All Commentary
Sunday, December 1, 1985

Getting There!

Economic education is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for the transformation of the possible world of economic and political liberty into a realized world.

The Reverend Dr. John K. Williams has been s teacher end is a free-lance writer and lecturer based in North Melbourne, Victoria, Australia. He was resident scholar at FEE this past summer.

“Cheshire Puss,” [Alice asked] . . . “Would you tell me please which way I ought to go from here?”

“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” said the Cat.

“I don’t much care where—” said Alice.

“Then it doesn’t much matter which way you go,” said the Cat.

“—so long as I get somewhere,” Alice added as an explanation.

“Oh, you’re sure to do that,” said the Cat, “if you only walk long enough.”[1]

Few lovers of liberty and students of the freedom philosophy share the confusion of Lewis Carroll’s Alice. We know “where we want to get to.” We wish to move from a fettered market economy and an intrusive government to a free market economy and a limited government. Yet how to reach that destination is not without its problems. Alice’s question, therefore, can well be ours: Which way ought we to go from here?

Economic Education

Economic education is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for the transformation of the possible world of economic and political liberty into a realized world. “Getting there” cannot be achieved by economic education alone; without economic education, however, “getting there” is impossible.

What form, however, should that economic education take? Two directions seem to me important. First and foremost comes self-education. As the late Leonard Read insisted again and yet again, you and I must be perpetual students of the freedom philosophy. We must read; we must think; we must meet with like-minded men and women and learn from them and with them. We will never possess all the answers, but when real-world counterparts of the grinning Cheshire Cat ask us to describe our destination, we will be able to say more than could poor Alice.

There seems to me, however, to be a second direction we students of the freedom philosophy should be taking. I refer not to research at the cutting edge of human thought about economic issues and political philosophy, important though such research be. Fortunately, many scholars in universities, foundations, and institutes are, in this nation and other nations, engaging in such re search, and doing so in greater numbers than has been the case for many decades. The gap I perceive, and believe we both could and should close, relates to accessible materials introducing and creating an appetite for our case. Let me explain.

On my shelves, alongside the collected writings of Karl Marx, the significant writings of Lenin, the works of Trotsky, and numerous volumes by contemporary Marxist-Leninist thinkers, stand some so-called “documentary comic-books.”[2] These books introduce readers to the ideas of Marx and of Lenin. They do so in an admittedly superficial but nonetheless essentially accurate way. Footnotes and comments in the text refer the reader to more sophisticated works. The books are easily read, are not without humor, and both introduce a case and whet the reader’s appetite for more. The “target audience” is obvious: the curious layperson in general and college student in particular.

Where, I wonder, are comparable volumes making our case? Many defenders of liberty say, and I believe correctly say, that really there is little to be said against Marxism-Leninism that has not already been said.[3] Yet the young undergraduate has to be “lured” into tackling the demanding works on our side. A dynamic professor can so lure his or her students, but such professors are not, alas, as plenteous as soybeans. There is, I submit, a dearth of volumes presenting in an interesting and highly accessible form the essential case for economic and political liberty and against Marxist-Leninist teachings. A churchman, perusing the hymnals of his day, lamented that the devil seemed to have all the good tunes. My lament is that the Marxist-Leninists and other statists are showing a more imaginative determination to communicate their ideas than are we.

I think I perceive the problems. Our case cannot, without gross distortion, be reduced to slogans scrawled on walls and messages adorning our cars. Simply, we do face problems in popularizing and creating interest in our case.

But so do our opponents. Many sophisticated Marxist-Leninists deplore the “documentary comic books” to which I have referred. They dismiss them as unsophisticated and crude. The books can be torn to shreds by anyone with even a passing knowledge of the thinkers I previously cited. Yet our opponents have taken the risk. They picked out a target audience. They hired an able illustrator. They worked and re-worked the text. They carefully included references to the best materials making out their case. They calculated that if sufficient interest were created, readers exposed to a rebuttal of the arguments presented in the comic books would turn to the more sophisticated works cited in search of answers. They showed imagination, embraced risks, and got on with the business of retailing ideas and generating enthusiasm for these ideas.

