All Commentary
Friday, June 1, 1973

Liberty and Public Opinion

Dr. Gresham is President Emeritus and Chairman of the Board, Bethany College, Bethany, West Virginia.

The public philosophy which characterized America during its most creative period had many diverse and varied sources and tributaries. When Thomas Jefferson presented to an assembly of his countrymen those memorable words: “We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” he was borrowing from John Locke. Jefferson had taken certain liberties, for Locke said—”Life, liberty, and property.” This was somewhat more precise. “Property” is an essential and integral element of the American Dream, the concept and institution which allowed the dream to be formulated into a compelling capitalistic public philosophy. Individual liberty was tempered by inner moral responsibilities which inspired free men and women to swear allegiance to God and country, and then proceed to implement these oaths by sacrifice of “life, fortune, or sacred honor” if necessary. Both liberty and virtue under girded the capitalistic public philosophy which characterized the flowering of America.

While the founding fathers and succeeding generations differed among themselves to the point of heat, fire, and occasional violence, an underlying common purpose gave a sense of direction and a vision of destiny which powered the Western expansion and developed a “Nation under God with liberty and Justice” for most everybody. This Weltanschauung derived from remote times and places. John Milton’s Areopagitica was basic to the right to publish; Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations contributed such fundamental ideas as the division of labor and the free market; John Locke and the French Encyclopedists contributed to the politics and government which issued there from; Mandeville’s The Grumbling Hive was modified by the more cautious and systematic John Stuart Mill to form the concept of the free individual as the unit of society; John Calvin and the Puritans had witnessed to the Apostles and Prophets so eloquently that their echos were still heard in Boston, Richmond, and Philadelphia.

Life, Liberty, Property

The right to life meant more than mere survival; it implied that each person is manager of his own life and is, therefore, the slave of neither the state nor of any other person or collection thereof. As a unique and autonomous individual, each could realize his best self in proportion to his ability, his aspirations, and his diligence. The basic unit of society was an individual person who could feel joy and sorrow, wonder at the universe around him, think about the nature and destiny of man on this little planet, and freely participate in the government to which he gave his consent.

The right to liberty carried overtones of the Greco-Roman concept of free men in contradistinction to bond men. The American free man was no slave of the state, the trade union, the association, nor of any man or group of men. That glorious free spirit was perfectly illustrated by a wise Texas pioneer named Ligon who said, “I am a member of the Democratic party, but I don’t belong to it.” Individual and private judgment is one of man’s most cherished values — unless he has been beguiled into the faceless collectivist crowd.

Freedom to choose his own way of life and to exercise his own utility schedule were as much the right of each founding father as was his celebrated right to create a new form of government free from foreign domination. The Yankee did not tell the Virginian what he could buy, sell, or wear, and the Planter knew better than to attempt any thought control over the New Englander. Liberty meant freedom to initiate, acquire, sell, enter into contracts, and to exercise his right to freedom of speech, press, or assembly. He felt free to hire, fire, change jobs, leave the country, or grow a long and beautiful beard at will.

The right to property implied a free market. A free man could trade, work, manufacture, buy or sell at will as long as force or fraud was not involved. He could save some of his money to buy tools, land, hire help or build a plant and thereby extend the power of his productive capacities as well as those of his fellows. This opened the way to the miraculous division of labor whereby each in his own way could contribute toward the development of a vast network of communication and transportation which, in turn, made this nation possible. New cities developed — not blighted and fearful jungles, but beautiful cities wherein each did his own thing without recourse to the hatred and violence which now threaten each urban dweller and leave the lonely streets deserted because of fear.

Differences there were, and laws were necessary, but the common sense of decency and fair play obtained in sufficient strength to restrain the greed and aggressiveness of man. The strength of public approval for industry, honesty, frugality, and moral rectitude joined with the universal public disapproval of rapacity, lawlessness, violence, and misbehavior to save us from the gross evils which now threaten our very existence as a nation. Even the outlaws of the Old West soon yielded to that supreme control of human behavior called public opinion.

The concept of property became, with the benefit of its religious heritage, a doctrine of stewardship wherein the owner was really acting as a trustee for the Creator. The Vanderbilts, Carnegies, and Goulds felt responsible to man and God for the administration of wealth for the good of man. Charity was born, not of the Welfare State which destroys charity by reliance on coercion but of the thrust of obligation which derives from freedom and from a sense of property held in trust.

A National Interest

I have mentioned that the capitalist philosophy assumed certain common ends and purposes for the people of our nascent nation. The Constitution opens with the declaration of a free people seeking to establish justice, preserve freedom, provide for the common defense, insure domestic tranquility, and promote the general welfare. Honest, but differing, men contended valiantly over State’s rights, public improvements, international involvements, and hard money, but the overarching loyalty to the country was never in question. Free men were free to be wrong as well as right; and the best interest of each citizen turned out to be the best interest of every citizen. In rare cases, public opinion, and, occasionally, the law intervened in such matters as the defense of the realm.

