All Commentary
Friday, January 1, 1965

Lets Not Save the World

The Reverend Mr. Opitz is a member of the staff of the Foundation for Economic Educa­tion, Book Review Editor of The Freeman, lecturer, and seminar discussion leader. This article is from an address before the Montreal Dental Club, October 28, 1964.

Status quo is a Latin phrase meaning, in a modern translation, “the mess we are in.” A great number of our contemporaries must understand it so, because never have so many persons and organizations come forward with such a variety of schemes for re­forming other people and improv­ing the world. This is the age of the Man with the Plan. The re­former, with his blueprints for social uplift, is in his heyday.

I suppose that I too would be classified by some as a reformer, for I travel around the country making speeches and taking part in seminars. And the gist of what I have to say is that, indeed, things are in bad shape, but that they might be improved if we approached economic and political problems in a different spirit. If the distinguishing mark of a re­former is his yen to save the world, then I am not a reformer—in this sense. The principal re­form I seek is the reformation of reformers! But I live close enough to the tribe so that many of them send me their literature.

Across my desk come the out­pourings of many earnest souls, offering salvation to the world if only the world will embrace their particular panacea. The panaceas peddled by these folk come in all sizes and styles, ranging from world government to a low cho­lesterol diet. In between are the socialists, the land reformers, the money reformers, the prohibition­ists, the vegetarians, and those who believe that the world is in the strangling clutch of a far-flung conspiracy of sinister men who operate anonymously behind the scenes. As I read this material, I am thankful that the world has so far refused to let itself be saved on the terms each and every one of these reformers lay down. These people differ wildly among themselves as to the details and precise nature of the remedy; but they are in basic agreement as to the general pattern reform should take. Reform—as they under­stand it—consists of A and B put­ting their heads together and de­ciding what C should be forced to do for D. William Graham Sumner said something like this about a century ago, which means that this reformist mood has been with us for a long time.

People Are the Basic Ingredient

Every reformer, presumably, yearns for the good society—how­ever much reformers might dif­fer among themselves as to the earmarks of the good society and the appropriate means for reach­ing it. Each reformer is confident, however, that all we have to do is install his machinery and utopia will arrive tomorrow.

But in his preoccupation with the apparatus for making society over, the reformer omits one im­portant factor from his calcula­tions: he omits people. It is the people comprising a given society who make that society what it is, and it is they who distinguish it from other societies made up of people of a different sort. Chinese society is unlike Hindu society; and how different is each of these from Western society as we know it in New York or Montreal! The characteristics of a given society are derived from the nature of its people; a society is warlike if its members are belligerent; an agri­cultural society is one in which people are farmers; a society whose members go down to the sea for trading or fishing is a maritime society; and so on.

It follows from this, that a good society is not to be achieved by any kind of social apparatus or political machinery, however elab­orate; a good society is the happy by-product of good people func­tioning at par, and it comes about in no other way. If you have good people—defining “goodness” so as to include a modicum of intelli­gence—a good society follows au­tomatically. But without the right kind of people, a good society is impossible.

A Parable

Let me, at this point, offer you a little parable. This story has to do with a bright boy of five whose mother took him to a toy store and asked the proprietor for a challenging toy for the young man. The owner of the shop brought out an elaborate gadget, loaded with levers, buttons, coils of wire, and many movable parts. The mother examined the complicated piece of apparatus and shook her head. “Jack is a bright boy,” she said, “but I fear that he is not old enough for a toy like this.”

“Madam,” said the proprietor, “this toy has been designed by a panel of psychologists to help the growing child of today adjust to the frustrations of the contempor­ary world: No matter how he puts it together, it won’t come out right.”

The world never has come out right, despite the best efforts of countless men, but this very fact incites every new generation of reformers to even more frantic applications of their esoteric cures. Utopians, dreaming of an earthly paradise, have drawn up their blueprints for a heaven on earth, but in practice, every attempt to realize a perfect society has re­sulted in an intolerable society. Newfangled heavens on earth—as exemplified in the totalitarian countries—resemble nothing so much as the old-fashioned hell.

My idea, on the other hand, is to seek—not a perfect society—but merely a tolerable one. If we cut our garments to fit the cloth and work toward a tolerable society, we may yet achieve it.

In other words, I am deeply dis­trustful of any and every “perfect” solution for social problems. Human life, as a matter of fact, is not a problem to be solved; it is a reality to be lived.