The Church and the Market

Consider another fairly specific target audience: clerics and church-people. I do not receive all the mailings emanating from my denomination’s headquarters. The Division of Social Justice has written me off as a lost cause. And I didn’t endear myself to those employed at the Uniting Church’s city offices when, in print, I described the impressive edifice occupied as the black hole of the Uniting Church, emitting no light and absorbing everything coming within range. Still, I do receive a goodly number of mailings from that eerie place, and value the stamps, which I save for a charity. I receive mailings from my nation’s equivalent to your National Council of Churches, and mailings from the World Council of Churches.

Some of the material is innocuous. Much of it, however, is littered with specifically economic claims. Again and again I learn, for example, that the poverty of so-called developing nations is caused by past plundering and present exploitation by developed nations.

Specifically the Marxist-Leninist theories have “trickled down,” so to speak, and are being promoted, whether intentionally or unintentionally, through pamphlets, study guides, and learning kits addressed to clerics in particular and church-people in general. Men and women using these materials absorb an entire conceptual apparatus, learning to use words such as “justice,” “equality” and “rights” in a way prejudging the case for economic and political liberty.

What materials are available, specifically addressed to churchpeople, presenting the case for the free market in a free society in a highly accessible, interest-creating way? Edmund A. Opitz has penned an admirable volume entitled, Religion and Capitalism: Allies, Not Enemies, and more recently both the Lutheran theologian Robert Benne and the Roman Catholic theologian Michael Novak have written and edited volumes primarily addressed to churchpeople and informed by theological subtlety and economic sagacity.[4] There are also, I know, not a few works defending economic liberty, and sometimes political liberty, in the context of what one might call a fundamentalist theological stance.

Yet there remains a gap. There is a desperate need for materials, specifically directed to church leaders and church members, which are not far removed from the simplicity, brevity, and accessibility of the Marxist-Leninist “documentary comic books” to which I have referred.

Wakening Interest in Liberty

I am not suggesting for a moment that the volumes penned by such thinkers as Edmund Opitz, Robert Benne, and Michael Novak are irrelevant to the economic education of clerics and churchpeople. They are vital for such education. I know, for example, of three clergymen who, after reading Edmund Opitz’s book, substantially modified their economic and political attitudes. Yet these people had to be cajoled into reading the three hundred pages of the work. Attractive, brief, simple materials, the purpose of which primarily is to waken an interest and whet an appetite scholarly works can satisfy, are urgently required.

Students of the freedom philosophy would, I submit, do well to meet, think together, and list specific target groups for materials making out the case for economic and political liberty. The specific interests and concerns of these groups should be identified. Then comes the preparation of direct, uncluttered, relatively unsophisticated materials making a case for liberty related to these interests and concerns and, even more importantly, leading readers to substantial works elaborating and filling out that case. I know some of us have done this before. We have not, however, done it well enough. Opponents of liberty have been more creative, more imaginative, more venturesome than have we. The time is ripe for us, in our vitally important work of economic education, to start “outsmarting” our opponents. In this way the journey from where we are to our desired destination is furthered.

The Non-Rational

Allied to the on-going work of economic education, is the task of exploring nonrational factors affecting people’s attitudes to economic and political liberty. Much has been written and said about nonrational factors predisposing men and women against the free market in a free society. In my article entitled, “Catch the Little Foxes!”[5] I discuss some of these: snobbery, a fear of so-called elitism, and a confused moralism. Ludwig von Mises brilliantly addresses the issue in his volume, The Anti-Capitalistic Mentality, and a collection of essays edited by Ernest van den Haag—Capitalisrm: Sources of Hostility—further explores the problem.[6] A volume from the pen of Igor Shafarevich, a Russian dissident dismissed in 1977 from his teaching position in mathematics at Moscow University, throws a great deal of light on the anti-capitalist mentality, and I recommend the book—

The Socialist Phenomenon[7]—to you. Inasmuch as useful materials dissecting nonrational sources of opposition to the free market in a free society are so readily available, I here merely wish to indicate two fac tors we do well to remember.

