All Commentary
Thursday, November 1, 1973

Freedom/Responsibilitythe Quest for Individual Dignity

So blood flowed in rivers down the gutters of the Place de la Concorde from la Guillotine. Liberte…Egalite…Fraternite… Ah, but in the end, murder, drunken mobs with heads on pikes, lawlessness, frenzied  promiscuity, anarchy turned out to be not freedom — but chaos.¹

Buchenwald… the Place de la Concorde… Auschwitz… Siberian labor camps. The mention of such names and places causes indignation from free and civilized men. The tragic irony, however, is that both the guillotine of the French Revolution and the communist labor camp of today were erected ostensibly “for the good of humanity” or the “general good.” Robespierre and Marat were willing to sacrifice fellow Frenchmen on the guillotine in order to create a society of “liberty, equality, and fraternity.” Hitler would purify the human race by genocide, while the Marxist theoretician liquidates in the name of an ideal, classless society.

Individuals who value their freedom ought to apply some in-depth, radical thought to the causes of tyranny. Simply associating authoritarianism with “evil” and “wicked” dictators is a superficial analysis. We must first comprehend what motivates the twisted idealism; secondly, we should recognize this mentality before it degenerates into the pseudo-righteousness responsible for the modern Buchenwald or communist labor camp.

The cause of regimentation and dictatorships can be traced to one of two outlooks on man’s inherent nature. Men are motivated by their fundamental belief as to what governs man’s essential character and behavior. Depending upon what they believe in this matter, men create (or impose) their social, political, and economic institutions. These institutions are correspondingly tyrannical or free.

Victims of Outside Forces

The first viewpoint on human nature assumes that mankind is the victim of outside forces. Supposedly, man is inherently virtuous; he is capable of perfection. He is a creature — righteous at the core — but corrupted by external forces. The cause of his envy, jealousy, and bad behavior, then, is attributed not to the individual but to faulty political, social, and economic structures around him. Correct or abolish these and mankind will evolve into the perfect being he was meant to be.

Many of the philosophical undertones of the French Revolution reflect this belief that man by nature is good — an outlook early propounded by the French philosopher, Rousseau.2

The politician or philosopher motivated by this tangent of reasoning demonstrates a vibrant but deceptive humanitarianism. His outlook appears benevolent and righteous. His rhetoric — if not his reasoning — rings with a true compassion for humanity. His views are well received… understandably so.

Man has the tendency to overlook his faults, even to excuse and deny them. When individuals are convinced through paternalistic sophistry that they are not responsible for their own welfare… their failures… their own misdeeds, they willingly accept both false diagnoses and false cures for the world’s ills. These cure-alls prescribed by the theoretically-minded are collectivist/statist —tyrannical by their very nature.

Since the individual is supposedly nothing really more than a helpless, innocent victim of adverse conditions, he must only submit to the wiser men who proceed to design and reorder his life for him. The result is inevitable coercion… regimentation… and tyranny. Writing during the mid-nineteenth century, Frederic Bastiat aptly described the threat to individual freedom and dignity:

It must be admitted that the tendency of the human race toward liberty is largely thwarted, especially in France. This is greatly due to a fatal desire — learned from the teachings of antiquity that our writers on public affairs have in common: they desire to set themselves above mankind in order to arrange, organize, and regulate it according to their fancy. While society is struggling toward liberty, these famous men who put themselves at its head are filled with the spirit of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. They think only of subjecting mankind to the philanthropic tyranny of their own social inventions.³

Few men, though, like Bastiat detect this deceptive humanitarian mentality which cements the stepping stones toward absolutism. One zealous proponent of the “human-molding” philosophy was considered by some of his contemporaries of being so virtuous that he was called Incorruptible. Consider the following sincere confession from this man:

There exists a deep feeling, tender, compelling, irresistible, the torment and delight of generous hearts, a profound hatred of tyranny, a compassionate concern for the oppressed, a sacred love of one’s country, a more sublime and sacred love for humanity, without which a great revolution is no more than a sudden crime that destroys another crime; there exists this selfless ambition to found the first republic in the world; this egoism of men uplifted who find a divine pleasure in the peace of a clear conscience and in the enchanting spectacle of happiness of all. You feel this in that moment which burns in your souls; I feel it in mine.4

Humanitarian with Guillotine Maximilien Robespierre, the Incorruptible, spoke the above in a speech before the National Convention in July, 1794, at the height of the Reign of Terror under the French Revolution. To be sure, Robespierre decried tyranny, expressed his love for humanity, and cherished a fervent patriotism for France, yet this same virtuous humanitarian represented an authoritarian government that witnessed perhaps as many as 2,800 victims for the guillotine in Paris alone.

Secret police and “vigilance” committees terrorized the French populace — this while Robespierre envisioned a perfected, blissful France and while he experienced that “egoism of men uplifted who find a divine pleasure in the peace of a clear conscience and in the enchanting spectacle of happiness of all!”