I am defining the reformer as a type of man who is determined to save the world, even to the point of disregarding the wishes of the people involved. His opposite num­ber is one who believes that people have a right to live their own lives, and that when their lives are lived in a truly human way the good society will appear as a bonus or dividend.

Three Reformers

Reform is in the air in the mod­ern world, and most of us absorb some of it through our pores by a kind of osmosis. The average man, whenever anything goes wrong, says, “There ought to be a law….” But the reformer mentality is best understood by examining sev­eral fully developed examples of this type of mind.

American politics for more than a generation has been dominated by the New Deal-New Frontier-New Republicanism psychology. As the proponents of this doctrine view the matter, society is to be masterminded by a political quar­terback calling plays from Wash­ington. Join scientific humanism to majoritarian political processes, they say, and achieve peace, prog­ress, and plenty. One of the leaders of the early New Deal Brain Trust was a professor of econom­ics named Rexford Guy Tugwell, who poetically acknowledged:

I have gathered my tools and my charts;

My plans are fashioned and practical; I shall roll up my sleeves make America over.

Somewhat earlier, there was the philosopher and educator, John Dewey. Dewey introduced many changes into the curricula of our schools; he is thought of as the godfather of progressive educa­tion and the classroom emphasis on adjustment to the group. But more fundamental than even these things, Dewey was a prime mover in the installation of a new Welt­anschauung. John Dewey worked out a major reconstruction of phi­losophy, life, and society, and him­self best articulated the new mood and temper which he championed. This new outlook, in his own words, “marks a revolution in the whole spirit of life, in the entire attitude taken toward whatever is found in existence.” What is this revolution? It is “a change from knowledge as an esthetic enjoy­ment of the properties of nature regarded as a work of divine art, to knowing as a means of secular control…. (Nature) is now something to be modified, to be in­tentionally controlled…. Ideas are worthless except as they pass into actions which rearrange and reconstruct in some way, be it little or large, the world in which we live…. Modern experimental science is an art of control.”

Carry this matter back to the middle of the nineteenth century and we come to the man from whom so many twentieth century problems stem—Karl Marx. The determining factor for men, Marx wrote, is “the mode of production in material life.” A man’s very consciousness is determined by his social existence. “Men’s ideas,” he added, “are the most direct ema­nation of their material state.” The logic of this is fantastic, for according to Marx’s own state­ment, he himself is a mere mouth­piece for the material productive factors of 1859; Marx’s mouth may frame the words, but his mind does not generate the ideas. The ideas come from “the mode of production in material life.”

Marx does not stop here; he goes on to fashion an idol. Declar­ing himself an atheist, he excori­ates those who do not “recognize as the highest divinity the human self-consciousness itself.” This new mortal god has only one obligation to the world: Change it! Aris­totle’s god, the Prime Mover, de­rived esthetic enjoyment from contemplating the world he had made; and many philosophers, and ordinary folk as well, have enjoyed the starry heavens and the glories of nature.

But if Marx were to have his way, such pleasures would be pro­hibited. “The philosophers have only interpreted the world in vari­ous ways,” he wrote; “the point, however, is to change it.” (1845) A contemporary of ours, Bertram Wolfe, writing critically of Marx­ism, gives us this interpretation: “History was to be given a new meaning, a new goal, and a new end in Time…. At last man would become as God, master of his own destiny, maker of his own future, conscious architect of his world.”

From now on a kind of activism will take over in human affairs. Everyone is supposed to be doing something all the time. In the United States, if anyone wants to apply a withering epithet to Cong­ress, he calls it “a do-nothing congress.” We are so busy acting that we have no time for thinking. We don’t much care where we are going, just so long as we can get there in a hurry. With the result that nearly everyone is afflicted with a bad case of the jitters. The mood of our time may be summed up in one word—disenchantment. The recurring theme of our litera­ture is “alienation.” Modern man, who should be the proud, upright lord of creation, has to be kept going by increasing doses of as­pirin, tranquilizers, and psycho­analysis. We’re in the position of the man riding a tiger; we don’t like the ride, but fear we’ll be worse off if we dismount. We know there’s something wrong with us, but we’ve learned to live so well with our illness that we’re afraid the cure would kill us!

