A Reviewer's Notebook - 1976/4

Otto J. Scott is an enviable man. He spends part of his writing life exploring the careers of self-starting characters who act constructively for their country while pleasing themselves as individuals. His The Creative Ordeal, published a year ago, was a thoroughly justified paean to the "wizards" of the Raytheon company, who refined radar, a British invention, and produced it in sufficient volume to save England and to enable a crippled U.S. Navy to defeat Japan. Raytheon, with its M. I. T. scientists, was a prime example of Edmund Burke’s "little platoon" in action in a situation that depended on individual initiative even more than on coordinated wartime planning.

The other part of Otto Scott’s writing life is spent on dramatizing the evil effects of the Horrible Example. He is very much concerned with the occasional propensity of the human race to listen to fools. He plans biographies of King James I of England and President Woodrow Wilson, who, in his estimation, were strong men who just couldn’t think straight. The Stuart dynasty never did learn how to govern England, and Woodrow Wilson’s idea that the Seychelles Islands could be the equal of Britain or the U.S. in a world parliament has led to all the stupidities that Pat Moynihan has had to protest. But the biggest fools of all, in Scott’s opinion, were the men who created the French Revolution. Scott has chosen the most despicable of all the French revolutionaries for his Robespierre: The Voice of Virtue (Mason and Lipscomb, $9.95). The French Revolution, of course, was the antithesis of the American Revolution, even though Tom Paine and the Marquis de Lafayette, who took part in both of them, failed to see it that way until it was too late. The American Revolution was, actually, an armed struggle fought to defend the traditional claim of the colonists to the immemorial "rights of Englishmen." As such, it was a counter-revolution (the real revolutionist being King George III, who sought to become a dictator insofar as his American "subjects" were concerned). What Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and the rest established in America was a drastically limited government that provided for vetoes all over the lot. The small states could check the big states in the U.S. Senate; the big states could have their way in the House of Representatives. The President had his veto over both houses of Congress, and the Supreme Court could measure all new laws against the words of the Constitution. Meanwhile the ninth and tenth amendments, with some help from the first, second and fifth, defined the inalienable rights of states and individuals.

The French Revolution

There was nothing like this in France. When King Louis the Sixteenth called for convening the Estates-General for the first time in 174 years, he succumbed to the pamphleteers who demanded that the Commons should have as many votes as the clergy and nobility combined. This insured the creation of a "National Assembly" that would be unchecked save by a royal veto. But Louis the Sixteenth, an amiable, thoughtless man, was not one to fight for retention of his veto rights. With the help of a few renegade nobles and clergymen, the new National Assembly quickly became a monolith. Dominated by small-bore provincial lawyers such as Robespierre, the "sea-green incorruptible" from Arras, the Assembly knew nothing about the requirements of production or the need for fiscal sanity. Excess was piled upon excess. The cities, faced with starvation, could not restrain a maddened populace. Bakers were taken out and hanged because they had run out of bread.

It wasn’t long before the more "virtuous" revolutionaries such as Robespierre were using their control of an unchecked majority in the National Assembly to get rid of "moderates." The Revolution, with its guillotine, began to "devour its children." Danton went. Marat was assassinated in his bath by Charlotte Corday. Blood flowed everywhere. And then, one fine day, some of the more frightened revolutionaries looked at Robespierre, with his endless posturing about total virtue, and realized that if they didn’t get the "incorruptible" from Arras first he would soon be getting them. They did what was necessary: Robespierre was beheaded, and the stage was set for the military regime of Napoleon.

Mr. Scott does not bother to philosophize; he lets the dramatic narrative, with all its grisly detail, convey its own lesson. Whether it all had to happen that way is a question. If Louis the Sixteenth had been a stronger man, and if his Queen, Marie Antoinette, had had the intelligence of some of the royal mistresses of earlier French monarchs, the Estates-General might have been reconstituted along English lines, with the nobles and the clergy occupying the position of the British House of Lords. Workable compromises might have put France, a rich country, on its feet again, with a budget more or less in balance and with taxes equitably levied.

Emphasis on Equality

The French went wrong in 1789 because they made the fundamental mistake of equating freedom with equality. The only equality in the world is equal judgment in the sight of God. Men are not gods; they have no business trying to put each and every individual into the bed of an equalitarian Procrustes.

Burke said it all in his Reflections on the Revolution in France. We ought to suspend our judgment on the spirit of liberty, he said, until we see how it works out in action in a specific context. Burke refused to endorse the French Revolution on the basis of abstractions. He wanted to know how the "new liberty of France… had been combined with government; with public force; with the discipline and obedience of armies; with the collection of an effective and well-distributed revenue; with morality and religion; with the solidity of property; with peace and order; with civil and social manners." All these, he said, were good things, too.

The "new liberty" of France took no cognizance of the Burkean caveats. And so all the "good things" enumerated by Burke were sacrificed to a grand abstraction.

Otto Scott’s story makes something of Mirabeau’s effort to write a new constitution for France based on the English system. This would have been in accord with Montesquieu’s idea of checks and balances. But in the heady atmosphere of the time the National Assembly, as the voice of the "people," did not propose yielding some of its powers to an upper chamber or to a royal veto. Years later John Calhoun of South Carolina, in his great Disquisition on Government, put his finger on the French mistake. Government must be limited or Equality, as defined by 51 per cent of the people, will murder the liberty of 49 per cent. Without vetoes democracy runs to tyranny. A good thought for our Bicentennial.


