A Reviewer's Notebook - 1976/7

It took fifty years for the Fabian Society to conquer Britain for socialism. In the beginning the Fabian Society was a tiny debating forum for George Bernard Shaw, not yet a famous playwright, and Sidney and Beatrice Webb, who preached something called "the inevitability of gradualism." This peculiarly British slow-motion approach to socialism stirred Lenin, then living in exile in Switzerland, to sardonic laughter. "A good man fallen among Fabians," he remarked of George Bernard Shaw.

In America, Frank Chodorov didn’t laugh. Frank, a devoted follower of Albert Jay Nock, used to drop into the office of the Freeman magazine back in 1950. When he wasn’t talking about Nock’s Our Enemy, the State, Frank’s favorite topic was Fabian "gradualism," which he proposed to turn against the socialists. He regarded our Freeman as one beginning libertarian gradualist rivulet. He had had his own little magazine, analysis (spelled with a small "a"), but that wasn’t enough. He proposed setting up an Intercollegiate Society of Individualists to battle the swarming collectivists for the control of the American campus.

Looking about him for a president for his fledgling ISI, Frank fastened upon a young Yale graduate named William Buckley, who had been reading analysis and who had asked me, as a Freeman editor and fellow Yale alumnus, to write an introduction to his remarkably precocious God and Man at Yale. Meanwhile, as Frank looked about for more gradualist rivulets, Leonard Read had already started The Foundation for Economic Education and some forty American and European scholars, led by Friedrich Hayek of The Road to Serfdom fame, had met in the Swiss Alps to form The Mont Pelerin Society.

Chodorov, the fighting optimist, surveyed the whole scene with a satisfaction that few of us could feel at the time. Individualist gradualism, he was convinced, could take the play away from the modern "liberals," who then dominated practically every newspaper, magazine, university and publishing company in America.

Chodorov died a long time ago. Had he lived, even he might be astounded by the success of libertarian and conservative gradualism in America since he first began talking about using the Fabian formula against the Fabians. The whole magnificent success story has been set down in vibrant detail by George H. Nash, a young Harvard Ph.D., in a teeming book, The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America Since 195 (Basic Books, $20). Nash would have pleased Chodorov down to the ground, for he has Chodorov’s own feeling that it is the movement of ideas, not the posturing of the politicians, that determines the outcome of events in the real world.

With an incredible patience Nash has picked up virtually every one of the rivulets that Chodorov used to talk about. In his careful construction, which combines the chronological approach with a skillful use of flash-backs, Nash shows how the rivulets have combined to form a rushing river that, at the moment of his book’s publication, promises great changes at the polls. It will probably take a few more years for the anti-Fabian gradualism extolled by Chodorov to beat back the socialists, but no reader of Nash’s book can legitimately doubt that the anti-Fabian gradualists are going to win.

For an Effective Coalition

What did it take to make a really effective movement that could unite the von Mises Austrian school economists, the Chodorov anti-Statists, the Russell Kirk anti-ideology Burkean conservatives, the anti-Communists, the believers in a Christianized West, the defenders of the "higher law," and the pragmatic "neo-conservatives" such as Irving Kristol who have seen that collectivist panaceas just don’t work? How, with such potentially "fissionable" material, could there ever have been a fusion?

Mr. Nash has two theories to explain a remarkable phenomenon. The first theory owes much to Benjamin Franklin, who, in the days when Americans were defying King George III, said we must all hang together or we’ll all hang separately. The drive of the Communists to take over the world, by a combination of internal subversion and external power threats, creates a fear that acts as a strong cement for conservatives and libertarians of all shades of belief. But fusion would never have become articulate if it hadn’t been for the remarkable personality of Frank Meyer, an ex-Communist who died as a convert to the Catholic faith.

Nash has correctly perceived that Frank Meyer, from his "Principles and Heresies" pulpit in Bill Buckley’s National Review, worked miracles of persuasion on many a doubter that libertarians and Burkean traditionalists, agnostics and Christian believers, classical economists and ex-Communists with little grounding in economics, could ever get together. Frank, with his belief that the end of government is the protection of individual liberty, did not contest the idea that the end of man at liberty is the pursuit of virtue. He convinced many of us that the choice between good and evil is meaningless if it is not the product of free will. So he brought libertarians and traditionalists to accept the idea that government must be limited, and the economic system must be set free, in order to provide a setting where men could freely promote their own ideas of virtue without being coerced into a meaningless official morality by Big Brother.