The prevailing public philosophy, however, was not without fault. From the standpoint of successful operation, history shows no more effective framework for progress, yet that very idea of progress marked the period with Utopian expectations that were beyond the realm of possible achievement. The perfectibility of man was assumed in the face of historical evidence to the contrary. Education was regarded as the touchstone that could transform stupidity into knowledge and ignorant immorality into informed virtue. Only in recent times have we faced up to the facts of human limitation and the illusion of progress in morality, intelligence, and art. The obvious progress in technology, together with our astonishing success in achieving affluence, misled our fathers into great expectations which history could only deny.

The Current Public Philosophy

We lack a coherent and workable public philosophy in America today. Such as we have can best be described as Interest Group Interventionism. The individual has lost his identity to his interest group. We speak now of the minorities, the unions, the business and trade associations, the parties, the South, the intellectuals, the hard hats, the professions, but not of the individual people who are endowed with the rights to life, liberty, and property. This groupism has been internalized with the result that a person will vote against his own interest or his own judgment in order to belong to the group. The groups have learned the art of discipline, and such pejorative words as “Scab”, “Uncle Tom”, “Reactionary”, or “Chauvinist” soon bring the errant member back into the interest group.

Those who defend Interest Group Interventionism assume that countervailing group power will bring about an appropriate balance so that the public will be served even though each group is out for itself alone. Adam Smith saw what he called “an invisible hand” that caused good to redound to society while each individual sought his own ends. This appeared to work as long as there was an overarching public philosophy which enabled the free market to perform its miraculous function. To posit, however, “an invisible hand” that would derive public good from interest group power is wishful fiction. The interest group with the most clout predominates, and the public be damned. Consider, for example, the ignored claims of the public on striking teachers, or the public need for access when a militant youth group mounts a paralyzing demonstration.

The Road to Violence

The loudly proclaimed objective of equality turns out to be rhetoric when the group interest is involved. Group against opposing group is a kind of warfare which can resort to violence. Consider, for example, the radical racists —both black and white — or the radical union and the goon squads of the recent past. The human group is of such a nature that it leads its constituent members into fantastic expectations and unreasonable demands. An otherwise thoughtful and sensible group member may be blind to the nature of his interest group action. Casey Stengel, with more than usual insight and candor said: “All I want is a fair advantage.” This is the attitude of the average interest group.

So pervasive is this chummy philosophy that our laws are written for interest groups and our government administers the laws with the interest group in mind. The Department of Labor, for instance, has become a servant of the unions, the Department of Agriculture works for the agricultural interests, and the Department of Commerce represents the trade associations. The net effect of the interest group philosophy is contempt for law which dares to oppose the group interest.

Radical youth have no reluctance to violate the laws they dislike. The violator who burns his draft card or burns an ROTC building is more hero than lawbreaker to his crowd. Looting, rioting, even killing are justified and praised by the gang. Unions who feel their interests are violated feel free to break laws, or heads if necessary, to gain their ends. The radical blacks have come to regard policemen as pigs and many laws of the land as racist. Those who resisted the war in Indochina gloried in stealing documents, aiding the enemy, evading the draft, and disrupting society. The agencies which mirror public opinion such as the media, the academic people, and the public figures including some government officials have, on occasion, condoned and even praised such contempt for the law.

War Against Business

Interest Group Interventionism has mounted the most amazing war against business. From quite different backgrounds, Mises and Schumpeter predicted the assault. Many business leaders have capitulated and thereby contributed to the predicament. The politicians have ganged up on the business community for the obvious reason that there are more votes with the opposition; the young have called business a rat race and concluded that even if you win it you are still a rat; the consumerists are often more interested in punitive action against business than in public protection; radical ecologists care less for clean air, water, and unspoiled nature than they care for aggression against the business community; even the unions whose very life depends on successful companies are out to destroy, with political help, the very industries which sustain them.

Businessmen have lost the self esteem that makes the risks and hardships of business and financial responsibility worth the candle. The president of a vast corporation must slink into his barricaded office from the back way and say as little as possible about his work and his interests lest the ubiquitous enemy find new opportunities for attack. Some executives have joined the assault and are lined up with the enemy in order to buy a little public favor with the leftwing establishment and, perhaps, to pick up a few bucks at the expense of their more valiant colleagues.

The worker stands to lose even more by the Interest Group war against business. Absenteeism, a major threat to the American economy, is a greater threat to the true interest of the worker even though his group folklore prompts him to think of it as his own right and a good way to get back at the company. Shoddy products and the loss of markets, both foreign and domestic, can only mean disaster for labor. The peer group which once ostracized an irresponsible worker now defends him and even applauds his disregard of schedules and assignments. Pride in workmanship, once a major satisfaction to an employee, is now held in cynical contempt by some who carp of exploitation and alienation.