THINKING ABOUT CRIME by James Wilson. New York: Basic Books, 1975, 231 pp. $10.

Reviewed by Haven Bradford Gow

James Wilson, a Professor of Government at Harvard University, is concerned about the fashionable cant and nonsense that is revealed in our thinking about, and attempts to cope with, crime. For example: During the past decade legal scholars have been engaged in an intense debate over the evidentiary rules governing search and seizure, police interrogations, and the taking of confessions. Professor Wilson concedes that this debate has illuminated some interesting legal and philosophical issues, but thinks the debate has a hollow ring when recalled in the context of what actually happens in a police station house. Professor Wilson has done the much-needed research; he finds that most persons arrested for such crimes as robbery and burglary have been arrested under circumstances in which no confession is needed, no searches have to be conducted, and no police interrogations are required. Most robbers and burglars are caught in the very act. Also, there often are witnesses to testify or stolen property that can be identified; and most of those who are captured, far from desiring to ensure that they may remain silent behind constitutionally protected rights, want very much to talk so that they might lighten their sentences.

The Harvard University professor is also disturbed about the view that "Crime and drug addiction can only be dealt with by attacking their root causes." He responds that he has yet to see a "root cause," and that he has yet to encounter a government program that has successfully attacked it, at least with respect to those social problems that emanate from human volition rather than technological malfunction. But more importantly, he finds that the demand for causal solutions is really an excuse for deferring action.

Professor Wilson also explodes the popular myth that poverty causes crime. During the 1960′s it became fashionable to contend that if we as a society were to reduce crime, we had to eliminate poverty, increase educational opportunities, eliminate bad housing, encourage community organization, and furnish counseling services to troubled and delinquent youth. It was a confident assumption of high-level Kennedy and Johnson administration officials that economic prosperity would lead to a sharp reduction of crime. Thus an avalanche of programs aimed at the poor, young and deprived were developed and implemented.

But crime soared. Indeed, crime rose at a faster rate, and to higher levels than at any time since the 1930′s and, in some categories, to higher levels than any previously experienced in this country. The decade of the 1960′s began with a sense of contentment and optimism; but this sense of contentment and optimism was shattered, not only by crime but by riots and war as well.

To the contention that "Men steal because they are poor and deprived," Professor Wilson responds: "There is more crime in most poor neighborhoods than in most well-off ones, but even in poor communities most people do not steal." Moreover, "crime rose the fastest in this country at a time when the number of persons living in poverty or squalor was declining." And to the popular assertion that the increase in crime results from population changes, the author replies: "Crime in our cities has increased far faster than the number of young people, or poor people, or black people, or just plain people who live in those cities. In short, objective conditions alone, whether demographic or economic, cannot account for the crime increases, though they no doubt contributed to it." Far more accurate to contend, as Professor Wilson does, that the increase of crime emanates from forces difficult to define and impossible to measure scientifically: namely, the destruction of community and our attitudes, ideas and values.

Implicit in much of the fashionable misconception regarding crime and criminals, contends Professor Wilson, are frequently naive and unacknowledged assumptions about human nature. To contend that poverty causes a person to become a criminal is to assume that man does not possess free will, that he lacks the inherent capacity to transcend his environment. To believe that human beings will become virtuous once they have attained social and economic success is to deny the common-sense recognition that wicked people exist. "Some persons will shun crime even if we do nothing to deter them," observes the Harvard University professor, "while others will seek it out even if we do everything to reform them." Evil men and women exist; and nothing avails except to set these evil persons apart from innocent persons.

"And many people, neither wicked nor innocent, but watchful, dissembling, or calculating of their opportunities," concludes Professor Wilson in his clearly-written and well-argued work, "ponder our reaction to wickedness as a cue to what they might profitably do. We have trifled with the wicked, made sport of the innocent, and encouraged the calculators. Justice suffers, and so do we all."


PROPERTY IN A HUMANE ECONOMY edited by Samuel L. Blumenfeld (LaSalle, IL: Open Court, 1974) 265 pages plus index, $10.00 hardcover, $3.50 softcover.

Reviewed by Brian Summers

This volume consists of thirteen essays delivered at several symposia sponsored by the Institute for Humane Studies. The contributors — F. A. Harper, Carl F. H. Henry, Leopold Kohr, James W. Wiggins, James A. Sadowsky, Murray N. Rothbard, Arthur Kemp, Louis M. Spadaro, Sylvester Petro, George I. Mavrodes, Edwin G. Dolan, James M. Smith, Israel M. Kirzner — consider such questions as:

What is the connection between property and freedom? Is private property theft? Can scarcity be eliminated by redistributing property? Are property rights the creation of law? If God owns everything, can people own anything? Can an individual own himself?

The authors represent a wide spectrum of professions, approaches, and points of view. They differ on many questions, including the precise definitions of ownership and property. However, they unite in their belief that the institution of private property is crucial to a humane society.

Property in a Humane Economy is being distributed by the Institute for Humane Studies, 1177 University Drive, Menlo Park, Calif. 94025.