Letting Things Alone

Well, what’s the alternative? The journal with which I am asso­ciated is called THE FREEMAN. Be­tween 1920 and 1924, the editor of THE FREEMAN was a unique per­sonality named Albert Jay Nock. Associated with Nock was a group of young writers such as Suzanne LaFollette, Van Wyck Brooks, and Lewis Mumford. Someone re­marked to Nock, “You’ve done wonderful things for these young people.”

“Nonsense,” said Nock, “all I’ve done was to let them alone.” “True,” replied his friend, “but it would have been different if someone else had been letting them alone.”

Letting someone alone is not the same thing as doing nothing. It requires great effort on the part of parents properly to let our chil­dren alone, so that they will grow up, not as carbon copies of our­selves, but as their own unique personalities.

Rightfully letting things alone, in statecraft, is Edmund Burke’s policy of “a wise and salutary neg­lect.” But it is to medicine that we must turn for the clinching illustration of this technique.

Certain medical theorists of about a century ago examined the human organism and found it a crude contrivance of pipes, tubes, levers, and dead weight. This botched mechanism could be kept going only if someone constantly patched and repaired it. Writing of this antiquated medical theory, an historian says: “This held that the body was a faulty machine and Nature a blind worker. The stu­dent made an inventory of the body’s contents and found, as he expected, some out of place, some wearing out, some clumsy make­shifts… and some mischievous survivals left over.” Medical prac­tice, based on this theory, was to interfere with the body’s working by probing, operating, removing, and altering. The practice often proved disastrous to the patient!

Medical theory has changed in the past fifty years. The modern theory, according to the same his­torian, regards the body as “a single unit, health a general con­dition natural to the organism… and the best diet and regime, to live naturally.” This new theory regards the body as a self-regulat­ing, and for the most part, a self-curative organism. It need not be interfered with except to repair or remove an obstruction that pre­vents the free flow of the healing power of nature. Medical or surgi­cal ministrations do not create health; the body does that of it­self if let alone.

The new outlook in medicine is summed up by the title of a fa­mous book by Harvard professor, Walter B. Cannon: The Wisdom of the Body. I believe it was Dr. Cannon who introduced the con­cept of “homeostasis,” the idea that the human body maintains all the balances necessary to health unless something interferes.

Freedom in Society

There is a striking analogy be­tween present-day theories of health and the ideal of freedom in human affairs. The believer in freedom is one who has come to the realization that society is a delicately articulated thing, each part depending on every other. Hence, arbitrary interference with anyone’s peaceable willed action not only diminishes the freedom of the person restrained but affects all other men in society. The at­tempt to masterplan society upsets the balance which every part of society naturally has with every other part.

Nearly everyone favors freedom in the abstract. Most intellectuals champion freedom of speech, academic freedom, freedom of the press, and freedom of worship. The only freedom which is every­where under fire is economic free­dom. Why is this? Following the analysis I have been using, it is self-evident that those who would deny men freedom in the market place assume that, in the absence of political controls, economic life would be chaotic. Karl Marx in­deed did speak of the anarchy of the free market. The assumption, in other words, is that manufac­turers would not produce the goods consumers want unless govern­ment stepped in and told them what to make, and in what sizes, styles, and colors. The assumption is that farmers would grow noth­ing but weeds and brambles un­less crops were assigned and acre­ages allotted. The assumption is that the vast transportation in­dustry—which can jet us across the ocean, take us by rail or bus wherever we want to go, provide us with millions of automobiles—would still be using wheelbarrows and the oxcart if government did not direct it. Merely to state these assumptions is to expose their ab­surdity, but we have to go one stage further in order to make the absurdity manifest.

What Is Economics?

Why is there economics, and what is the economic problem? On the human side of the economic question is man, a creature of in­satiable needs and desires but with only limited energy. On the other side of this equation is the world of raw materials. Very few things in their natural state can be used or consumed directly; human ef­fort must be expended on them in the form of the work required to grow, manufacture, or transport them. Raw materials are scarce, relative to human demands for them, and finished products are even scarcer. And this means that there will always be unsatisfied human wants; people will always want more.

For a thing to qualify as an economic good, two requirements must be met: the item must be needed or wanted and it must be in short supply. Air, despite the fact that it is necessary to our lives, is not an economic good, for it is not in short supply; under normal conditions there is enough air for everyone and lots left over. But conditioned air is an economic good, even though it is not neces­sary for life but only ministers to our comfort. Conditioned air is in short supply, there is not as much of it as people want, merely for the taking, and so they have to pay for it; that is to say, they have to give up something in ex­change for it.