Today there are men within relatively free nations who would legislate and eventually enslave for the “good of society.” The paradox is that the mentality which clamors most ardently for humanity, “the disadvantaged,” and the “common man” is the mentality which ultimately degrades the individual mind, body, and spirit. Rebuking the social reformer of his own day, Frederic Bastiat pleaded for the integrity of the individual:

Please remember sometimes that this clay, this sand, and this manure which you so arbitrarily dispose of, are men! They are your equals! They are intelligent and free human beings like yourselves! As you have, they too have received from God the faculty to observe, to plan ahead, to think, and to judge for themselves.5

Individuals not only have the faculty to think and act for themselves, they have the responsibility to do so. When they abandon that responsibility or when they are deprived of it by paternalism, they eventually learn that “the good of society” is personal enslavement. The extreme visionaries of the French Revolution used the power of the State to bring their notions of “the good of society” into reality — a reality of reigning terror.

Few men having democratic and humanitarian beliefs in our present age feel any kinship with humanitarians in the past who have prepared the ground for authoritarian governments. Parallels, however, exist between events of the French Revolution and the temperament of our own day. Power such as that held by the French Revolutionary regimes is the power presumedly to legislate away social and economic ills via government spending. Such financial muscle in the arm of a paternalistic government deteriorates into deficit spending and inflation.

Planned Chaos

Price-fixing… depreciation of the currency… food shortages… rationing… hoarding… control of foreign trade — to what period or nation do these economic phenomena apply? Revolutionary France?6  Twentieth-century America? They apply to that stage of any country’s life when government irresponsibility and regimentation destroy the free intercourse of voluntary action.

As the political leaders of Revolutionary France contemplated their self-inflicted problems of food shortages and inflation, they prescribed successively greater doses of coercion in order to save their new society of “liberty, equality, and fraternity.” The Law of the Maximum carried with it the penalty of death for those citizens who ignored the divinely inspired features of the legislation.

No such drastic measure as the Law of the Maximum now confronts the individual. Still, his freedom to arrange his economic life as he pleases is deteriorating as various “New Shakes”… “New Deals”… “New Horizons”… “New Frontiers”… and “New Promises” gradually pave the way toward a totally regimented society.

Modern Manifestations

The spirit of altruism and humanitarianism that proclaimed freedom, brotherhood, and prosperity during the French Revolution can be felt to a certain degree even today. Only When A Man Has Freedom From Hunger Can He Hunger For Freedom could easily have been one of the more sophisticated slogans of the Parisian mobs marching on the Bastille or King Louis’ palace at Versailles. That bold declaration, however, was used recently by young people on a cross-country march demonstrating their concern for hunger in present-day America.

Certainly no justice is done equating the demagoguery of French Revolutionary mobs with the simplistic sloganing of modern young folk. However, the assertion Only When A Man Has Freedom From Hunger Can He Hunger For Freedom does reflect a hazy, naive idealism — an idealism that fosters the growth of government philanthropy.

Such a slogan reflects a shortsighted humanitarianism that gradually corrupts a nation’s temperament, conscience, and institutions. It is this subtle and gradual erosion that individuals in a free society fail to comprehend. They fail to see the correlation between the social reformer’s distorted conception of human nature and his political/economic manipulations which lead to tyranny and the guillotine.

Freedom and Responsibility

Only as individuals accept individual freedom and personal accountability for their lives will they withstand the meddling of the social theorist. Man is an accountable, self-determining being. He has within him the potential for self-improvement. Any striving toward perfection, though, should be left to the initiative and energy of the individual… not to the work of self-appointed planners.

Only by accepting self-responsibility can the individual learn by his mistakes and shortcomings. He is capable of deliberate, willful misbehavior just as he is capable of striving for all that is just, righteous, and honorable. When the individual begins the road of self-betterment he is rewarded with personal confidence and dignity.

Man realizes his potential for integrity when he lives within an atmosphere of freedom. If he is deprived of the right to make choices… of ordering his life as he pleases within the confines of other men’s rights… he is robbed of his chances for achieving individual dignity. W. A. Paton has wisely observed in this respect that “every man deserves the precious opportunity to assume responsibility for his own course, whether he is swimming courageously upstream or paddling lazily, with plenty of company, in the other direction.”7

This is the tolerance required of the individual if he is to be free. This freedom, though, carries with it an aspect of risk. When freedom and responsibility are rejected by too many individuals, those paddling downstream become a massive onslaught, not only obstructing the few courageous upstreamers, but actually forcing the upstreamers downstream amid the onslaught. The anarchy, human degradation, and eventual tyranny of the French Revolution will then be repeated.



Intelligence and Character

The pattern of a man’s life is determined by his intelligence, and by the motives, impulses and disciplines which, taken together, we call character. Both intelligence and character are educable. The difference between educated and uneducated character is as great as between educated and uneducated intelligence.

A person may be highly educated in intelligence and yet be controlled by gross motives and impulses. For an educational program to concern itself solely or chiefly with training the intelligence will result in distorted and inadequate personality.

Knowledge is powerless by itself. Unless driven by motive it is inert. It is the part of intelligence to inform and guide motives, incentive, and conviction, while it is the function of these qualities, to which we give the name character, to give life and power to intelligence. Only in the union and mutual development of intelligence and character can the possibilities of life be realized.

ARTHUR E. MORGAN, Antioch Review, March 15, 1945