All Commentary
Thursday, July 1, 1971

Freedom: Antidote to Political Power

Mr. Gow is a junior, majoring in English and Philosophy, at Southeastern Massachusetts Uni­versity.

Serious proponents of liberty long have warned that cultural, eco­nomic, and especially political power must be diffused, balanced, and limited. When too much power is concentrated in the hands of the government, we find a correspond­ing dissolution of personal free­dom. What has happened in this country, especially in the past decade, has served to reinforce the suspicion of concentrated power.

Robert Nisbet in his important and valuable work, The Quest for Community, tells us that increas­ing atomization exists in our so­ciety because the government, un­fettered by sufficient restraints upon its power, has implemented urban renewal programs which have tended to destroy cultural diversity and centers of commun­ity life. Dr. Edward Banfield of Harvard University in The Un­heavenly City and Jane Jacobs in The Death and Life of Great American Cities explain how gov­ernmental programs, intended to help the poor, have rather added to the woes of the unfortunate. There is a growing awareness among scholars that political in­terventions fail to accomplish their proclaimed economic ends. Peter Drucker, for example, tells us in The Age of Discontinuity that the only thing that the gov­ernment has been able to do effec­tively is wage war and inflate the currency. What increasing num­bers are saying is that the aug­mentation of governmental power inexorably leads to the diminution of personal freedom.

Implicit in this view of govern­ment’s limited role is the rejection of the notion that all problems are reducible to the politico-economic sphere, and therefore demand politico-economic solutions. It holds, rather, to Irving Babbitt’s view that the economic problem blends into the political, the political into the philosophical, and the philosophical into the religious. But during the past decade we have been inundated with talk about how legislation and socio­economic planning would help create “The Great Society.” Enact the civil rights bills, we were led to believe, and there will be an end to race problems that have drained the moral resources of our nation for over a hundred years. Increase the GNP and provide material benefits to our citizens so that happiness and peace of mind will prevail in our society. Unfortu­nately, the passage of civil rights legislation, though successful in achieving some goals, has not made blacks and whites love one another nor has it secured domes­tic tranquility. And, regrettably, all the material benefits that young people enjoy have not made them realize that drug-taking, thrill-seeking, and “free sex” are merely substitutes (tedious, at best) for the ultimately more rewarding pleasures that emanate from self-discipline, self-restraint, self-cul­tivation. Ever mindful of the de­mands of man’s nature, the pro­ponent of liberty recognizes that most of the problems facing man can be dealt with only through a resuscitation of the human spirit. To be sure, it is a sad mistake to assume that politico-economic remedies can resolve what really are disorders of the mind and spirit requiring philosophical and religious solutions. As Burke so trenchantly observed, you cannot resolve the agonizing problem of evil by merely decreeing that monarchies shall no longer exist.

Natural Inequality in Matters of Body, Mind, and Spirit

The proponent of liberty also has recognized that there exists among men a natural inequality in most matters of body, mind, and spirit. As a consequence, he has not been deluded by visionary schemes which have as their pur­pose the leveling of men. Moti­vated by the leveling impulse, ideologues within the past ten years have attempted through leg­islation and socio-economic plan­ning to create a synthetic equality. But the natural distinctions among men persist, for the only genuine equality is metaphysical. John Adams recognized this when he said:

That all men are born to equal rights is true. Every being has a right to his own, as clear, as moral, as any sacred being has. This is as indubitable as a moral government in the universe. But to teach that all men are born with equal influence in society, to equal property and ad­vantages through life, is as gross a fraud, as glaring an imposition on the credulity of the people as ever was practiced by monks, by Druids, by Brahmins, by priests of the immortal Lama, or by the self-styled philoso­phers of the French revolution.1

In line with the recognition of the natural inequality among men is the realization that any society requires leaders who have devel­oped the ethical and intellectual refinement needed to distinguish between truth and error, right and wrong, the permanent and the purely ephemeral. This is a func­tion of education, as Dr. Russell Kirk sees it:

The function of the college is not to gratify the immediate appetite, but rather to introduce the rising gen­eration to long views. The function of the college is not to rouse young people to revolt against the nature of things, but rather to acquaint them with the wisdom of our ancestors. The function of the college is not to promulgate an impractical ideal of human perfectibility, but rather to teach us what Unumuno called the tragic view of life—the greatness and fallibility of man, as described in humane letters. The function of the college is not to inflame the passion, but rather to lead us toward right reason through philosophy.2

However, when educators at our great colleges and universities be­come intoxicated with the mania of ideology and relinquish their responsibilities as intellectual mid­wives and transmitters of the im­mense cultural heritage of the West, we see the tragic conse­quences: riots at Berkeley; the burning of important research papers; the illicit and forcible oc­cupation of buildings; the shout­ings of slogans and obscenities; Columbia University; Kent State; and the bombing at Harvard Uni­versity and the University of Wis­consin.

A Delicate Balance

Central to the survival of any society is a delicate balance be­tween freedom and order, tradi­tion and change. It is essential that we observe the norms and traditions of civility. For when there is an inordinate emphasis on either freedom or order, when thinking in slogans and speaking with bul­lets replace rational discourse, when speakers are shouted down, and when the spirit of religion and the spirit of the gentleman are considered “behind the times,” we see, as we have witnessed in this nation, the alarming disintegra­tion of the civil social order.

Perhaps the events of recent years may bring a new apprecia­tion of the vital necessity of per­sonal freedom under limited gov­ernment. Let us hope and pray that if and when this happens, the hour will not already be too late.

  • Mr. Gow is a freelance writer and English teacher who lives in Arlington Heights, Illinois.