First, we delude ourselves if we believe that we can carry our case merely by referring to self- interest. The very self-interest of many men and women within the statist apparatus—politicians, government officials, bureaucrats, privileged businessmen, unionists, and intellectuals, and a plethora of men and women on the receiving end of so-called “wealth transfers”—does not, in the short term, lead them to oppose the status quo and to start working for economic and political liberty. If the “short term” can reasonably be expected to hold for their lifetime, there is no rationally compelling reason to consider long-term consequences.

This does not mean that appeals to self-interest are inappropriate, but such an appeal is most rationally addressed to people outside the statist apparatus and whose enforced labors provide the goods and services consumed by net tax beneficiaries. We can, perhaps, remind net tax beneficiaries that self-interest dictates some limits to the numbers they admit to their privileged ranks and the burdens they place on the shoulders of those laboring to support them. If we are addressing people whose moral stance leads them to consider the well-being of all, then clearly arguments emphasizing overall utility and long-term consequences are fittingly used. Yet the sooner we acknowledge that individual self-interest can dictate opposition to economic and political liberty, the better.

Second, we likewise delude ourselves if we assume that all people unambiguously desire individual liberty for themselves. A perusal of Erich Fromm’s Fear of Freedom[8] can do much to shatter this delusion, and if Fromm fails to convince us, the case argued in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov by Ivan in the section entitled “Legend of the Grand Inquisitor” should do the trick.

Better than any reading, however, is a modest exercise in self-analysis. Is there not that within each of us that yearns for a “security” the free market in a free society cannot give?

In my language, there is that within the human psyche which yearns to be carried through life and protected, much as a fetus is carried and protected in the womb. There is to be sure another voice, a voice saying, “Son of man, stand on thy feet,” a voice saying, “Take up thy stretcher and walk,” a voice luring men and women to leave the secure, predictable, responsibility-free life of slavery in Egypt and journey through a wilderness toward the promised land of liberty. This voice, I believe, is both deeper and stronger than the voice whispering of a security we in truth can know only in the womb or in the tomb. Yet for all that, we are ill-advised to pretend that in getting from where we are to where we want to go, we can simply assume the existence of a universal, unambiguous desire for individual liberty The human predicament is characterized by an ambiguity and a complexity hinted at both by depth psychology and high religion, and that ambiguity and complexity must not be ignored.

Making Freedom Exciting

There is a third and final factor to which I would refer in considering nonrational components of people’s attitude to economic and political liberty. A.N. Whitehead, in his little-read volume, The Aims of Education and Other Essays, repeatedly and unashamedly refers to the centrality of imagination in the educative process, and speaks of the able teacher as a person who “keeps romance alive in his pupils” and kindles an appreciation of “the beauty of a mathematical argument.”[9] The business of”getting there”—the task of moving toward our destination of an authentically free market in an authentically free society—demands not simply dedicated intelligence but also infectious enthusiasm. Bluntly, we need fire in our bellies as well as ideas in our heads and facts at our fingertips.

Read Michael Harrington. Read Marx and Engels. Read almost any socialist tract. There is a passion, a cry of moral outrage, a note of indignation informing these works. It is clear that the authors care about the cause they are defending. In comparison, most volumes defending economic and political liberty are “super-cool.” In their determination to be reasonable, the authors suppress the voice of rational anger and heartfelt emotion.

