All Commentary
Wednesday, November 1, 1972

I Visit a Managed Society

Mr. Johnson, of Mountain View, California, is a counselor in public relations and fund raising.

I had heard of a little town in California which was credited with being an example of efficient government, and one which did an admirable job of providing for the needs of its citizens. I determined to go there some time and see for myself if these things were true, and if so, to bring back some ideas that might prove helpful to citizens of other communities.

This small town of Tamal, with a population of about 2,000 people, was established in 1852 on the shore of beautiful San Francisco Bay, just 20 miles north of the City of San Francisco. In the early days the chief industry was the manufacture of gunny sacks and other rough cordage products made of jute. In April, 1951, a disastrous fire burned the huge mill to the ground at an estimated loss of $3,000,000 which left 1,000 men without a job. Gradually other industries were begun. A mattress factory, a cotton textile mill, a large laundry, a detergent plant, a clothing factory, a large furniture factory and several other industries now provide most of the employable residents with jobs.

An official publication described some of the services provided for residents of this unusual community which made me even more anxious to visit the place and to talk to someone who might be enjoying these benefits.

I read that three-fourths of the residents are presently engaged in some aspect of education in a free school system beginning with elementary grades on through junior college level. Half of the students attend classes in the evenings. In addition to teaching skills and vocational training, the instructors are “skilled in group behavior.” They train students in “terminus goals, inter-personal relationships, proper acceptance of job, work, completion of goals, and to operate cooperatively under supervision.”

There are no unions in this town. Instead, a Trade Advisory Committee, representing both management and labor, works to “aid in defining training standards, establishing completion criteria and assistance in job placement.” They are concerned with both “vocational competence and the development of constructive social attitudes.”

An extensive free recreational program includes several well-equipped play fields and courts for individual and competitive sports, and facilities for staging music and variety shows by resident or visiting talent.

I was amazed to note that none of the residents ever apply for Medicare simply because all of the medical facilities of a 150-bed fully accredited hospital, an outstanding therapy X-ray unit, and services of well-qualified consultants and specialists of the San Francisco Bay Area are readily available, and all at no cost to any of the patients.

In spite of these many benefits, I noticed a paragraph describing the work of the Narcotic Treatment Control Unit which is a live-in situation treating a large number of persons with drug abuse problems. A copy of the weekly newspaper lists the regular meetings of an Alcoholics Anonymous chapter. Serious crimes also make headlines in this newspaper from time to time, mostly of a violent nature such as stabbings, clubbings, fights, riotings and murders. Evidently, not all is as idyllic as one would presume in this managed society.

Meet Lamar Knighton

I finally got a lead on a man who worked as a linotypist on the local newspaper and found out he would be glad to meet with me and answer any questions I might have about life as he saw it in this welfare city. I found also that this man was a reader of The Freeman magazine and that he subscribed fully to the libertarian philosophies of its articles.

I arranged a time to go to Tamal and to look up my new friend, Lamar Knighton, to determine, if possible, how he squared his philosophies with his life.

The fog was just beginning to lift as I drove into town. Seagulls were wheeling in circles above the shore as I slowed my car to enjoy the view of the islands in the Bay. A row of small, run-down houses lined the street overlooking the water. The other side of the street dropped off in a grassy meadow to the shore.

After I’d driven about three blocks the street was completely blocked with a huge iron gate. A sign pointed to a parking lot; I found a place to park my car, and walked back to a small building at the gate.

A large, muscular guard, dressed in an olive-colored uniform asked me who I wanted to see.

“Lamar Knighton,” I said.

He shuffled through some files in a cabinet and asked for some identification. I showed my driver’s license, and he asked me to sign in on a large register book. A buzzer unlocked the door and I walked about 100 yards to another small building. Here I was asked to empty my pockets into a tray on a counter and step through a metal-detector gate.

My next stop was a waiting room where I was told I might sit to wait while Lamar was located and paged. In about thirty minutes a voice sounded over the speaker system, “Knighton visitor.” A man nodded toward a door.

I walked up two steps and through the door into a large room. There I saw several rows of long tables running the length of the room with people sitting on each side. On one side sat men, women, and children. On the other side sat only men dressed in blue-jeans and blue shirts.

A voice said, “Mr. Johnson?” I saw a handsome man about 35 years old who introduced himself to me. “I’m Lamar Knighton,” he said. “Glad to see you, neighbor.”

I said, “Well, I’m glad to see you finally. I had to go through a lot of red tape, but here I am.”

We started talking and I learned that Lamar was a native of Texas, had once been a meat cutter, had served a hitch in the Army, and was now operating the linotype machine in the newspaper office. We started talking about liberty and Lamar told me of his special interest in the subject and how he spends most of his spare time writing essays which he sends to anyone who will read them.

What Is Liberty?

