All Commentary
Monday, October 1, 1962

Freedom to Decide

Mr. Sparks is a business executive and past president of the Canton, Ohio, Chamber of Commerce.

Independent decision-making enables man to evolve toward his destiny, but this is possible only after he unshackles him­self from other men who would obstruct his right to decide..

In one of our best-known patri­otic songs, we sing of our “sweet land of liberty.” The implication is evident; it is good to live where liberty is present. But, how do we define liberty or know if we have it?

There is good reason to ask this question. As words, liberty and freedom are in common use, es­pecially by politicians of nearly every political persuasion. Each faction promises freedom through its program, and forecasts the loss of freedom if the opposition wins. Though used to describe op­posing programs, the words al­ways are intended to connote something highly desirable. Are these words only something to be lightly bandied about in the political arena? Or is there a deep and genuine meaning of liberty and freedom that is desirable and im­portant to mankind?

Philosophical reasoning as to the desirability of things usually harks back to man’s purpose on earth. Though we humans may never fathom Ultimate Purpose, the best clues afforded by Judeo-Christian and other religious phi­losophers suggest that each man’s purpose is to achieve the highest degree of his own potential. With­in this framework, mankind’s fa­vorable evolvement occurs only as each individual progresses toward his capacity. Evolution is the accumulated and combined changes in all individuals.

Each man can achieve only to the degree that he successfully overcomes those obstacles lying within and outside himself. To overcome internal obstacles is an important task requiring great concentration, for human weak­nesses invite wastage of time and misdirection of effort. While diffi­cult to conquer, these inner ob­stacles are nevertheless surmount­able by the individual without anyone else’s consent. Our pri­mary concern in this discussion, however, are those outside ob­stacles that deny freedom to in­dividual persons in their attempts to attain their goals. These ex­ternal obstructions are numerous and can block an individual’s op­portunity to shape his own pur­pose.

External obstacles are of two kinds. In one the choice to reject or nullify the obstruction lies en­tirely within the person being ob­structed; in the other the obstruc­tion arises out of the coercive ac­tivities of some men toward others in society, and the choice to reject or nullify the obstruction does not lie within the person be­ing obstructed.

Obstacles One May Avoid

Examples of those external ob­stacles falling in the first classi­fication are the domination of an adult child by a parent, the domi­nation of a married person by his or her spouse, the domination of an employee by the employer, or the domination of its members by a religious institution. The listing could go on and on.

One purpose of parenthood should be to provide knowledge out of personal experience and rules of good judgment so that a child, as he grows toward adult­hood, may become more and more capable in making decisions for himself. A parent should gradu­ally introduce his child to the art of making decisions. When adult­hood is reached, the new adult may expect a parent to be avail­able for consultation; but deci­sion-making should rest with the new adult. It is better to rob a person of all his possessions than to rob him of his right to make decisions. One’s own maturity de­pends upon knowing how impor­tant it is to refrain from violating another’s right to decide for him­self. Surely, the same principle applies to married couples, espe­cially when one partner attempts to degrade the other to a second-class obeyer of instructions.

Another aspect of child develop­ment merits mention. Many sports provide valuable training aside from the skill peculiar to that sport. Baseball instruction not only teaches how to throw, field, and bat, but also affords the op­portunity to train young minds to make a myriad of quick, individual decisions. The batter must deter­mine within a split second whether to swing at a pitch or not. Coaches constantly try to alert defensive players to think ahead about the choice of play to be made if the ball is hit to one of them. This choice depends on whether the ball is hit sharply or is a slow roller, how many are “out,” the number and position and speed of base runners, and many other factors, all of which must come into consideration within a matter of seconds.

Adults working with boys’ base­ball teams would do a disservice to the young players if the game were stopped at the end of every play to instruct each fielder con­cerning the choice that should be made on the next play. Dismal re­sults could be predicted in that case, not only in the scarcity of victories, but more vitally in the lack of decision-making develop­ment.

In the area of employer-em­ployee relationship, occasionally an owner or manager of a busi­ness attempts to make all deci­sions, not just those pertaining to over-all company policy and di­rection. The employees conse­quently are denied the responsi­bility of decision-making in their own assigned areas of activity. The ill effects on all persons in­volved in such a situation can readily be seen. The employee is denied the opportunity to develop his creative abilities. The em­ployer or manager finds his job over demanding on his time and energies, with results unsatisfactory even to himself. The com­pany fares poorly, like an eight-cylinder automobile running on one cylinder. Such a vehicle is greatly handicapped in a race with other vehicles (competitors) mov­ing along on full power. Obstruc­tion of this kind may be as detri­mental to progress as any obstacle raised by uncooperative labor groups. The problem also occurs within departments of many com­panies where the superior domi­nates his subordinates.’

