Mr. Chamberlin is a skilled observer and reporter of economic and political conditions at home and abroad. He has written a number of books, has lectured widely, and is a contributor to The Wall Street Journal and many nationally known magazines.
The underlying basis of a free political system and a free economy is moral. Unless man is inwardly free—able to distinguish between good and evil, right and wrong, capable of making intelligent and prudent decisions in his own interest on his own account—the whole fabric of free institutions rests on a foundation of sand. This conception of the self-reliant individual, able within reasonable limitations to shape his own destiny, with the choice between success and failure mainly in his own hands, has been under heavy attack from many modern theorists.
They would substitute for the self-reliant individual who helps himself the image of a semi-robot who must be helped and guided in every step he takes by the state and its proliferating welfare agencies. Consider, for example, how
From the colonial and frontier days down to the more recent times, when a tide of mostly poor immigrants from Europe swelled the population, America’s national success story has been an amalgam of the individual success stories of boys, born in poor families, who started at an early age to help their parents and themselves by taking any available odd jobs, combining this with school and college study, and later becoming more or less prominent business and professional men. Looking back to their boyhood, these men almost invariably recognize that this early experience in work and self-reliance was immensely beneficial to them in adult life.
But today’s well-meaning lawmakers have added so many minimum wage and other restrictions that it is impossible, in many cases, for an employer to hire young people without paying them more than they are worth. Here is one of the most obvious artificially created causes of youth unemployment and of juvenile delinquency. For it remains just as true now as in the days when the proverb was more frequently quoted that Satan finds plenty of mischief for idle hands.
Marx and Freud
Two European thinkers, Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud, have done much to undermine the ideal of the free responsible individual by representing man as a tool in the hands of blind impersonal forces, incapable of making moral and rational choices and decisions. In Marx’s view of the world, the overshadowing issue is the struggle between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, which is fatalistically predestined to end in the triumph of the latter and the establishment of socialism. Besides being a dogmatic atheist, Marx brushed aside moral ideas as nothing but inventions of the capitalists to justify the continued enslavement of the workers. His whole philosophy is suffused with implacable determinism and with the conviction that human decisions, judgments, and feelings are the mechanical result of class relationships.
Freud’s theory of psychoanalysis leads, although by a different road, to the same conclusion: that man is not responsible for his actions and is incapable of exercising free will. According to Freud, the subconscious, over which the individual can exercise no control, tends to dominate his character. Another article in the Freudian creed is that all experiences in the stage of infancy are of supreme importance to the individual. These experiences, in combination with his inherited sex constitution, are supposed to shape his character.
To be sure, not many Americans have acquired a firm grasp of the ideas of Marx and Freud. Both authors employ a highly technical style and, with few exceptions, their works are not easy reading. But it has often been the case that ideas, even if fully understood only by a small minority, strongly affect the intellectual climate of an age. The theories of state and society put forward by Rousseau, Diderot, Condorcet, and other French thinkers of the eighteenth century were not generally familiar to the
"Society Is To Blame"
In the same way, Marx and Freud have done much to undermine and even destroy the belief that man is a free moral agent, who may properly be held answerable for his crimes and vices. Now, the fashion is to attribute every crime, however violent, revolting, and shocking, to some unspecified fault of "society" or to that tired scapegoat, a bad government.
The theories that man is a robot product of his environment and that social welfare measures are an effective cure for individual criminality deserve closer examination than they usually receive. For both fly squarely in the face of visible experience.
A good case could be made for the proposition that it is not slums that make people, but people who make slums. It is not a bad environment that creates bad individuals, but rather, it is vicious and depraved individuals who create a bad environment.
Never in American history has there been so much subsidization, coddling, and spoon feeding of groups which sociologists and social workers like to refer to as underprivileged. The unemployment figures which are supposed to cause alarm are unconscionably padded; public relief in one form or another is so easy to obtain, and granted with so few restrictions, that few people can be found to perform unskilled and semiskilled jobs. "Collecting security" has become one of the largest and most popular of American unlisted occupations. How else can one explain the discrepancy between official high figures and percentages of unemployment and the near impossibility of getting help in the household or for jobs that pay comparatively little?
There was a time when it would have seemed as absurd for the government to pay a man’s rent as to take over his bills for groceries. Now, big new apartment houses, equipped with all modern conveniences, have been put up in all large cities—for the benefit of the "underprivileged," at the expense of the general taxpayer. But in all too many cases these houses have rapidly deteriorated in cleanliness and general upkeep and have become centers of crime and vice. Could there be a better illustration of the basic importance of individual character and the relative unimportance of the much-emphasized "environment"?
