewed by Allan C. Brownfeld

It is easy to mistake the pop culture for reality, and those who spend a great deal of time watching television and reading headlines are apt to fall into such a trap. A basic element of “fashionable” thought is that American politics is hopelessly unrepresentative of the American people, that most citizens are receiving a raw deal and would like nothing more than to turn the system upside down. Thus, radical intellectuals call for revolution in the name of the people, while the only revolution the people seem interested in is one against the intellectual elite itself.

A recently published scholarly study, The Political Culture of the United States, by Professor Donald J. Devine of the University of Maryland, leads to these conclusions and many more.

Professor Devine explores in great detail the nature of our value consensus, as reflected in opinion polls, and finds these values to be largely in “the liberal tradition,” having little relationship, of course, with the political tendency which today calls itself “liberal.” Professor Devine notes that this liberal tradition coincides with the writings of the political philosopher John Locke: “Locke saw man as rational and free, and his consent is needed for government to be legitimate. He is unrestricted in that he begins life with a mind like a white paper — not unlike America before settlement. But this man also has a tradition within which his reason operates. This is especially so for his values, which are based upon a natural law… Locke viewed government as contracted by this complex but essentially free man to preserve himself from the insecurity of the state of nature. Government was thus somewhat unnatural — limited to protecting the individual’s life, liberty and property through popular consent, established laws, impartial judges, and limited but effective executives. A government that exceeds these bounds is illegitimate…”

The liberal tradition about which there exists a consensus is one which calls for a very strictly limited government, whose primary function is to insure man’s freedom and protect his life and property. Those in the political process today who speak of taxing the rich and bestowing their property among the poor are speaking in direct opposition to a basic element of our own liberal tradition. The Federalist Papers (No. 1, p. 36) states: “The diversity in the faculties of men from which the rights of property originate, is not less an unsuperable obstacle to a uniformity of interests. The protection of these faculties is the first object of government. From the protection of different and unequal faculties of acquiring property, the possession of different degrees and kinds of property immediately results.”

In his Second Treatise, John Locke set forth in no uncertain terms the value of private property. He noted that, “The great and chief end, therefore, of man’s uniting into commonwealths and themselves under government, is the preservation of their property; to which in the state of nature there are many things wanting…Every man has a property in his own person. This nobody has any right to but himself. The labor of his body and the work of his hands, we may say are properly his. Whatsoever, then, he removes out of the state that nature hath provided and left it in, he hath mixed his labor with it, and joined to it something that is his own, and thereby makes it his property.”

In the American political tradition, states Professor Devine, “property is necessary because its protection insures that individual liberty and achievement possibilities survive… Property is a basic liberal value because its protection allows the individual to be free and secure.”

Those who advocate more state intervention into the lives of individuals are calling for a policy which the overwhelming majority of Americans reject. The author’s analysis of public opinion surveys indicates that more than eight out of ten choose liberty over economic security and seven out of ten choose individual freedom over duty to the state. Seven out of ten support freedom of the press while more than 95 per cent support freedom of speech. Eighty-one per cent prefer private over public ownership of property and six out of ten support achievement more than job security.

Professor Devine believes that too many men in politics attempt to please a radical intellectual elite which has views which are at variance with the views of the majority of Americans, rather than the people themselves. The views of the majority are set forth in detail in The Political Culture of the United States. If the author’s thesis is correct, political stability and political and economic freedom will continue into the future, despite those who challenge them today — that is, if the will of the people has anything to do with it.


THE BONHOEFFERS: PORTRAIT OF A FAMILY by Sabine Leibholz-Bonhoeffer, with a Foreword by Lord Longford and a Preface by Eberhard Bethge (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1972) 203 pp., $7.95

Reviewed by Dr. Gottfried Dietze

Whether one believes that history is made by great men or by the masses, certainly the progress of history is unthinkable without individuals standing out in greatness from what has been amassed around them, by standing up for their beliefs against the powers of this world. It may be added that the greatness of our civilization is due in a large measure to the fact that men again and again have had the courage to challenge what was fashionable. This is why the idea of freedom has relevance to all men irrespective of color, creed, or national origin, why the idea is older than Adam Smith and, indeed, timeless.

One of the men who stood up to oppression in the not too distant past was Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a young Protestant theologian martyred by the National Socialists in a concentration camp at the end of World War II. When Hitler came to power Bonhoeffer went on the air saying that an individual feels the need of submitting himself to a leader only to the extent that he is not mature or responsible enough to do good by himself. From then on to his famous Letters from Prison, Bonhoeffer courageously resisted National Socialism and wrote his influential books. His life was the more remarkable in view of the fact that he left a safe haven in the United States and returned to Germany although he had been warned and knew that he would get into trouble there, feeling that his teaching would be more necessary under a government which oppressed religion than in a nation known for religious tolerance.

The attractive, well-illustrated book here reviewed, written by his twin sister, provides frank insights into Bonhoeffer’s attitudes and beliefs, bringing in many personal remembrances. The author also vividly portrays the family she and her twin brother belonged to, one which Lord Longford calls the most remarkable family of our time, “with their distinguished ancestry on both sides, their father perhaps the leading psychiatrist in Germany, the eight children all extremely gifted.” Certainly, the whole family courageously opposed National Socialism. Aside from Dietrich, another brother, Klaus, and two brothers-in-law, Hans von Dohnanyi and Rüdiger Schleicher, were killed by Hitler’s men.

In a human and touching way the author also describes her own life. Married to Gerhard Leibholz, a “non-Aryan” professor of constitutional law who due to Hitler’s racism had to leave his professorship in Göttingen, her account shows the ostracism and persecution suffered under socialism of the nationalist brand. The book describes the family’s flight to Switzerland and England, where they lived until 1947, when Dr. Leibholz resumed his professorship and became an outstanding judge of West Germany’s highest court.

The book is a well-written and fascinating document of contemporary history. In a way, the ordeal of the Bonhoeffers is representative of the experience of all those who courageously resist oppression and who suffer the inevitable consequences.

It was said above that freedom is older than Smith’s Wealth of Nations, generally credited with having ushered in the era of liberalism. And yet, that era perhaps constitutes the climax in the history of freedom. This reviewer asked himself whether the family here described is not a typical product of the liberal era with its sense of individualism, propriety, honesty and achievement. All these values have increasingly come under challenge since World War I, when socialism made deep inroads upon liberalism. In our time when, as Hayek put it, the worst tend to get on top, a closely knit, distinguished family like the Bonhoeffers becomes increasingly a reminder of a past age, just as individualism, family life, and distinction are. Perhaps such losses are inevitable after the revolt of the masses which Ortega y Gasset described. Perhaps, therefore, our mass age which produced a regime like that of National Socialism under which the Bonhoeffers had to suffer, an age which still suffers regimes that oppress freedom, now needs a revolt against the masses. Certainly many men like those here described would be needed to accomplish that task.

The book was an immediate success in Germany where it was originally published. Danish am English editions came out before the present American edition. A Japanese translation is to follow. 

  • 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.