Economics, then, is the discipline which deals with goods in short supply; and the problem it faces is how to allocate scarce goods so as to best satisfy the most urgent human wants. The free market approach to this prob­lem is to rely on the individual free choice of consumers, as manifested in their buying or abstention from buying. The buying habits of peo­ple form a pattern which tells en­trepreneurs what to produce, and in what quantities, sizes, and so on.

This is the tactic of liberty as applied to the workaday world; this is the market economy, or the price system, and if government merely protects people in their productive activities, and in their buying and selling—protects them by curbing predation and fraud—the economic activities of man are self-starting, self-operating, and self-regulating. The free market is the only device available to men for allocating scarce resources equitably; its performance is so efficient and so intelligent that it has excited the admiration of those who have studied and un­derstood its workings. Virtually every one of the charges that has ever been directed against the free economy proves, upon examina­tion, to be aimed at a problem caused by some misguided polit­ical interference with the free economy.

In the United States, no one likes the term, socialized medicine, but there are many people—in­cluding some doctors—who sup­port a thing called Medicare. The professed aim of Medicare is to increase the availability of medi­cal and dental services, and Medi­care seeks to do this by political interventions and subsidies. Now medical and dental services are in short supply, relative to the de­mand for them. This is to say that medical and dental services are economic goods, and—because they are scarce—a way must be found to allocate them. The free market is the only efficient and fair way to allocate scarce goods, and there­fore the free market can be re­lied upon to furnish the greatest quantity of high grade medical and dental service at the lowest possible price, to a citizenry which has a great variety of other needs and desires to satisfy as well. Ev­ery political alternative to the market means a wastage of eco­nomic goods and resources; it means less for all.

An Orderly Universe

Examine any area of life you wish; events on the surface may not appear to exhibit a pattern, but dig deep and you find order, harmony, and balance. This is a universe we live in, not a multi-verse or a chaos. The discovery of

orderliness in nature together with better means of cooperating with that order has resulted in the great progress of the natural sci­ences during recent centuries. The human sciences and the social sci­ences are somewhat more complex, and therefore we have a little more trouble in these areas. For thou­sands of years we have known what we ought to do in the moral and spiritual dimensions of our lives, but we find it difficult to perform as we should at this level. Man likes to think that he can “get away” with things, and so he ig­nores or defies the Purpose which manifests itself in and through the universe. The universe toler­ates wayward man up to a point, but if man does not learn his own lessons from his waywardness, he is taught the hard way. “Things won’t be mismanaged long,” said Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Victor Hugo in his great novel, Les Misérables, put the matter more dramatically. You recall his long description of the Battle of Waterloo and the downfall of Na­poleon. “Why Napoleon’s Water­loo?” Hugo asks. “Was it possible that Napoleon should gain this battle? We answer No. Why ? Be­cause of Wellington ? Because of Blucher ? No; because of God! Bonaparte victor at Waterloo—that was no longer according to the law of the nineteenth century. Another series of events was pre­paring wherein Napoleon had no further place…. Napoleon had been denounced in the infinite and his downfall was resolved. He bothered God. Waterloo is not a battle; it is the universe chang­ing front.”

And so I say, Let’s not try to save the world! Saving the world is God’s job; our job—yours and mine—is to make the world worth saving.



Hot and Cold

The sturdy individualists in the country who resent any polit­ical interference apply for it every week. The manufacturers, whom I will call the sturdy believers in private enterprise, think Government ought to keep out of it, are with us every week or with the Tariff Board every week or with something or other every week.

There is hardly a section in the community today that does not in one breath protest its undying hostility to Government activity and in the next breath pray for it.

Australian Prime Minister, ROBERT G. MENZIES, before the National Press Club in Canberra, September 14, 1964

  • The Rev. Edmund A. Opitz (1914-2006) was a Congregationalist minister, a FEE staff member, who for decades championed the cause of a free society and the need to anchor that society in a transcendent morality. A man of wide reading and high culture, Opitz was for many years on the staff of the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington-on-Hudson, New York. He was one of the few voices in the 1950s through the 1990s calling for an integrated understanding between economic liberty and religious sensibility. He was the founder and coordinator of the Remnant, a fellowship of conservative and libertarian ministers.