It is of vital importance that you and I continue to refine our conceptual apparatus, clarifying for ourselves and others what we mean by such terms as “liberty,” “rights,” “equality before the law,” and so on. We must keep at the task of refining our arguments. We must argue our case, and argue it honestly and well. Yet, while avoiding theatricality and contrived emotion, we need not—we must not—fear our feelings. It is cause for outrage that socialist economies misallocate resources and condemn multitudes to destitution. It is cause for anger that intrusive governments condemn the marginally skilled to involuntary unemployment, inflate the currency, feed and foster envy, breed factionalism, and pass off theft as an exercise in so-called “social justice.” Our cause—the cause of liberty—is and should be a source of joy and of vitality and of enthusiasm.

We defend liberty not simply because we have found arguments that convince us, but because we glimpsed a vision that inspires us. If we seek to attract others to what we so yearn for and cherish, infectious enthusiasm must accompany the reasoned case we elaborate. No juggling of concepts, no development of arguments, no recital of figures can, in itself, win fellow pilgrims on the pathway to liberty. Thought must be stimulated, yes; but so must feeling. Tennyson said it well:

Let knowledge grow from more to more,
But more of reverence in us dwell;
That mind and soul, according well,
May make one music as before—but vaster.

Compromise: Yes or No?

A contrast frequently is drawn between conviction and compromise. We preachers frequently draw it. The question we must consider is whether, in “getting there,” some measure of compromise is acceptable. Should we, for example, advocate and agitate for specific economic and political reforms which, while from our point of view partial and imperfect, nonetheless bring us nearer to the destination we desire to reach? The question is easier to ask than it is to answer, and any person who fails to see any problem has, in all probability, not really understood the full implications of the question. I can only, therefore, proffer for your consideration my own tentative conclusions.

“Getting there” involves selling some ideas. While a plethora of selling techniques are available, I have a soft spot for the manufacturer who distributes samples of his product. His confidence that consumers will find his product more to their liking than alternatives is itself appealing, and if his product is as good as he believes it to be, future sales are assured. Can it not be argued that unless and until men and women actually see that the cessation of governmental activity in specific areas of their nation’s economic life leads not to disaster but to an improvement of their own situation, the total cluster of ideas and ideals we are attempting to sell will meet considerable sales resistance?

Yet there is another side. Noble ends do not justify immoral means; indeed, the means we adopt not infrequently determine the ends we get. Again, might not measures improving the workings of a fettered economy, or increasing the efficiency of an intrusive government, lessen people’s discontent and delay rather than hasten the advent of a free market in a free society? Is not an efficient intrusive government or an efficient bureaucracy worse, from our point of view, than their inefficient counterparts? Nonetheless, I come down on the side of what I call calculated and principled compromise. I can best explain what I mean by focusing upon specific measures.

Compromise versus Conviction

One. A “compromise” such as the funding of schooling by vouchers or tax credits is acceptable because it facilitates rather than complicates a further move totally entrusting schooling to the market. The myth that schools subject to market forces could not and would not satisfy the objectives of schooling is so deep-seated that only the demonstrated consequences of deregulation can explode it. The decentralization and diversification of schooling which would result from deregulation make it easier rather than more difficult to contemplate the possibility that schools could be funded by fees rather than by federal, state, or local tax revenues. It is true that these gains might partially be offset by a lessening of parental and community dissatisfaction with schooling as it now is, but that dissatisfaction is not immediately related by most people to the root cause of that dissatisfaction, namely, the involvement of government with schooling.

Two. While defending and supporting programs of tax reform which lead to the reduction of tax revenues and the consequent cutting of government expenditures (and only programs of tax reform which lead to these objectives merit consideration) the advocate of economic and political liberty must oppose all forms of taxation which are hidden and which ipso facto are “painless.” While the defining freedom philosophy principle of equality before the law favors uniform rather than progressive taxes, a “progressive tax” where the highest marginal taxation level is, say, 20%, is “better” than a “uniform tax” of, say, 40%.

Most importantly, if joining forces with so-called “supply-siders” advocating cuts in the marginal tax rate, defenders of economic and political liberty must not claim that such cuts would result in increased government revenues and defend the cuts by reference to this claim. Any increase in taxation revenues resulting from cuts in the marginal tax rates must be perceived as grounds for further cuts.

