All Commentary
Friday, February 1, 1963

Freedom–A Biological Necessity

Mr. Elsom, an investment officer of a bank, finds time for free-lance exploration and ex­planation of the libertarian point of view.


      We frequently hear the declara­tion that much of the contempo­rary political arrangement con­travenes human nature. This is, perhaps, but another way of say­ing that legal, economic, and so­cial relationships must conform to biologically vital principles if they are to endure to the benefit of the human species. The concept in­cludes the idea that liberty of the individual is one of those vital prerequisites. Is there any validity to these thoughts?

We may begin with an old thought, both broad and deep: liberty and growth are aspects of the same thing. Freedom begins with life—any life, anywhere, any time, under any conditions. We may say of matter that it is bound by the law of inertia; if at rest it will remain so or, if in motion, it will continue in the same direction at the same rate until acted upon by an external force. Not so life. Here internal phenomena act upon external matter. The tiniest seed cracks crusted soil. Vine and trunk topple an­cient stone. Life uses physical energies to achieve hidden ends, sometimes opposing one to the other, sometimes transforming them, but always recasting en­vironment nearer to its own de­sire. Life began and continues as an intervention into the material order, an intrusion of choice and desire into the fixity of material cause and effect.

Life was expansive and pur­posive from the beginning; it had irritability. It could react to healthful or toxic environment. It could pulsate or wiggle. It could aggregate with other cells to ar­rive at multicellular life. It could protrude pseudo limbs, develop sensitive special organs. It de­manded motility and awareness. Instead of resting in the brine, it began to swim. It crawled out of the water to penetrate swamp, forest, and desert. It leaped into the air for flight. It developed uniform blood temperature, fur, and feathers to increase its inde­pendence of weather. It stood up­right, enlarged its brain, formed hands to enter a world similar to the one we know today. Always the facts were the same—an en­largement of freedom and choice and, with the higher specimens at least, some provision for frivolity, vacillation, and the deeper thing called enjoyment.

In the beginning, then, we have a blob of protoplasm fixed by physical law. Now the blob has become an organism straining toward the stars. Yet during every instant life has been vulnerable and soft as compared with the crushing inflexibility of the ma­terial order. Logically, the ad­vent of life is impossible. No mathematical progression or prob­ability can account for it. Science, philosophy, and religion comment on its development and what it means, if anything. Whatever they say, it remains as a fact that the consistent direction of life has been toward a wider range of movement, increasing awareness of itself and its surroundings, pur­posive discipline of itself and the externals of matter and force. Put together, what are these things but freedom? Life force, choice, freedom—these are single, one and the same.

Variety, Order, and Progress

But life and freedom are not, of themselves, good or bad. A strep­tococcus vents its virulence on saint and sinner alike. Through­out geologic time life’s forms fed on each other, each free according to its own nature and its own strength. Variety, order, and prog­ress were maintained by a self-adjusting ecology, so that the regular round of feeding, repro­ducing, fighting, and enjoyment went on without hazard to the species except for the providen­tial requirements of succession and development. Tyrannosaurus Rex lumbered through the creta­ceous period as no more nor less than a massive saurian until the evolutionary calendar marked the time for him to give place to more sharply tuned nervous sys­tems and less ponderous bodies. The built-in restraints of fear, weariness, satiation, vacillation; the interdependence of plant and animal, climatic and geographic limitations, all these imposed bal­ance to the basic propensity toward freedom and expansion.

Man began with the same ani­mal urges. He, however, was en­dowed with new organs: the hand, the more complex brain, and sen­sory apparatus. So equipped, he embodied a new potential. He could outmaneuver, outsmart any other life form on earth. Hereto­fore, plants and animals had to evolve organs of subsistence over eons of time. Man could fashion things outside his own body such as cudgels, spears, fist axes and, lately, atom bombs. He could aug­ment his senses with cunning devices. Very early he learned that he could put other life—ani­mal, vegetable, and human—to his own uses. This ability of in­dividuals or small groups of men to impose their volition upon others was the most ominous po­tential of all, since it meant that man could multiply his powers not only through instrumentation, but also through consumption of the bodies, minds, and spirits of other men. Ecological balance was now violated. A species could destroy itself.