I sensed this point from a different angle when, shortly after the end of World War II, I got acquainted with a group of people of German origin whose homes had been in
Assuming Personal Responsibility: Some Examples
There are many illustrations of the changed attitude toward moral responsibility. Two distinguished figures in the nineteenth century, General Ulysses S. Grant and Sir Walter Scott, through no direct fault of their own, became involved in the heavy losses of unsuccessful business ventures of partners. Both worked unremittingly, to the point of shortening their lives, in an effort to discharge every penny of debt for which they felt a moral liability. The preferred course in modern times would be to apply to the Reconstruction Finance Corporation or some other handy government agency existing for the purpose of bailing out individuals from the consequences of their mistaken judgments.
Herbert Hoover, although he has fortunately lived far into the twentieth century, has always displayed that keen sense of moral responsibility which was more characteristic of the nineteenth; and he communicated this quality to his sons. At the time he was President, his older son was offered a position at a salary far above what his experience at that time would have warranted. The son’s reply was prompt and decisive: "My father’s name is not for sale."
There was a time when the American creed of opportunity for all implied the risk and penalty of failure as well as the chance and reward of success. This was the philosophy behind Grover Cleveland’s declaration, when it was suggested that the government appropriate money to aid farmers of a drought-stricken area, that "though the people support the government, the government should not support the people."
Now, the fashionable theory is that the government possesses some mysterious, magical, inexhaustible source of wealth, out of which it can and should compensate everyone for errors in judgment or bad luck. Of course, this theory is as illusory as the South Sea Bubble. Its fallacy was spotted long ago by the French economist, Frederic Bastiat, who accurately described the state as "the great fiction through which everybody endeavors to live at the expense of everybody."
Another sign of the times is the widespread use, in some academic circles, of the contemptuous expression, "value judgment," in deprecation of any distinction between tyranny and liberty, good and evil, right and wrong, as exemplified in historical figures. Classical histories are full of studies of the characters of prominent rulers and actors on the historical stage, of balanced appraisals of their virtues and faults, of the strong and weak points in their records. Any approach of this kind is now brushed aside with a disparaging reference to "value judgments."
An unfortunate and growing characteristic of life in
Indeed, when campaigns of sympathy are aroused, these are usually in favor of the murderer, the rapist, the criminal, not of his victims. This kind of maudlin sentimentality has not been unknown in the past. Mark Twain, who was anything but lacking in the quality of human compassion, hit it off well in this paragraph about the demise of Injun Joe, the murderous outlaw of Tom Sawyer:
This funeral stopped the further growth of one thing—the petition to the Governor for Injun Joe’s pardon. The petition had been largely signed; many tearful and eloquent meetings had been held and a committee of sappy women been appointed to go in deep mourning and wail around the Governor and implore him to be a merciful ass and trample his duty under foot. Injun Joe was believed to have killed five citizens of the village, but what of that? If he had been Satan himself, there would have been plenty of weaklings ready to scribble their name to a pardon petition and drip a tear on it from their permanently impaired and leaky waterworks.
Government Aid Breeds Crime
Two indisputable facts stand out as impressive refutation of the determinist interpretation of man’s character and destiny. Juvenile and adult delinquents, the so-called underprivileged, are coddled today as never before in
But every year J. Edgar Hoover publishes a new set of figures showing that crime has leaped again. Crime figures and social welfare expenditures have been moving upward in parallel columns, indicating that whatever the answer to crime may be, it cannot be found in ever-expanding social expenditures. A much more logical place in which to look for this answer is in the breakdown of the conception of the morally responsible individual, equally accountable for his good deeds and his misdeeds.
Whether man’s destiny is forced or free; whether he is a robot product of his environment or whether he can shape his environment; whether he is a moral, intelligent being who should be left free to plan his own life or whether he should be considered a pawn, to be planned by the state—these are among the most im_ortent questions of our time. Several years ago, it was the fashion to project for America so-called national goals or purposes; a rather futile undertaking because America, like any free society, is many million purposes—all combining toward end results far richer and finer than any totalitarian state has produced.
But it would be a worth-while national goal to rekindle in American public opinion those attitudes and responses—social, economic, and moral—appropriately based on the assumption that man is internally free and, regardless of environment, able to shape his life, for better or for worse.
¹ Reprints of Bastiat’s "The State" are available at 10 cents each from the Foundation for Economic Education,
Admiral Ben Moreell
It must not be assumed that the profound thinkers who shaped our institutions were advocates of an undisciplined individuality.