Three. The “myth-exploding” consequences of even a partial entrusting of schooling to the market noted above, justify support for any program of “privatization.” In fact a stress on the educative nature of such programs suggests a political strategy for privatization. Our primary objective is not the “privatization” of any particular industry, but the restoration of all government trading and operating activities, save those relating to defense against external and internal aggression, to the market. It is therefore utterly vital that we maximize the probability of consumers benefiting from initial programs of privatization. The “order of privatization” will be dictated simply by the anticipated value of net benefits to consumers.

Four. While gradualism is appropriate to some politically orchestrated reforms (e.g., the restoration of schooling to the market through the interim device of deregulation by vouchers or tax credits), such a process is singularly inappropriate if other objectives are to be realized. Bluntly, measures which precipitate the inevitable unemployment resulting from a serious misallocation of labor cannot and must not be introduced piecemeal. Massive but short-lived unemployment is politically preferable to less extensive but prolonged unemployment. Again, considerations of both logic and “fairness” dictate that some measures (e.g., the abolition of laws extending special privileges to unions) be accompanied by other measures (e.g., the abolition of subsidies, price-maintenance schemes, et al advantaging privileged business interests).

I do not pretend that these suggestions in any way resolve the tension between compromise and conviction. Indeed, in the last analysis my prayer is simply that God keeps sharp the stab of conscience and thereby infuses all compromises with experienced bitterness until the advent of an authentically free market in a free society minimizes the pressure upon anyone to compromise his or her convictions. Our dilemma is that to move toward our destination we have to act, but the world in which we act is so much a creature of interventionism that pristine purity is not a real option.


Yet I end where I began. Central to the business of “getting there” is the purpose for which this Foundation was created: economic education. Ideas alone will not bring us to our destination, but men and women excited by the ideas enshrined in the concept “liberty” and dedicated to the furthering of these ideas can do it. To the question, “How much can the world as it is be changed?” I answer in a single word: Enough. It can be changed enough to liberate a process which, working in and through men and women like us, can bring us nearer to the realization of our dreams, our hopes, and our prayers for our children and our children’s children.

1.   L. Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland in The Annotated Alice, ed. Martin Gardner (New York: The New American Library, 1960), p. 88.

2.   Marx for Beginners and Lenin for Beginners (New York: Pantheon Books, Pantheon Docu mentary Comic-Book Series, 1974, 1976).

3.   See M. Bakunin, Statism and Anarchy; E. von Bohm-Bawerk, Capital and Interest; H. B. Acton, The Illusion of the Epoch: Marxism-Leninism as a Philosophical Creed; R. Aron, In Defense of Decadent Europe; L. Kolakowski, Main Currents of Marxism.’ Its Origins, Growth and Dissolution; L. von Mises, Omnipotent Government, Socialism, and Human Action.

4.   See F. A. Opitz, Religion and Capitalism.’ Allies, Not Enemies; R. Benne, The Ethic of Democratic Capitalism; M. Novak, The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism.

5.   J. K. Williams, “Catch the Little Foxes!” The Freeman, October, 1985.

6.   L. von Mises, The Anti-Capitalistic Mentality (South Holland, II1.: Libertarian Press, 1972); E. van den Haag, Capitalism.’ Sources of Hostility (New Rochelle: Epoch Books, 1979).

7.   I. Shafarevich, The Socialist Phenomenon (New York: Harper and Row, 1980).

8.   E. Fromm, Fear of Freedom (London: Rout-ledge Kegan Paul, 1960).

9.   A. N. Whitehead, The Aims of Education and Other Essays (London: Williams and Norgate, 1929).

  • The Reverend Dr. John K. Williams has been a teacher and is a free-lance writer and lecturer in North Melbourne, Victoria, Australia. He was resident scholar at FEE from April to October of this year.