All Commentary
Wednesday, January 1, 1986

A Reviewers Notebook: Thirty Years of Freeman Reviewing

I have been reviewing books for The Freeman for thirty years. To my memory I missed appearing in one issue, when the mails went wrong from Taiwan. At twelve reviews a year for thirty years, minus one review that went astray, the sum total of books read and commented on would come to 359, quite a shelf of the literature of freedom.

The question is: how do you hit the high spots when so many of the books made worthy contributions to conservative or classical liberal thought? I’ve combed over the issues of The Freeman going far back into the Fifties and find at least a hundred titles that are important. How do you winnow these down to ten or twelve without doing violence to history?

Maybe the way to do it is to begin with the seminal thinkers whose names crop up more than once, either be cause their books get reprinted or because they have essays written about them. The three names that automatically qualify here are those of Ludwig von Mises, Friedrich Hayek and Henry Hazlitt.

I reviewed Mises’ Human Action for Eugene Lyons’ American Mercury before there was a Freeman. Accordingly, when it became a question of doing something about a new edition of Human Action for a special Mises issue, Paul Poirot suggested that I review my original review. Earlier on, in November of 1956, I had had the opportunity to review Mises’ The Anti-Capitalistic Mentality. And much, much later there was Margit von Mises’ sensitive and beautifully written My Years With Ludwig von Mises.

With Hayek, there were plenty of opportunities to get acquainted with an old Whig, from a reissue of The Road to Serfdom in 1956 and The Constitution of Liberty in 1960 to The Essence of Hayek in October of 1985. And there was Hayek’s notable editing of Capitalism and the Historians, ‘which came out of a memorable meeting of the Mont Pelerin Society.

Henry Hazlitt, at age 91, is still going strong on the subject of inflation. It was his introduction to Am drew Dickson White’s Fiat Money Inflation in France, written in 1959, that gave many of us a first clear glimpse of the dangers of reliance on a paper currency. Hazlitt’s books on the failure of Keynesianism and the “new”economics, followed by his prophetic collection of New York Times editorials on the shortcomings of Bretton Woods, have given us plenty of warning of new inflation crises to come.

Other names that recur more than once in my thirty-year list of reviews are those of Russell Kirk, Frank Meyer, and Otto Scott. It was Meyer’s voice in the Sixties that sought to hold conservatives and libertarians together, reminding us that virtue is in dividually meaningless if it has to be imposed by State force. Kirk professes to a disdain for economists, but his books (The Roots of American Order, Eliot and His Age and Decadence and Renewal in the Higher Learning, all of them reviewed in The Freeman) help define the social framework needed to sustain freedom that Wilhelm Roepke talks about in A Humane Economy, also re-reviewed here. Otto Scott is another who is concerned with the cultural prerequisites of a free society. Two of his books, The Secret Six (the abolitionists who backed John Brown), and Robespierre (the French revolutionary terrorist), show us that we make a mistake to suffer fools gladly. The third Scott book which I reviewed in The Freeman, The Creative Ordeal, which is an account of the Raytheon Company’s development of radar, is about good men who saved the western democracies from defeat in World War II. It shows the constructive side of Scott’s thinking.

Going back over The Freeman reviews, I am struck by the fecundity of the Fifties. I reviewed Ayn Rand’s novel, Atlas Shrugged, in October of 1957, making the point that it was a startlingly great fable about the human prerequisites for free development. Almost as an afterthought I wondered at the Randian objection to private charity, which seemed to me to be inconsistent with her general philosophy of voluntarism. Ayn Rand let me know that she did not like the criticism. She had not digested the meaning of Leonard Read’s “anything that’s peaceful.”

Another accomplishment of the Fifties which was noted in a Freeman review was Karl A. Wittfogel’s monumental study of Oriental Despotism. Wittfogel related this despotism to State control of the people’s water supply. Wittfogel’s researches into what had happened in ancient China to make serfs of the people came out at a time when the Fabians in England, and the followers of Norman Thomas in America, were chattering about the need for government to take control of the “commanding heights of industry.” Socialists are still oblivious to Wittfogel, just as they are oblivious to Louis Baudin’s A Socialist Empire: The Incas of Peru, which we reviewed in the early sixties.