I had to attend to some business in San Francisco, but promised to write and to come back for other visits. I signed out and walked to the parking area. The gulls were still tracing lazy freedom circles in the breeze. A few sailboats dotted the Bay. The wind whistled through the tall pine trees on the point. “What is liberty?” I asked myself as I looked back at a stone tower manned with armed guards who would shoot to kill any unauthorized person who attempted to escape from that managed society. Surely I could answer that simple question after such a visit. But my thoughts refused to focus. I wanted only to experience the liberty I now enjoyed. My eyes turned again to the free-flying birds. My ears caught the sighing in the trees. I breathed deeply of the fresh salt air. I picked up a stone and splashed it into the waves. These were the symbols that translated all my philosophies into experiential realities. This I knew as freedom. I needed no words. They would come later as I would challenge Lamar to interpret his freedom concepts as a prisoner in San Quentin penitentiary.

Permission was granted to me to visit this man in the famous 120-year-old institution through the courtesy of a new nonprofit group known as Job Therapy of California. Part of its service is the man-to-man (M-2) visitation program in which citizens volunteer to make one visit a month to a prisoner. I had signed up as a sponsor and was matched with Lamar Knighton, who also had volunteered for the program. My only other commitment is that I will meet Lamar at the gate of San Quentin on the day of his release, and spend the day with him as he begins a new life on the outside. I am not to give or lend him any money, nor take him to stay in my home. I serve only as a friend, to encourage him to earn his own way and build the kind of life that will be most helpful to himself.

Doing an Article…

After several visits in which we exchanged ideas we had discovered from books and periodicals, our friendship began to grow. Between visits we would write essays on various aspects of freedom. I resolved on my next visit to get Lamar’s view of the managed society in which he lived. On this particular day I took the freeway that runs along the beautiful coastal range that extends from San Francisco down the Peninsula. Patches of fog were clinging to the top of the redwood hills and a brisk wind tossed whitecaps across the Bay and under the Golden Gate Bridge.

The same guard in the gatehouse asked the same familiar question: “Who do you want to visit?”

“Lamar Knighton,” I replied.

“Please show your identification.” I produced my driver’s license.

“Sign in, please.” I signed my name in the visitor’s register and the time (9:40 A.M.) in the appropriate spot.

“What do you have in the briefcase?” he asked.

“Some papers,” I said. “I’m doing an article for a magazine and want to ask Lamar some questions.”

“That’s really not supposed to be done,” he said. “Tell the guard at the desk in the visiting room so he’ll know what you’re doing.”

“Okay,” I promised and began the walk to the next building. I wonder what that rule is for, I asked myself. I’m not the prisoner. Why do they put such restrictions on me? I’m getting a real taste of the managed society. A man in front of me was having difficulty clearing the metal detector. Every time he walked past the machine it blinked a red light and emitted a sharp buzz. Everything was removed from all of his pockets; still, the machine was picking up some metal object on his person.

“Take off your belt,” the guard said.

The man pulled off his belt and held his pants up as he walked through the space. By this time several other visitors were waiting in line, including wives and girl friends of prisoners, which added to the man’s embarrassment as he finished dressing in front of us. I was next and cleared the machine in my first attempt.

Official Delay

At 9:50 I deposited my pass on the desk of the guard in the waiting room and was told to take a seat on the hard oak benches. At 10:50 I was still thumbing through some old magazines, but my visitor hadn’t arrived. I waited another 20 minutes and asked the guard if his call for Knighton had gotten through. He picked up the phone and spoke to another guard station. “He’s just cleaning up and is on his way in,” he said.

At 11:40 — two hours from the time I signed in at the outer gate — a voice came in over the amplifying system, “Knighton visitor.”

I saw Lamar sitting at the table and nodded to him as I walked to the elevated guard desk. “I’ve got some papers with me,” I told the guard. “I’ll be interviewing my visitor and thought I’d tell you so you’ll know what I’m doing.”

He shook his head. “I’d better call the Captain,” he said. In a few minutes the Captain came in and said, “What’s going on here?” I told my story to him, and gave him a weak smile, but it didn’t break the ice. He stared at me a moment, then without a word turned and walked off. I took this as some sort of reluctant approval and arranged my pad of papers on the table and started talking to Lamar.

“When did they call you?” I asked.

“Just about ten minutes ago. I came right over.”

When I told him I’d been cooling my heels almost two hours, he smiled knowingly and said, “Now you’re beginning to experience a little of what I run into every day. It’s all part of the system.”

“But don’t any of the inmates have anything to say about issues like this?”

“Oh, sure, we can complain, and I will; but they won’t pay any attention.”

“Surely the inmates have some official avenue of communication to the top,” I suggested.

“We have the MAC (Men’s Advisory Council),” Lamar said, “but their main hassle is trying to decide which radio station we can listen to. We only have two stations we are allowed to listen to. I would like to get some classical music once in a while, but never get to.”

