All Commentary
Saturday, May 1, 1971

For the Young in Heart, Mind, and Spirit

Mr. Sparks is an executive of an Ohio manu­facturing company and a frequent contributor to THE FREEMAN.

Enthusiasm, vitality, zeal charac­terize the youth of every genera­tion. Theirs always is a new vision of problems and opportunities. It comes naturally for them to be righters of wrongs, or at least to try. But the eternal fires of youth seem lately to have fanned into an exceptional and alarming gen­eration gap.

Perhaps the young of recent years have been more reactive to the evil and the imperfect. Tele­vision instantly and vividly com­municates sights and sounds un­known to earlier generations. An­other factor could be the unusual run of prosperity for so many American families since 1940. Without sound instruction, it would be easy for the children to gain the impression that financial success comes without effort or struggle, that there exists a never-ending source of economic goods, and that only a new “law of dis­tribution” is needed to assure abundance for all.

To expect these young to be less sensitive than they are to prob­lems would be to expect the most exuberant part of the human race to lack the normal human emo­tions. Their boundless energy and intelligence seek the direction that will move mankind upward and onward. But bluster and noise are not suitable replacements for hard effort and moral judgment. De­pending upon the direction taken, mankind will either step forward or slip backward on the evolution­ary incline.

The young welcome a challenge. But in the current confusion, many real challenges are going unrecog­nized, challenges that should test the courage and ingenuity of the very best. These challenges offer great excitement, stiff obstacles, few immediate rewards, many dis­appointments—and unlimited po­tential for progress.

While still a young man, Alexan­der the Great is said to have ex­pressed keen disappointment that there were for him no new worlds left to conquer. From our vantage point of the twentieth century, we may smile at this great one of the past who could not perceive the little distance he had covered from the starting toward the finish line. Yet, how is anyone, especially the youth of today, to be free of such blindness?

It may seem inappropriate for a representative of today’s older generation to offer suggestions of worthy challenges. The credentials need to be checked. How have we performed as adults? We did many things quite well. In many crucial respects, however, our generation has failed. We virtually abandoned our qualities of self-reliance, self-responsibility, mutual respect, and love of fellow man. We sought to shift our own responsibilities and refused to see ourselves as the cause of the poor results. As par­ents, we tried to hold others re­sponsible for the welfare of our families, the education of our chil­dren. Did we expect our neighbors to do this for us? No, of course not, for they, too, were busy shifting their burdens to others. Just “others,” faceless nonentities such as the state board of education, county welfare, unemployment service, social security, entrenched wealth, big business. Surely, our generation has slipped from the path that leads toward human progress. But our experiences should afford a great lesson for those with the intelligence and courage to investigate the causes and consequences.

Untold numbers of “new worlds,” waiting eons of time to be con­quered, lie before the current crop of youth—and most of these worlds will remain untouched many centuries after these young ones have gone. Yet these fantastic se­crets are ready to be released, new worlds just waiting to serve man­kind whenever some real challeng­ers come forth to conquer them.

The Opening Challenge

Why not start with the puzzling problem of equality? Logic denies that all men are created equal. Quite the contrary: not only un­equal, but not one like any other. Each is born with his own distinc­tive characteristics. His race and color, his genes and chromosomes, his fingerprints, his physical appear­ance, his relatives, his occupancy of a particular place and point in time, his economic and cultural en­vironment all proclaim his unique­ness! There are no duplicates—no two persons alike, no two situa­tions the same. Yet, we frequently find that “equality” is held unde­batable as a desirable objective for all people. Many discussions of thought-provoking issues are short-circuited by a misconception of equality.

Just what kind of equality is de­sirable? Only the naive would claim that each person must be equal in every detail with every other person. The answer that al­most everyone knows in our mod­ern civilization, of course, is equal­ity before the law. But what does that mean? Does it mean that each person should be lawfully compen­sated if his earnings fail to bring him up to a certain economic level? Or should he be compensated ac­cording to circumstances: the pov­erty of his parents, the place where he was born, his intelligence quo­tient, parental overindulgence or protection—an endless list of neg­ative factors? But suppose that somehow it can be ascertained who is unequal and the precise amount required to catch up the difference. How long should support be pro­vided? Is there a responsibility on the part of the recipient to try to overcome his inequality? Who is obligated to provide the necessary support? And what about equality for him?

As for the recipient, will he be helped or harmed by having a con­tinual crutch? It is possible that he simply doesn’t care to earn all he can, that he is satisfied with less than others deem necessary. Though capable in all respects, his preference and interests could be a simpler life, if not in Tahiti, then maybe in Cleveland, St. Louis, or a small rural community. On the other hand, his potential skills and capacities may never develop if the force that drives many toward achievement is partially bridged by government intervention.

This is no mere academic exer­cise. This is the real world. Bear in mind that numerous Federal and state laws are based on attempts to equalize various segments of the population—rich and poor, old and young, large families and small families, the responsible and the irresponsible, one occupation group and another, the successful and the unsuccessful, and so on.