Long Live the Differences

Nash clearly perceives that to define conservatism in dogmatic terms would be to kill it. There is no definition that could put a blanket cover over James Burnham, the anatomist of "liberal" suicide and student of geopolitical reality, and Murray Rothbard, who thinks questions of foreign policy are totally negligible. It is enough that conservatives and libertarians of all shades of thought agree in distrusting the "social engineering" approach to changing the social order. It is enough that the followers of Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek, some of whom prefer to call themselves Whigs or old-fashioned liberals, and the neoconservatives of the Kristol "public interest" school, who are still Deweyan "instrumentalists" at heart, can share a preference for a free economy for their own different reasons.

Nash goes fully into controversies that had conservatives deeply divided at times. There was the McCarthy controversy, for example. There was the argument over the "natural rights" conception of freedom versus virtue and duty. The names connected with the arguments are legion, but Nash manages to do justice to practically everyone in the movement, from Walter Berns and Brent Bozell and Willmoore Kendall on the "virtue-duty" side of the argument to Milton Friedman, whose interests are largely secular and who would use what Henry Hazlitt thinks of as "tinkering" devices to make government interference in education and the marketplace more responsible to pluralistic preferences. The personalities blend neatly into the flow of the narrative. Practically anybody who was connected in any way with the conservative revival will say, on finishing Nash’s book, that "all of this I saw, and part of this I was."

There are, however, a couple of omissions. Nash ignores Rose Wilder Lane, whose The Discovery of Freedom must have had as much effect in turning socialists into libertarians as Albert Jay Nock. Among the early anti-Communists he forgets Benjamin Stolberg and John Dos Passos, who were still very much on the scene in the Fifties. But it would be flyspecking to hold a few omissions against George Nash. He has carried off a Gargantuan enterprise with a flourish and aplomb that have never once disturbed his magnificently precise sense of order.


SIMPLE & DIRECT: A Rhetoric for Writers by Jacques Barzun (New York, Harper & Row, 1975) 205 pp.

Reviewed by Edmund A. Opitz

Anyone can learn to write decent prose; good writers are made, not born. Some, obviously, have a greater natural aptitude than others, but even the immensely gifted Jacques Barzun has to rewrite. The elegant prose we admire in his books did not flow from his pen in that form, as he reveals here. A page of the first draft of this book is reproduced: words crossed out, new words inserted, a phrase deleted, a sentence added. Additional corrections, we are told, were made in two successive typescripts and in the galleys. Obviously, most of us are lazy, and so we con ourselves into believing that good writers are born with a silver pen in hand. The truth is that good writers work twice as hard as mediocre writers and more I intelligently. It is helpful, I understand, to be a genius

You’re no genius, let us say, but you are normally endowed and your I.Q. is over a hundred. Will hard work make a writer of you? No, only hard work of the right kind, work appropriate to the end you have in mind. Your goal is to write prose which is "reasonably clear and straightforward," and this means that you must become "self-conscious and analytical about words." The correct word should be used in a proper context (consult the dictionary!); the metaphor should be apt; syntax, rhythm, and diction should suit the occasion; the tone should be right.

"I want to lay it down as an axiom," Barzun writes, "that the best tone is the tone called plain, unaffected, unadorned. It does not talk down or jazz up; it assumes the equality of all readers likely to approach the given subject; it informs or argues without apologizing for its task; it does not try to dazzle or cajole the indifferent; it takes no posture of coziness or sophistication. It is the most difficult of all tones, and also the most adaptable. When you can write plain you can trust yourself in special effects."

Simple & Direct is witty and amusing. Barzun has culled some gorgeous specimens of bad prose from his wide reading, and in some cases adds a comment. He quotes a writer who has not thought about his imagery: "The air was clear and cool but not cold and its freshness was like wine in the nostrils." To which Barzun rejoins: "It’s bad enough to inhale smoke!" But Simple & Direct is also an exercise book, and the reader who wants to get full benefit from it should go through it with pen andpad. In the major divisions of the book he’ll learn about Diction, Linking, Tone and Tune, Meaning, Composition, and Revision; and he’ll be sensitized to the major sins against the canons. Next, he’ll work his way through the exercises, emerging at the far end with a pretty fair notion of what it takes to be a writer.

The book also contains half-adozen brief essays as examples of good writing. To which I’d like to add some suggestions, beginning with the books of Jacques Barzun himself. Fifteen titles are in print, an armful of books which surely represents one of the major intellectual and literary accomplishments of our time — and a model of good writing as well.

And of course there’s Albert Jay Nock, acknowledged as a master prose stylist even by those who reject his opinions. Nock is so quotable that there’s a temptation to shirk the chore of saying it in your own way. Resist this temptation, for Nock’s manner of saying things is his own. But any reader who stays with him will have his own thinking whetted, and the influence of Nock’s way with words will subtly invade the deep layers of his mind. This, of course, is the virtue of great works of literature. I once asked the nature writer, Henry Beston, how he came by his beautiful style. "I steeped myself in the King James Version of the Bible," he replied. The splendor of Elizabethan English came to full flower in this "noblest monument of English prose."