“What about other leisure activities?” I asked.

“We can watch television, read, or talk during Honor Block, but all of our other time is supervised.”

“What is your work schedule?”

“Seven hours a day for 5 days a week.”

“How much are you paid?” “$7.50.”

“An hour?”

“No, a month,” he said. “And this is based on your seniority in the job training program.”

“Can you strike?”

“Are you kidding?”

“Can you shop around for a better job and compete for higher wages?”

“No. I might apply for another job-training course but wages would have nothing to do with it.”

Other Restrictions

He knew what I was doing and began to think of other aspects of his life which might compare with a managed socialist government.

“My travel is of course rigidly restricted and supervised. I have no choice of doctors or hospitals if I get sick. The education is as bad here as it is in any state-controlled system — teachers run through their prescribed courses just to draw their salaries. We have no right to assemble in meetings to hear any views contrary to those of the administration. We have no elections. We couldn’t start a new religion of our own, but must take what is provided for us.”

“There’s another question I must ask,” I said. “Do some men get used to this form of life where their physical needs are provided for and everything is managed for them?”

“That’s the sad truth,” he said. “Some dudes simply don’t like to make decisions. They are perfectly willing to have this parent-child relationship for the rest of their days. They get released and in a few months back they come. It’s a vicious circle. The managed society, as you call it, is devastating to our initiative. Being dependent upon the system for our basic needs makes us like children, not men. Then when we get out in competition we can’t cut it, so back we come to the parental nest.”

“What does that do to you, as a student of liberty and independence?”

“I have to fight it all the time,” he said with a sad note in his voice. “It’s like a dark blanket of gloom. Most of the guys are shot through with negative thoughts. I come on trying to be cheerful and optimistic and they look at me like I’m a kook. It finally got to me the last couple of weeks. I was hit with a bad case of depression.” It occurred to me then that I hadn’t received a letter from him and I should have known something was wrong.

Destroying Initiative

Dr. Karl Menninger, in his book, The Crime of Punishment, quoted Gresham Sykes (The Society of Captives) as saying, “The frustration of the prisoner’s ability to make choices and the frequent refusals to provide an explanation for the regulations and commands descending from the bureaucratic staff involve a profound threat to the prisoner’s self-image because they reduce the prisoner to the weak, helpless, dependent status of childhood…. The imprisoned criminal finds his picture of himself as the self-determining individual being destroyed by the regime of the custodians.”

On my way home I drove through the old Haight-Ashbury section of San Francisco. A few years ago this was the mecca of the “flower children” — advocates of the completely undisciplined philosophy of life. Their utopian dream soon collapsed. The buildings are even more run-down than ever. A few miserable heroin addicts shuffle through the streets or sit in a stupor on the steps. The same pallor of gloom that afflicts Lamar in San Quentin hangs heavy over this blighted area. Why did the experiment fail at Haight-Ashbury? Because the flower children were dependent for their existence upon food stamps, welfare checks, the largesse of a few social agencies, and upon drugs to give them a feeling of euphoria to be able to endure such a miserable life. Dependency kept them bound in perpetual childhood just as dependency keeps citizens under the control of a managed government. Children, you know, are much more easily managed than adults.

Before I arrived at my home I began to cool my resentment toward the unknown guard who neglected to put my call through when he should. After all, I was not a paying customer. His job does not depend upon service, but only upon compliance with regulations. He is paid by the state. Under the same situation I might act with similar discourtesy. And the Captain? He probably deals constantly with lawyers trying to dig up “social injustices” to keep him in eternal hot water. Under similar circumstances my own milk of human kindness might curdle, too. I do not blame these men, nor any of the San Quentin officials. They are doing a thankless job which, under our present system of dealing with criminal offenders, has to be done. But they, too, must resist the pallor of gloom that results from the debilitating effect their managed society produces upon their charges and upon themselves.

I came through this experience resolved to double my efforts to resist a growing climate of opinion aimed at making all men dependent upon a custodial government. The admirable struggle of my new inmate friend was aptly stated in his closing remark during my latest visit. “I am determined not to be conditioned to apathy.”



There Must Be Freedom

The most drastic deprivation which any person can suffer is that of the freedom to utilize and enjoy the faculties which nature has given him and which his will and desire have developed. Keep a man from exercising his mind, his body, his faculties in the pursuit of his own wishes and delights, keep him from enjoying the fruits of his efforts — and you have done everything evil to him that you can. The greatest desire of each person, in short, is to be free to get the most he can out of life. There is no other way objectively to define social goals than to call them the sum of those individual goals which can be harmonized in society.

SYLVESTER PETRO, The Labor Policy of the Free Society 

  • Mr. Johnson, of Palo Alto, California, is a counselor in public relations and fund raising.