In the Fifties we lamented the waste of John Kenneth Galbraith’s good style in The Affluent Society on such nonsense as the contention that people can’t be trusted to make their own economic and cultural decisions. In spite of Galbraith, however, some of the anti-capitalist clichés were dying at the end of the Fifties. Larry Fertig’s Prosperity Through Freedom helped with the killing. Matthew Josephson, who bad popularized the thesis that the big industrialists of the Nineteenth Century were all robber barons, seemed to be switching his ground in his laudatory Edison. T. A. Boyd’s Professional Amateur, a study of Charles Franklin Kettering (Boss Kett), and his subsequent collection of Kettering’s speeches in Prophet of Progress, were two excellent testimonials to the truth that inventiveness comes when its sources in individual freedom are unhampered. Kett, the creator of the self-starter, did his best inventing in a barn, and always resisted being institutionalized by General Motors. And Jane Jacobs, in The Death and Life of Great American Cities, made the individualized point that people took better care of themselves in unplanned neighborhoods, where they could do their own policing and where shops and houses were intermingled.

In the Seventies it was good to welcome in The Freeman George Roche’s analysis of “enmassment” in The Bewildered Society. And we had a consummate summary of twenty-five years in George Nash’s The Conservative Intellectual Movement Since 1945. (Nash later did a first-rate work on Herbert Hoover’s career as a mining engineer.) Another good summary, reviewed in The Freeman in 1976, was the Plain Talk Anthology, which included the first map of the Soviet Gulag Archipelago (this was some years before Solzhenitsyn). Laurence Beilenson’s The Treaty Trap warned us against putting our trust in scraps of paper. Felix Morley, one of the founders of Human Events, timed his autobiographical For the Record for review in 1979. And the resurrrection in 1979 of an old book of the Nineties, Auberon Herbert’s The Right and Wrong of Compulsion by the State, made one wonder at the obtuseness of the British Fabians (including George Bernard Shaw and H.G. Wells) in rejecting the luminously clear Auberon Herbert arguments that might have saved England from fifty years of welfarist state torpor.

We come down to the Nineteen Eighties, when some really excellent books have been published. A New Zealander, Ronald Nairn, who has had farming experience in Oriental countries, wrote a book which, if it were only heeded, could liberate peasants everywhere to produce a world plenty. It is called Wealth of Nations in Crisis, and it has had the commendation of Hayek. Richard Cornuelle, in his Healing America, brought his Reclaiming the American Dream up to date in some stirring appeals to voluntary action that should have been pushed by Reaganites all over the country. In 1981 we had Bert Wolfe’s fascinating story of A Life in Two Centuries. It took a long time for Bert Wolfe to wriggle free of his Communist connections, but the time was profitably spent for what it reveals to us about Soviet methods. Anne Wortham, a black sociologist, in another 1981 book, The Other Side of Racism, has made an eloquent plea to blacks to put their trust in their own individualism lest they be sold back to a big plantation run by the coercive state.

The Friedmans, Milton and Rose, deserted economics for the moment to take a flier into political science with their The Tyranny of the Status Quo, the thesis being that if anew Administration can’t put through a program in its first 100 days it will get very little for all its pains. Rael and Erich Isaac, in The Coercive Utopians, have shown how well-meaning perfectionists can betray us to the totalitarians. Warren Brookes, in The Economy in Mind, has proved that wealth starts with ideas in people’s heads. George Gild-er’s collection of marvelous yarns about individual creativeness, called The Spirit of Enterprise, backs up Warren Brookes’ contention to the hilt. So does Rabushka’s From Adam Smith to the Wealth of America. Sven Rydenfelt’s A Pattern for Failure: Socialist Economies in Crisis, makes it plain why starvation comes to those who rely on government control of agriculture (the prices are invariably fixed against the peasants).

It was Leonard Read’s Freeman that has given me the freedom to keep up with all the permutations of anti- Statist and anti-interventionist thought for thirty years. And what of Leonard’s own books, which numbered more than twenty? I have reviewed many of them, to my profit and pleasure. Leonard had a marvelously epigrammatic faculty for putting complex things into a single sentence. When he remarked that “helping people to become helpless is not an act of kindness,” he anticipated some 300 pages of Charles Murray’s recent Losing Ground. This is not to say that Murray’s book was un-necessary-lots of people need elaborate Statistical proof before they can accept an epigram.

  • 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.