Is it a logical objective to equate equality before the law with equal­ity of the level of income, wealth, or economic capabilities? Or might equality be better approached as a negative concept? Somewhere the idea of the absence of coercion might fit into this puzzle. Acknowl­edging that each person is differ­ent, it may be that we should seek a way to peacefully and success­fully utilize such differences, not letting anyone stand coercively in the way of another.

The Next Challenge

If one should tentatively accept the previous challenge, his inclina­tion might be to employ various tools of the democratic process —especially that of voting. But the misleading concepts surrounding equality are closely akin to those surrounding majority rule and the “magic” of voting. If one has blindly accepted the idea of major­ity rule, he should take a more careful look.

Here is a question to help place this point in perspective: Under what conditions and to what ex­tent might you be willing to be restricted, your actions determined by the decisions of others than yourself? Are you willing to ac­cept the decisions of others in the selection of your husband or your wife, naming your child, determin­ing the food you should eat, the clothes you wear, the friends you may have, the beneficiaries of your kindnesses, the persons with whom you may trade or contract, the pro­visions of the contract? Many of today’s youth have loudly and persistently demonstrated that they will not allow the customs of their elders to dictate styles of hair or dress. How significant are such matters in the full scale of values which affect their lives? This is not to say that harmful results of numerous invasions of privacy have gone unrecognized. Protests have been launched against these galling coercive in­trusions—some loud and violent, some quiet and peaceful, others simply in thoughtful contempla­tion of the prevailing situation.

There probably are as many persons coerced into acting, not as they want, but as others want, through majority rule as through totalitarian dictatorship. The chal­lenge here is to find out the limi­tations of majority rule, lest it become the pervading principle for solving all problems. One ap­proach is to examine the alterna­tive to majority rule. Is it minor­ity rule? Possibly; but what about individual rule as the alternative? Thomas Jefferson had something to say about this. “That govern­ment which governs least, governs best” was Jefferson‘s idea of al­lowing each person the exciting opportunity to govern himself. This creative thought deserves better than to be forgotten.

The magic of the voting process seems to have perverted our judg­ment in political matters. We seem to believe that the total number of votes cast is more important than the outcome of the balloting—that it is better to rely upon the opinions of citizens who hardly care enough to vote than to have a matter decided by those concerned. We become so obsessed with vot­ing politically that we tend to de­prive ourselves of choice in the market place.

The man who would govern him­self and extend to every other per­son the same opportunity—a chal­lenge worthy of the most intelli­gent, courageous, and moral indi­vidual—must study carefully this matter of voting. Are there logical limitations for voting? Should an­other person vote on a matter that pertains not to him, but only to me? Should another’s vote deter­mine the use of my property when no property of his own is affected by the vote? Should the privilege of voting be earned by meeting certain requirements—not age, not color, not race—but such as proof of responsibility for the support of oneself and his own family?

To seriously review the short­comings of the older generation surely must challenge the youth of America to think of equality in terms that will not prevent any individual from being his own man. To meet this challenge calls for better understanding of the structure of government—and such mechanisms as voting and majority rule—so that govern­ment may not be turned against the need and desire of the indi­vidual to be self-responsible.

The Final Area of Challenge

It has been observed by philoso­phers and historians that the need for strong safeguards against the loss of freedom is recognized more readily by those who have just won freedom than by those who have inherited it; the latter tend to take freedom for granted and allow the safeguards to be re­moved.

The framework of government should have built into it safeguard mechanisms that require much time and effort to remove. The de­lay will allow the more alert citi­zens to review and emphasize to others the reasons why such safe­guard mechanisms were instituted in the first place. Certain mech­anisms of this kind were well con­ceived and placed into the Consti­tution of the United States, to pre­vent the government itself from interfering with personal freedom while providing necessary defense and establishing justice. These mechanisms set one branch of gov­ernment as a check upon another. To protect against sudden ma­jority responses to popular causes of the moment, they required greater than simple majority votes to amend the Constitution and to override vetoes; they provided for electing certain officeholders to longer terms than others, and for appointing certain officials to life terms. These mechanisms were alarms. For a century and longer these Constitutional safeguards of 1789 worked very well. In recent decades, however, we seem deter­mined to prove that those who in­herit freedom eventually take it for granted and allow its safe­guards to be removed.

One lesson of history calls for special attention by the young: op­pression does not always come in severe doses. The oppressors do not always wear black hats and ride black horses to distinguish them­selves from the good guys. Instead, they sometimes appear to be more sincere and more concerned than others who quietly go about mind­ing their own business. So it is that oppression is likely to come with gradual erosions of personal freedom. Not many notice, for the alarm is no louder than a whisper. A callus lets us live with a pinch­ing shoe, and in much the same way we grow accustomed to a gov­ernment that has slipped into au­thoritarian ways; private decision-making gradually disappears.

Obviously, the original safe­guards built into the Constitution have not sufficed. New and better safeguards and alarms are needed. Here is the most exciting chal­lenge of them all—calling out to the young in heart, mind, and spirit.