Some of the most difficult ex­ternal obstacles originate within religious organizations formed to point the direction toward right spiritual and moral citizenship. Among their leaders are those zealous to determine, in one man­ner or another, choices normally falling to individual members. Such action presumes the mem­bers are either too immature, too unintelligent, or too susceptible to temptation to arrive at proper de­cisions themselves. If so, how are they to gain maturity under a system whereby others decide moral questions for them?

All of the external obstacles discussed above contain a high de­gree of pressure persuasion. None uses physical force to coerce the person being restricted, although the seed of force is there ready to bloom forth in all its ugliness. The adult child, if he chooses, can cast off the domination of his par­ents. The spouse can sever the marital bonds. The young baseball player can quit. The employee can resign. The member of a domi­neering church can resign alto­gether or transfer to another church. The final choice, as with internal obstacles, remains with the person himself—either to sub­mit to the interference of others, or to decide for himself.

When Coercion Is Involved

The second category of external obstacles differs from either of the previous obstruction group­ings, in that it involves physical coercion (or its threat) against one’s person. Refusal to comply with the directives of coercive force results in forfeiture of one’s liberty or life or property. In this area, freedom of individual choice can vanish unless virtually all persons agree to protect each other against coercion.

Running through the great re­ligious and moral codes is a com­mon theme sanctifying the right of each person to his life and property—”thou shalt not kill…. thou shalt not steal.” Most gov­ernments have laws against mur­der and theft, often punishable by imprisonment or death.

While almost everyone is aware that it is unlawful both in the eyes of God and of men for an in­dividual person to murder and steal, a large number of society’s members have become blinded to the very same laws of God in situ­ations alleged to be more complex. The same society that prohibits any one of its members from stealing from another enacts laws permitting some to take the prop­erties of others. The same society that would never tolerate the en­slavement of any one of its mem­bers by another enacts laws with­drawing freedom of choice from everyone.

This is the area of deep con­cern. In the name of the public good and the general welfare, so­ciety through its organized gov­ernment removes the freedom es­sential to individual good and in­dividual welfare. Without individ­ual welfare there can be no gen­eral welfare, no matter how sin­cere are those who believe that as a collective they are endowed with more and better knowledge and wisdom than any individual. How two boys, both of whom have mastered the multiplication tables through the sixes, can together have more knowledge about mul­tiplication than each has sepa­rately is difficult to reconcile with logic. Yet this is the illogical premise of those who expect gov­ernment to excel at any task undertaken, and who even go so far as to withdraw from all private persons or groups the opportunity to try to solve certain problems at hand.2

One can only wonder at the quality of such faith held by these admirers of government interven­tion. Fans of a good football team usually urge a post-season cham­pionship game with another win­ning team to test the skill of their favorites. They have faith that their team can “take on” the best and come out victorious in a fair contest with the same rules apply­ing to both contestants. Not so with the interventionist’s faith, however. He urges government into the electric power field, for example, only on the condition that there be special rules in favor of government, such as relief from taxation, interest-free financing, and enforced investment.

While people individually may choose to invest or not in a private power company, such choice is de­nied in the realm of government-owned power ventures; everyone must invest via taxation. Inves­tors in a private company can sell out when they please, but not one of us can sell his individual “in­vestment” in the government’s Tennessee Valley power project. There is no faith among interven­tionists that government can at­tract and hold investors volun­tarily or successfully compete on an equal basis. Faith is thin that must be supported by force of law.

Central Regulation and Control

A philosophy in favor of big, powerful government that substi­tutes centralized bureaucratic dic­tates for the numerous separate daily decisions of millions of individuals, is a philosophy opposed to the growth and development of each individual person in the country. Knowing the whole can­not exceed the sum of its parts, we must realize that neither can the growth and development of a nation exceed the growth and de­velopment of its individual citi­zens.

The man who is required to pay social security tax as a hedge against his old age is not likely to develop respect for frugality. The wage earner whose federal income tax is deducted before he possesses his wages is unlikely to develop a deep patriotism or vigilant watch­fulness about the things his taxes go to support. A parent whose child is educated at public ex­pense, forced to attend and to be taught a state-directed curricu­lum, is not likely to be concerned about thrifty use of educational funds or in the quality of instruc­tion—until one day he discovers that his child cannot read. Then the parent discovers that he him­self has failed the parenthood course of life, largely because the government education system had removed his right and duty to make decisions involving himself and his child.

Urban Renewal Problems

The downtown merchants and landowners who receive the pre­sumed benefits of the federal gov­ernment’s urban renewal handout will probably continue to overlook the voluntary economic decisions made daily by their present and former customers. These decisions point clearly to a new and chang­ing world of shopping in which downtown is no longer the prime destination for the nation’s house­wife as she sets out to buy. The artificial aid will merely numb the recipient into a false sense of well­being while he is losing his cus­tomers. The builder of new apartment houses in “slum clearance” areas will eventually come to real­ize that there is today a popular preference for living in the coun­try rather than in the city, leaving too few tenants to return him a profit on his new apartment busi­ness. Developers of industrial tracts on “cleared” land may find that higher local taxation growing out of the urban renewal program is not an attraction to new indus­try. Every such interference re­moves, either by restraint or false lure of a government-conceived bargain, the vital role of decision-making by individuals.