Well, now, you’ve worked your way through Simple & Direct, giving yourself a two-semester course in Writing and Composition. You know how to say it, and you begin to have an inkling of what you want to say. This latter now needs attention. Having something to say requires a well-nourished mind. The mind must be continuously restocked by observation, conversation, and reading which, taken together, constitute research. Research is hard work, but there’s a right way to go about it, and it’s set forth in a book crammed with fascinating pieces of information, The Modern Researcher, by Barzun and Graff.

The upshot is that anyone who puts his mind to it can write, but there are easier things to do, like swimming the English Channel!


FREE MARKETS OR FAMINE (318 pp.) (revised edition) and POLITICS VERSUS PROSPERITY (358 pp.) by Dr. V. Orval Watts, co-author and editor, and 21 other distinguished scholars. (Pendell Publishing Co., P.O. Box 1666, Midland, Michigan 48640)

Reviewed by Howard E. Kershner

Dr. Watts is Burrows T. Lundy Professor of The Philosophy of Business, Campbell College, North Carolina, and Director of Economic Education for Northwood Institute. He obtained his doctorate in Economics and History at Harvard University and has a long and distinguished career as a teacher of economics at Wellesley, Carleton, Claremont, Pepperdine, and Northwood.

The first edition of Free Markets or Famine was tops, and the revised edition is even better. Nine chapters are by the master himself. Among the authors of one or more of the other chapters are the renowned Austrian school economist Ludwig von Mises, Hans F. Sennholz, Edward P. Coleson, Sylvester Petro, Dean Russell and Murray N. Rothbard.

The book proves the thesis that the only time an economy of abundance has appeared in the world was after the coming of the free market economy. The authors do not specifically say it, but this reviewer maintains that the moral principles succinctly stated in the Ten Commandments were essential to the success of the market economy as taught by Adam Smith and others of the classical school. Smith wrote at a time when these principles were believed and largely practiced by Western society. Without them, it is doubtful if the free market economy ever would have developed its marvelous capacity to produce abundantly.

Famine and hard times were common before the coming of the free market, and this reviewer, at least, believes that they will return if and when the free market and its Judeo-Christian religious input no longer determine the conduct and loyalty of a majority of the people.

This book ought to be read by all who want to understand the science of economics. Likewise the companion volume Politics vs. Prosperity. Dr. Watts writes three chapters for this book. Most of the co-authors of Free Markets or Famine, and a number of other distinguished scholars and writers, have also written one or more chapters for it. This book also has a strong moral emphasis. Certain imperfections and evils appear from time to time in a free society, but these are soon corrected by obsolescence, an increasingly rapid factor of change, the inability of sons to wield the accumulated power of their fathers, and the growth of moral perception and consciousness.

Those who propose to cure the defects of free enterprise by state intervention, up to and including the authoritarian state, do not reckon with the fact that when evil people are clothed with power they have a much greater capacity to injure their fellows. In a free economy, change is rapid. But, in a state-managed economy, it is almost impossible short of bloody revolution. Social ills stem from freedom denied, and the only remedy is an expansion of genuine liberty.


THE ECONOMIC POINT OF VIEW by Israel M. Kirzner (D. Van Nostrand, 1960; Sheed & Ward, 6700 Squibb Road, Mission, Kansas 66202, 1976) 216 pages plus index. This book also is available from The Foundation for Economic Education, Irvington-on-Hudson, N.Y. 10533.

Reviewed by Brian Summers

At a time when mathematical economists are frantically juggling reams of statistics, wondering why the Consumer Price Index and Unemployment Index don’t come out right, Israel Kirzner reminds us that economics is properly viewed as a science of human action, with statistics useful only as history.

Although Dr. Kirzner writes on an abstract level, his analysis has profound policy implications. Consider, for example, the problem of inflation. The government increases the quantity of money, and people react. Among the consequences are redistributions of wealth, phantom profits, capital consumption, malinvestments, business failures, unemployment, and almost incidentally, a rising Consumer Price Index. Mathematical economists, unfortunately, tend to ignore how people react to increases in the quantity of money, and viewing the economy as a mechanism, concentrate on manipulating the Consumer Price Index.

In 1971-1974 the manipulations took the form of price controls. That price controls are people controls, that people react to controls over their lives, and that these reactions have economic consequences (such as shortages), were largely ignored by the mathematical economists.

The Economic Point of View is not for beginners. It is a scholarly history of the development of economic thought which will be best understood by those familiar with Austrian economics, particularly the economics of Professor Kirzner’s teacher, Ludwig von Mises. For those willing to accept the challenge of a profound analysis of the science of economics and the history of economic thought, this brilliant work has much to offer.


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