Independence has been a way of life for the American. In his pri­vate and public life he picks and chooses, he accepts and rejects. If he dislikes the association he has with his employer, or with his church, or with his fraternal group, he can resign. If one spouse mistreats the other, the remedy may be to dissolve the union. If a youngster has been subjected to heavy-handed treatment by his parents, when he becomes an adult he has the choice to quit the family. The fact that such choices exist has a leavening effect on those in the positions of control. This applies to practically all hu­man action. Whether or not one continues to patronize his lawyer, doctor, dentist, the boy who mows the lawn, the dry cleaner, or the butcher will depend upon the mu­tual satisfaction of the two par­ties involved. When either becomes dissatisfied, he simply quits.

No Way to Quit

Not so, however, when the dis­satisfied party is the citizen of several layers of government. When I become unhappy with one of these layers, such as govern­ment postal service, it is futile for me to resign from that service ar­rangement. There is no reasonable replacement available for me to use; and even if there were I would still be obliged to subsidize the old one through taxes. When government officials decide that every young man from 18 through 26 shall be eligible for military service and subjected to unde­clared war in foreign lands, no reasonable alternative seems to exist for him. Though history tells of persecuted people who fled their country rather than continue to bear the improper authority of government, such remedy can hardly be considered reasonable. It is not reasonable that to object successfully against the tyranny of the late Hitler or the current red regime of East Germany, one must uproot himself and his fam­ily and, leaving behind his posses­sions, try to sneak unobserved across the boundary with the lives of himself and his family at stake.

The way to avoid becoming trapped in such evil circumstances, of course, is to understand so com­pletely and to articulate so clearly the virtues of liberty and the pain­fulness of oppression, that one will convince enough of his fellow citi­zens to oppose such attempts to grab authoritarian power. This approach is no little task. And, as a practical matter, it may consti­tute no remedy at all. Doubtless it is easier to “fire” one’s dry cleaner who charges too much or other­wise fails to give satisfactory service, than to “fire” the layer of government under which one is op­pressed. So what is the answer? Where lies the solution to this challenge?

Look to the Market

It seems possible, at least theo­retically, that one could contract privately for all services now ren­dered by governments except for that specialized service of national defense against either foreign or domestic aggressors. If govern­ment were thus limited to provid­ing for the defense of the United States of America and all other services were to be private, pre­sumably one other national re­sponsibility would then exist —the guarantee to each citizen that no other government service would be constitutional, whether at the national, state, county, or munici­pal level. To fulfill such guarantee, the Federal government would be authorized and given the power to protect the people from any at­tempt whatsoever by any person or group to use coercive or govern­ment-like methods to require their participation or action.

What might be the advantages of such an arrangement? For one thing, a Federal government, limited to national defense and to carrying out the above guarantee, would have little prospect of growth through promises of something for nothing or any program of tax-spend-and-elect. Since no other enforced services would be permitted within the nation, pri­vate organizations would flourish strictly according to the will of satisfied customers. Unwarranted attempts by any such organization to raise fees arbitrarily (the way governments raise taxes) or to cut the quality of its services could re­sult in loss of clientele.

Other beneficial effects to be an­ticipated from this removal of co­ercive powers from would-be mas­ters of men would be the maxi­mizing of individual effort and re­ward, a resurgence of genuine charity in ministering to the needs of others, a more stable economy not subject to arbitrary manipula­tion by government, and countless other blessings. Isn’t this a worthy challenge!

Even to outline so nebulous a theory must trigger many ques­tions:

“But, how would the court sys­tem function?

“What about police, fines, and imprisonment?

“How would one gain recogni­tion of ownership of property?

“How would a contract be en­forced?

“Who would own the roads and highways?

“Who would be responsible for a system of money?”

These questions express the puz­zle—just how low the level of gov­ernmental coercion should be to allow the maximum freedom of the market place, and yet not re­sult in anarchy and violence. I have suggested the barest mini­mum of government coercion. It may be too little. And yet the real danger, as evidenced through his­tory, has been that man chooses too much government and too little freedom. He is more apt to under­shoot the peak of freedom than to overshoot it.

This, young men and women, is part of the great, exciting chal­lenge. Let anyone who wishes to supply an answer be free to try! Keep in mind that failure will hurt only those few who subscribe to a wrong answer, and then perhaps only momentarily, while success will profit many far and wide.

It is tempting to continue with a long list of challenges for young people encompassing the areas of physical science, metaphysical sci­ence, medicine, industry, astron­omy and space, among others. But these are subjects that would be neither overrated nor underrated in a true society of free men. The great challenge is to maximize the freedom of every individual. Suc­ceed there, and success must fol­low in every conceivable area of human activity.

  • John C. Sparks, who died on March 27, 2005, served on the board of trustees of the Foundation for Economic Education for many years. In the mid-1980s, following his retirement from business, Mr. Sparks served a term as FEE’s president.