Socialized Medicine

Those citizens who clamor for government programs to artifi­cially control the field of medicine unwittingly propose to rob their self-reliant fellow citizens (and themselves) in numerous ways. Since one step of government in­terference inevitably leads to fur­ther “free” service and control, one can logically expect an early proposal for government fixing of the maximum fees to be charged by doctors. This has happened in other parts of the world. A ceiling price is established by government only when the legislators believe that the prevailing price or fee is too high. When they fix it at a lower level, they hope that more persons can afford the treatment or operation. A delicate but ex­pensive operation, perfected at the outset by a few highly skilled sur­geons, undoubtedly would be a blessing to many sufferers. The relatively high fee does not pre­vent a person from choosing be­tween values; and if the restora­tion of vision, hearing, or other normal bodily function is worth the sacrifice of less-valued posses­sions, the sufferer will choose the delicate operation in exchange for the fee.

However, if government inter­venes to fix fees, the choice to the sufferer will probably disappear. The surgeon may find it more re­warding, for example, to perform ordinary tonsillectomies than to drain his nervous strength in an intricate operation on the inner ear. This operation that has been restoring hearing to many grate­ful patients at an “open market” fee of several hundred dollars would not be available at all if $50 were set as a maximum fee by government. A ceiling price al­ways leads to the disappearance of the product or service; and a ceiling fee for the delicate ear operation would merely diminish its availability, with eventual loss of technical skill and doctor re­cruits in that specialized area. Such restrictive action would deny individual choice to many persons, doctors and patients alike.

Tax Barriers to Progress

High tax rates on earnings and excessive interference and control is discouraging to those potential entrepreneurs who would start new businesses or expand existing businesses in our country. Some other nations of the world, mean­while, have encouraged growth of industry there by reducing or re­moving government intervention. Growth and development occur when people live in an atmosphere of minimum restraint and maxi­mum freedom. The policy of in­terventionism threatens to sap the strength of our country, for prog­ress depends upon individual freedom to decide. Authoritarian obstruction emanating from Washington and the state capitols erodes, deeper by the day, our liberty to choose.

These are typical examples of the countless infringements by or­ganized society against the right of its individual members to make their own decisions. Few of the foregoing examples show anything but the good intent of those who, through government, decide for others. Among the worthy objec­tives are cheaper electric power, certainty of saving for one’s later years, convenience of paying tax­es, education for all, restoration of the former downtown economy, lower surgical fees, and business regulation. But in the attempted attainment of these goals, incor­rect methods have been adopted, resulting in lost goals, and worse, lost opportunities to be self-reli­ant, decision-making individuals.

The Uses of Adversity

Mankind favorably evolves only as each man progresses. Every person has to do his own fighting to achieve a worthy goal. As Charles de Gaulle put it : “The man of character finds an espe­cial attractiveness in difficulty, since it is only by coming to grips with difficulty that he can realize his potentialities.” It helps no one to remove the consequence of a person’s choice. Each individual must of his own choosing over­come obstructions blocking his way toward fulfillment of his pur­pose. Such obstructions are suffi­ciently numerous and difficult in themselves without other persons in society adding more obstruc­tions through the organized coer­cion of government.

While a person may wish sin­cerely to be his brother’s keeper, this activity should be confined to personal encouragement and mak­ing available such enlightenment as he has attained that may arouse his brother to achieve his own purpose. Coercion applied to him, even with a good intent and a worthy objective in mind, will do nothing for his development and may, in fact, corrupt both the co­erced and the coercer.

The freedom to make decisions is the God-given right of every human being. Let us remove those governmental obstructions that prevent independent choice, and restore the freedom to decide.



To What Can One Turn?

They say no tyranny can match that produced by the vote of a majority. Many mad social schemes have been foisted off on the American public under the guise that “the people voted that way.” Already our people have been driven from choice to com­pulsion, from self-reliance to the pitiable position of dependence. In the end this is certainly a grim circumstance. Progressive science proves that the future will be found in growth, not stag­nation. Do we want the prodding road of self-determination and creation, or the seemingly comfortable road of dependence and slow degradation?

In the absence of self-reliance and responsibility, to what can one turn for true direction?

Ralph E. Lyne, Taylor, Michigan

Foot Notes

1 For an interesting discussion of the problem arising from the superior-sub­ordinate relationship, read “Freedom, Authority, and Decentralization” by Bennett E. Kline and Norman H. Mar­tin in Harvard Business Review, May-June 1958.

2 See Leonard E. Read, “Let Anyone Deliver Mail,” Essays on Liberty, Vol­ume V (p. 390) and John C. Sparks, “If Men Were Free To Try,” Essays on Liberty, Volume III (p. 63). The Founda­for Economic Education, Inc., Irving­ton-on-Hudson, New York.

  • 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.