The Worker’s True Interest

The true interest of a worker is a prosperous company of which he can be proud, one which can afford to pay him well and treat him with considerable respect as an essential colleague. Such a worker is proud of his product which can compete with anything in the world. Yet the gang philosophy has threatened his job security by ill-conceived laws. It has taught him to think of work as a necessary evil, his company as an enemy, his job as a right of access to fabulous pay — with no responsibility for quality and quantity in production.

The American worker is exploited by the public philosophy and not so much by the corporation or by capital as he has been led to believe. The New Left ridicules him as a dope to believe in his country, and the left leaning young call him a “Hard Hat” with supercilious contempt. The politicians offer him anything to buy his vote, and then give him only bad legislation which worsens his predicament. The strong and independent American worker seems unaware of the Interest Group philosophy that is socializing his property, curtailing his liberty, and destroying his dignity.

The current public philosophy tends toward socialist economics, collectivist and egalitarian politics, government intervention, feeling rather than reason in the arts and public concerns, change rather than stability, sentimental identity with the underprivileged at home and abroad, sympathy for the left, and antipathy for the right.

The Class Struggle

The Utopian expectations inspired by the going viewpoint are quite beyond human possibility —if we can trust history. No civilization has ever achieved equality; but even if it were possible it would not be satisfactory, for those who feel disadvantaged seek domination rather than equal status. Not everyone can belong to the ruling class, for position and preference require the obverse — subordination. Gilbert and Sullivan effectively lampooned the pretensions of such Utopian expectations with the humorous failure of an attempt to make the butler into the Lord High Butler and the coachman into the Lord High Coachman. The consequence of a successful revolution would not be the “classless society” but a new and different ruling class, with inferior status and subordination for the rest. Much of the joy of the new ruling class would be the opportunity to beat up and put down the old ruling class. Envy, hate, and aggression are the psychological matrix of the class struggle.

Interest Group Interventionism is not working and will not work because it is based on too many false assumptions. It lacks the common purpose and teamwork essential to a going and coherent society. Socializing the industries tends to reduce, rather than enhance, the standard of living. No country can defend itself without patriotism. No society can survive unless its people can become inured to the fact that many must accept and enjoy subordinate positions. Without reasonable equality of opportunity and equal justice under the law, no country can survive. No interest group can arrogate to itself control of the body politic without the dissolution of the country — unless that group becomes the government as happened in Russia and China. Even then, freedom is lost for all but the ruling clique.

Toward the Recovery of a Workable Public Philosophy

The ancient ideal of the rule of law rather than the rule of men is still valid even though the rush to pass interest group legislation has perverted the concept. The rule of law as conceived by Plato, Solon, and Edward Coke implied that laws should be minimal rather than endlessly proliferating as they are today. The laws, moreover, must be enforceable and enforced or they are not laws at all. The ridiculous attempts at the prohibition of alcoholic beverages as conceived by Volstead and passed by the Congress are examples. Any law, moreover, should be written precisely so that interpretation is easy and negotiation unnecessary. Good laws are evenhanded and fair to everybody, and should be enforced on all parties alike. The wheeling and dealing of government regulatory agencies who strive for consent decrees through muddled and ambiguous legislation is a travesty on justice and an invitation to fraud.

Our system appears to suffer from excessive special interest group legislation. This results in a hopeless jungle of class oriented laws, vaguely written, subject to administrative bargaining and dealing, rather than simple clarity and enforcement. We have laws for the veterans, the farmers, the unions, the builders, the railroads, the motor companies, the colleges, and almost any other interest group that comes to the mind and attention of some eager legislator.

The country would be better served by legislative sessions dedicated to the repeal of the superlative laws rather than the relentless creation of new ones. It is the shame of our age that a legislature takes pride in the number of bills it has passed to clutter the books and reduce human freedom. Laws to protect life, liberty, property, and laws to provide for the security and defense of the realm are essential and few. The legal corpus, like university catalogues, needs a thorough wringing out.

Avoid Needless Laws

In our charming little college town, we once had a bright and scholarly mayor who persuaded the town council to pass a law that no dog should bark or make any menacing noise. The dogs, unfortunately, could not read, and the growls continued. The state and Federal laws are more sophisticated but therefore more threatening to the common interest. A review of the special interest legislation passed in the last decade would suggest real danger to the Republic. Such laws are intended to bring advantage to a few at the expense of many, and are, moreover, frequently unenforceable on a just and equitable basis. The result is administrative law with reliance on negotiation and compromise; nobody knows what is truly legitimate and nobody feels secure.