Man’s Power To Enslave

Man’s ability to dominate and enslave, a new power, was fed by subman emotional drives. These his refined brain and his more complex awareness converted into lusts for things quite beyond his needs: the lust for possessions and the lust for power or recogni­tion. Out of these propensities, perhaps, government was born. The mightiest assumed leadership of the tribe, the tribe plundered its neighbors. Growing knowledge but led to more conquests. Mili­tary prowess, superstition, brib­ery, deceit, threats, these were the routines of conquest and ad­ministration. Entire peoples be­came chattels as did the Hebrews under Egyptian rule.

Thus, the natural life urge toward freedom, newly empow­ered and freed of the old ecologi­cal restraints, remained wild, primitive. So long as life had been inner directed and balanced by ecology, it was self-realizing. Creatures tended to be whatever they were to the fullest. The up­ward surge moved on. But with the advent of external rule or gov­ernment, the larger portion of mankind found its inner or spirit­ual being, the seat of freedom and the life force, more and more constricted and destroyed. Unless something new were added, man had entered a cul-de-sac. He needed a substitute for the older balances and restraints of Nature.


At some point in the millen­niums preceding the Christian era, suggestions of such a substi­tute began to appear—a new sort of inner direction. Inklings come to us from prehistory. Some part of it took the form of custom or tradition. Occasionally, an indi­vidual chieftain found himself ac­tuated by vague and passing de­sire for the good or pleasure of others. In ancient Greece there appeared new kinds of men, phi­losophers, theologians, who tried to see life whole, whose insights told them that new qualities like wisdom, and moral and emotional discipline were necessary for a satisfying existence. Life would be most rewarding when ordered and reasoned under the auspices of form, goodness, and restraint.

Somewhere between 1500 and 1300 B.C. the evils and supersti­tions of primitive religion were surpassed. Ikhnaton, an Egyptian pharaoh, in some unknown man­ner, lost himself in a vision of the One God whose principle was goodness, and who required virtue of men.

With the Hebrew lawgivers and prophets the one God found a tongue. These men observed most acutely the destructive carryovers from primitive men and called them sin. They insisted that men should recognize and obey the new inner direction (the One God) or perish. To protect the human po­tential, the Decalogue was given, a body of basically negative law de­signed to protect the newly mu­tated minority of the species.

Here then, somewhere in pre­history and early history, began an evolutionary cleavage between the mass of men whose intellectual and physical capacities were still motivated by primitive emotional drives, and the microscopic pro­portion of mutants who had ac­quired consciousness of God as the directive force of life. Everything hung upon a different order of volition and consciousness.

For the latter, the mutant ele­ment, those who could see and feel the wakening spirit, Christ car­ried the development further by substituting love or good will for hate, the Golden Rule for the debit and credit system of human rela­tions, and redemption out of sin and punishment. Above all, he made man aware of God, lifted him from pawn to son-ship, stressed that man could communi­cate with God and God with man. God had purposes which were be­yond sense and reason; therefore, man should confidently accept God’s lead without fear. Doing so, he would have life more abun­dantly; he could become a new creature—something more than man had been. But to do so, he must slough the old animal ten­sions. Otherwise, they would en­slave and kill the life urge to free­dom. If he were incapable of tak­ing the new step, he would join Tyrannosaurus Rex and the saber-toothed tiger. The wages of sin would be death.

On the Useful Scope of Government

Seen against this panorama of evolution and history, what is the useful scope of government, then? Should it determine man’s pur­poses, that is, what his social and economic objectives are, and see to it that he achieves them? Is it proper for it to take a great part of his wage by force to spend for these objectives? Is it proper for the state to attempt to determine what man should be; that is, to dominate the communications media and the educative process? Should it take John Doe’s earn­ings and give them to Richard Roe? Are men to be leveled and equated economically, politically, and socially? Some men lack the sensory apparatus to perceive the immorality of these things. In their eyes such meddling is no more than a “positive approach.”

As a real clincher, they ask the question, What is it that you wish to conserve? implying that only selfishness and perversity impede the achievement of their drafting board utopias.

