All Commentary
Thursday, October 1, 1970

A Youthful Purpose


This article is from the address presented by Mr. Muller as vale­dictorian of the 1970 graduating class of the Horace Greeley High School in Chappaqua, New York.

Turn to the person sitting next to you. Now ask yourself if you could be this person for just one day. Could you go through his life acting just as he would?

The answer, obviously, is no. This person is an individual. You are another. Your lives are not interchangeable.

and would you let him be you for a day? Certainly not! There would be no telling what he might do to your friendships, what silly propositions he might accept in your name, or which of your pos­sessions he might lose or waste.

If the question were rephrased so that you became him for his whole life, the answer would be no, even more resolutely.

And if the question dealt with the population of a whole nation, it would be absolutely preposterous! Each of us expends all his waking energies running his own life; it would be inconceivable for anyone to run more than one.

But a whole conception of gov­ernment is based on this absurd­ity, and it is the system which has always ruled the majority of man­kind. Not at all surprisingly, it has done very poorly. Statism has slipped through history as feudal­ism, absolute monarchy, proletar­ian dictatorship, fascism, social­ism, and in a score of other guises. Every form is based on the thesis that someone should be able to force you to do something you would rather not do. The instru­ment is coercion. By wielding this club the state rules men.

Having discovered the nature of statism, we ought to look critically at our own society to see if we are guided by its tenets. But first it is necessary to decide what the state should properly do.

It is evident that men, if left to do literally whatever they wanted to, would soon begin to take un­fair advantage of other men by subverting their liberties through brute force. This, unfortunately, is the history of human behavior. Thus we set up an agency to de­fend our liberties from internal or external attack. This agency has come to be called government. Ex­perience has shown that certain systems of organization for its operation work best, and the men who wrote our Constitution did a remarkable job of establishing a workable system. Essentially, then, the purpose of the state is to en­sure the liberties of all the people by using negative restraints. It is not to enter the social, economic, or moral realms in the hope of remaking men in a better image. To do so is only to subvert the very liberties it is designed to safeguard.

The State Out of Bounds—and Few Seem to Care

In our society we have such an agency whose organizational units are dispersed throughout the na­tion. With only a cursory exami­nation, however, we see that it has gone far beyond its proper bounds. Furthermore, few people oppose this false direction for the state.

Instead, the current debate cen­ters rather ludicrously on trying to determine what form of statism is most enlightened. We hear of a critical discussion waging in Washington on what are called national priorities. This term is conveniently misleading because it implies that one or another im­proper governmental function is most important—more important than our own activities. It fails to recognize that our national pri­orities were set almost two hun­dred years ago. Most important to each of us are his individual pri­orities, and to set these is not the state’s responsibility.

The disputants in this great debate over priorities attempt to decide which coercive functions of the state are most crucial. Per­haps a farmer argues with a senior citizen about the relative virtues of parity payments and social security. Here we see the statist mentality at work. Fred­eric Bastiat, a French economist, exposed the futility of this con­ception in his perceptive aphor­ism: “The state is the great fiction by which everyone tries to live at the expense of everyone else.” Never is there a brief recess to reflect that just possibly a man can ethically tap only his own resources. A thin veil called de­mocracy cannot conceal plunder. Coercion by a majority is no less reprehensible than that perpe­trated by a tyrant, even if its application is less bold and bloody and bright.

There is a strong reluctance on the part of the American people to part with the cherished sanctuar­ies of statism in their midst. I was once discussing an especially blatant example of statism in this country when one of the group exclaimed: “Why, I think your ideas are frightening!” Somewhat taken aback at first, I replied: “You find it frightening that I don’t want to run your life and don’t want you to run mine?” This was a new thought.

The statist feature in question was public education, a system characterized by state-run schools which have a high degree of com­pulsion in curriculum, attendance, and other features. Not only must every child attend these schools, or others approved by the state, but every person of suitable in­come must pay for their operation and maintenance. And the great potential for widespread and meaningful progress through free education has declined.

Recently I expressed pleasure that the bond issue for the con­struction of a new library in Chap­paqua had failed. Another person immediately said he agreed with me that the site in question was not a good one. He was then rather astonished when I replied: “On the contrary, it was a good site. I hope someone builds a li­brary there. But not the town of Chappaqua.”

And the reaction to my offhand remark that democracy alone would never guarantee liberty was even more revealing. “What,” asked my companion, “you are against majority control?” I re­plied that I was against control if it meant coercion, adding: “De­mocracy is an equitable way to choose our public officials, but with it must go a better understanding of the proper role of the state.”

Until we recognize that fact—that just as the factory guard was never intended to be the plant manager, the government’s pur­pose is not to rule but to keep the peace—we in America will be for­ever susceptible to what Jefferson called “every form of tyranny over the mind of man.” Restraints on creative energy do no good. Co­ercion in a humanitarian guise—and here I mean social security, minimum wage laws, welfare pay­ments, and the like—does no good. Legislated morality—and here I mean antipornography laws, pro­hibition, laws against cigarette advertising, and the like—does no good. And governmental monopo­lies, outright or clandestine, on any enterprise—and here I mean regulating such businesses as the telecommunications industry to such an extent that their every move must be sanctioned by the government, building roads, run­ning our star-crossed state mail system, and the like—do no good.

Closed to Further Thought

I am told that if the govern­ment did not accomplish all these functions, no one would. But con­sider the train of thought in­volved. Once the government be­comes involved in any enterprise, it is thought that no one else could accomplish it, simply be­cause no one else is allowed to try. Whether the prohibition is ef­fected by outright legislation or through economic pressure, it is impossible for anyone to conceive of another course. (If you tried to set up a rival post office system now, you would soon run into all the problems I am discussing.) Now imagine for a moment that the government at its inception had decided, for whatever reason, that it would provide shoes and socks to every American child un­til the age of twelve. If someone later proposed that this be han­dled by the free market, the retort would be that clearly only the government could handle this function. Surely those who wish to end the state’s role would have the children walk around without shoes and socks and freeze in the winter, would have them get nails and thorns in their tender feet as they walk to school unshod! What inhumanity indeed!

A favorite tack of statists is to respond to attacks on the statist machinery by asking: “What would you put in place of those things you wish were abolished?” This question is usually followed by general comments about the necessity of being constructive.

To my mind no greater fallacy has worked its way into the Amer­ican character. It assumes that the person who wishes to stop improper governmental activities is all set to substitute his own blueprint for the society in their place. It ignores the fact that there are two hundred million Americans, each of whom may have ideas to handle these activi­ties, and each of whom will be allowed to implement them in the free market if he so wishes. I certainly do not have all the an­swers, because I am only one of the two hundred million. Perhaps I would not have thought of the light bulb, but Thomas Edison did, and we are all the better for it. No such invention has been pro­duced through coercive force.

Robert Goddard, the father of modern rocketry, said in his high school valedictory address in 1904: “It is difficult to say what is im­possible, for the dream of yester­day is the hope of today and the reality of tomorrow.”

It is my hope today that the dream of the men who wrote the Constitution will become the re­ality of our tomorrow.