Such problems as obtained in our jury system and in our courts are beyond the scope of this paper, but the laws of the land can be effective only to the extent that they are accepted and obeyed. Society could not operate if force were required against many persons to compel obedience. The glory of Britain at the peak of her influence was the respect for law which was apparent in each citizen, along with the atmosphere of public expectations which inspired this respect. Centuries earlier, Plato had Socrates expound this very principle and epitomize it in the maxim: “The kingly man is a living law.” Enforcement is essential, but it is for the few offenders. The vast majority must love and live the law.

Be an Individual

An honorable and effective public philosophy can be recovered if enough people think, care, and join in the affirmation of a systematic public opinion which honors life, liberty, and property.

Be an individual, and the group loses a pawn.

The collective mind obtains only when the individual mind abdicates.

Be free in thought, feeling, and action, and a one man counterrevolution begins.

A noble capitalist is the best argument against communism. Thomas Carlyle was on target when he said: “Be honest, and there will be one less scoundrel in the world.”

Philosophy, public or private, begins in wonder and continues in the love of wisdom. It soon develops into a formulation of a viewpoint. Clearing the muddle out of one’s head and thinking for oneself is a delight worthy to be prized.

A review of the American past seems to one old philosophy teacher to indicate that we have been blessed by the most effective and defensible public philosophy known to man. Our experiments in socialism, interventionism, statism, and interest group legislation, with astonishing disregard for the most reliable and convincing evidence, have almost destroyed the goals, teamwork, and safety of our cherished land. Those of us who prize the rights to life, liberty, and property need to get our facts together and our theory organized so that we can make a case for the capitalist public philosophy before it is too late. America need not decline and fall just because Rome did. Each and every informed and articulate exponent of freedom is a vote for “a new birth of freedom.”

I have been amazed at how convincing and unanswerable are the arguments for liberty in human affairs. I have heard Mises, Friedman, Rogge, Wright, and Hayek stand before throngs of students and faculty members with the challenge for anyone to name a period in world history in which the people enjoyed a high standard of living under any except a free market economy. Never have I heard a successful refutation of liberty, nor even a convincing example to the contrary. Beyond economics, however, the case for the initiative of free people is even more impressive.

With truth and history on the side of freedom, argument in its behalf is pleasant and rewarding. As a lifelong student of ideas, I am perplexed and troubled by my academic colleagues who are enthralled by the specious but superficially plausible arguments of the socialists. The patent mistakes of the Marxian Utopian expectation of a classless society, along with the mistaken assumption that corrupting power rests with private ownership rather than with the commissariat, are illustrative.

Become an expert in freedom philosophy, and have fun!

The Ideal Is Practical, Despite Problems

The problems of society are never solved; they are only resolved. No system ever works as well as its proponents claim. Even the halcyon days of American capitalism were fraught with occasions of license, rapacity, greed, envy, and fraud. If my case for Peoples’ Capitalism seems too good to be true, you can rest assured that the faults of the system made it at home in the real world of people. When the late Will Rogers was asked, “What is wrong with the world?” he answered — “Mostly just folks!” You cannot have a perfect society with imperfect people. But a tolerable society it was, and that society could be recovered. Our present predicament has become almost intolerable, with urban jungles, greedy and unfair demands, super arrogations of power in the hands of the State, widespread nihilism, recourse to violence, contempt for law, and public approval of uncivil and even criminal behavior. We call not for Utopia, but only for a public philosophy which can release the free spirit, restrain the evil in man, and allow private interest to redound to public benefit.

If I am charged with describing the public philosophy in terms of the ideal, I accept the charge, but only in part. I have described it, rather, in terms of the possible. I feel warm identity with my delightful philosopher colleague, the late T. V. Smith, who said: “Don’t let the best become the enemy of the good!” Plato defended his ideal city state in the Republic as not in actual existence, but “a pattern laid up in heaven.” The possible public philosophy I have proposed has existed in the history of this country, and it could be recovered with many improvements if enough of us think, speak, write, and act with the persuasive eloquence and example of our courageous founding fathers.

Liberty is difficult to achieve, difficult to maintain, and difficult to recover, but the pursuit of it is the first responsibility of an informed American citizen.



My Creed

I do not choose to be a common man. It is my right to be uncommon — if I can. I seek opportunity — not security. I do not wish to be a kept citizen, humbled and dulled by having the state look after me. I want to take the calculated risk; to dream and to build, to fail and to succeed. I refuse to barter incentive for a dole. I prefer the challenges of life to the guaranteed existence; the thrill of fulfillment to the stale calm of utopia.

I will not trade freedom for beneficence nor my dignity for a handout. I will never cower before any master nor bend to any threat. It is my heritage to stand erect, proud and unafraid; to think and act for myself, enjoy the benefit of my creations and to face the world boldly and say, this I have done.

All this is what it means to be an American.


  • Dr. Perry E. Gresham (1907-1994) was President Emeritus and Distinguished Professor, Bethany College. Bethany, West Virginia.