The conservative can very well answer, Life. If any pattern is clear from the evolutionary and historical processes, it is this: volition, consciousness, and spirit are the objects of the struggle. Life assaults limitations through the individual will. Fin, leg, wing, wagon, automobile, rocket; fur, uniform blood temperature, clothes, space suit—all steps toward greater choice of place, more independence of environ­ment. Sensitive cells become eyes and ears, rulers, microscopes, tele­scopes, radar, and oscilloscope, all pressing against the outer limits of awareness. In the realm of morals and the spirit we observe first fang, claw, hunter and prey ascending to murder, cruelty, ig­norance, rapine, superstition, hate, slavery, obligatory vengeance, reverence for the dead and the un­known, knowledge, morals, mercy, justice, generosity, art, religion, and love.

Each new attribute arrived packaged in an individual—a mutant minority of one, inner di­rected, and entrusted with the fu­ture of the species. This is what the conservative knows, either consciously or in his bones. He knows that new attributes and true progress come from the deep, not from the state. He knows that the brain evolved to serve the will and the conscience. It is to be viewed as an organ, not a superior replacement for God. Man himself is more than brain. In the more than 1,000 million years of life on earth no step in the upward trek was intellectually engendered, not even with the brainiest specimen of the lot, homo sapiens. The in­ner drive toward freedom, aware­ness, and conscience accomplished these things—whipped the mind when it was weary, controlled the legs that would run away, fought the pain that spelled surrender, ignored logical doubts that meant defeat.

It is not likely that the profes­sional liberal, through theoretical draftsmanship in economics and sociology, will ever be able to re­order our inner selves. His meth­ods and his ends are contrary to the providential direction of life, since it is by multiplicity and mu­tation that life progresses; man was not intended to be, nor ever can be, homogenized. Further, the liberal disdains and opposes him­self to the latest and best evolu­tionary gifts: the moral and spirit­ual attributes. Moral man cannot take another’s property without his consent and without exchange of value. Moral man cannot utilize the covetousness, greed, envy, and aggressiveness of the many to overpower the few. Moral man cannot resort to positive law to diminish and inhibit the life-urge to freedom, to substitute the amoral social conscience for that of the real, pulsing, individual human.

Government’s Limited Role

With this background we can define the beneficial scope of gov­ernment in more fundamental terms. True liberty lies in recog­nizing that each man’s vital force is his own, that it may not be im­pinged upon by any other man or any government. His volition, his awareness, his conscience are areas of personality where the in­dividual must fight his own battles, where he becomes master through discipline or slave to primitive impulse. It follows that the whole chore of government is to protect the human personality, not to control it or to coerce it against its nature, to protect it from all sources of physical vio­lence, to insure the execution of serious agreements, to adjudicate wrongs, and to provide a mechan­ism for its own limitation. Men may yet generate profound, hitherto unknown, enjoyments and satisfactions. If they do, they will do so in and of themselves, under the protection of government con­ceived and administered in har­mony with biological and spiritual requirements.

The conservative desires to pre­serve the possibilities and the en­joyments of life. Volition, choice, awareness, conscience—these arethe sweetest, most promising at­tributes the conservative knows. If their promise is to be fulfilled, government must be protective and subservient to them. Expan­sion of government beyond these limits literally renders the life stream noxious and unhealthy.




Ideas on Liberty

Laws Follow Beliefs

The constitution of the United States worked well until 1860 be­cause most of the voters were in favor of the principles on which it was based. For the next eight years there was no effective Con­stitution; it was temporarily shelved while the issue of slavery was settled by force of arms. Not surprisingly, the victors then wrote their own philosophy into the Constitution.

The Constitution continued to work reasonably well from 1868 to 1930 because most of the voters were still generally inclined toward most of the principles that in­spired it.

The Constitution hasn’t worked at all well since 1930 because most of the voters have not been in favor of the social and economic and political systems it was de­signed to support. Words have little meaning when the spirit be­hind them is missing.

The government of the United States (or of France or Russia or any other nation over a signifi­cant period of time) will be and do whatever most of the voters want or will tolerate. No mechan­istic scheme or written document can ever for long prevent the ef­fective minority (usually called the majority) of the people from doing whatever it is they want to do.

Thus, whenever the majority (that is, the effective minority) of the American people accept again the general philosophy that in­spired the Constitution, we will return to the Constitution; not before. For while laws may reflect what people believe, it is the be­liefs, not the laws as such, that generally determine their actions.