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Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Maxwell Anderson and “The Guaranteed Life”: Two Forgotten American Treasures

The forgotten playwright's ideas on limited government and connection to FEE.

Maxwell Anderson is an example of an American who was well-known and highly-regarded in his day but forgotten and unappreciated a couple generations later. He deserves to be dusted off and presented anew, especially by FEE because we had a connection to him, as I’ll explain in a moment.

Born in Atlantic, Pennsylvania, in 1888, Anderson by 1925 was well on his way to becoming a celebrated teacher, journalist, playwright, author, poet, and lyricist. I’m proud to note some things I had in common with him: We are both native Pennsylvanians; indeed, for a brief time he lived in New Brighton, adjacent to my hometown of Beaver Falls. We both are of Scots-Irish extraction, though on both sides of his family in his case and only on my father’s side in mine. He loved to read and write, and so do I.

One of many things we don’t have in common is employment history. Anderson was let go from as many jobs as I’ve ever had. He was fired once for making pacifist statements to his students and another time for supporting conscientious objectors during World War I. A newspaper unemployed him when he editorialized that the Versailles Treaty imposed debts on Germany that the country wouldn’t be able to pay. Another newspaper dismissed him because he came down with the flu and didn’t show up for work.

He hit his stride in the mid-1920s, however, when he wrote several successful Broadway screenplays, including one for Erich Remarque’s famous All Quiet on the Western Front. Anderson won a Pulitzer in 1933. Some of his stage plays, such as Anne of the Thousand Days, found their way onto the silver screen and starred the best-known actors and actresses of the time—including Katharine Hepburn, Rex Harrison, Bette Davis, and Errol Flynn.

Anderson also wrote some history-based plays, two of which were adapted for television. One was about George Washington’s difficult winter with the troops at Valley Forge, and the other was based on the trial of Socrates. He even composed the lyrics for musical adaptations of books and plays he wrote.

The FEE connection is this: He wrote a preface to his 1938 book and later musical, Knickerbocker Holiday (about New York’s Dutch settlers). He revised that preface a dozen years later for publication by FEE under the title, The Guaranteed Life. I don’t know if Anderson ever met our founder Leonard Read, but in a November 1958 entry in his personal journal, Leonard wrote:

Maxwell Anderson, a great playwright, has the fault of trying to advance his libertarianism via the theatre, an entertainment medium. He should use the theatre to establish his contacts and his reputation and other media to take advantage of his wisdom. His splendid “The Golden Six” lasted 15 days on Broadway. I hope to get to him with these ideas [on liberty].

Whether he “got to him” or not, Leonard sure liked The Guaranteed Life because he published it twice—in 1950 and again in 1962 as a five-cent pamphlet.

Anderson died at the age of 70 in 1959, so he never saw FEE’s second edition of his essay. But you, the reader, can read it for yourself right here and tell us what you think of it in the comments section below:

The Guaranteed Life

By Maxwell Anderson

“A government is a group of men organized to sell protection to the inhabitants of a limited area at monopolistic prices.” So said Peter Stuyvesant in Knickerbocker Holi­day, and so I believe now. In other words, there’s no such thing as a “good” government; one and all they partake of the nature of rackets. But government is better than anarchy, and was invented as an insurance against anarchy.

And some kinds of government are far better than others. Spe­cifically, our American experiment has worked so well that we can point to it as one of the most suc­cessful in the history of the world, if not the most successful.

In Knickerbocker Holiday I tried to remind the audience of the attitude toward government which was prevalent in this coun­try at the time of the revolution of 1776 and throughout the early years of the republic. At that time it was generally believed, as I believe now, that the gravest and most constant danger to a man’s life, liberty, and happiness is the government under which he lives.

Balance of Selfish Interests

It was believed then that a civ­ilization is a balance of selfish in­terests, and that a government is necessary as an arbiter among these interests, but that the gov­ernment must never be trusted, must be constantly watched, and must be drastically limited in its scope, because it, too, The Constitution is a monu­ment to our forefathers’ distrust of the a selfish interest and will automatically be­come a monopoly in crime and de­vour the civilization over which it presides unless there are definite and positive checks on its activi­ties.

The Constitution is a monu­ment to our forefathers’ distrust of the state, and the division of powers among the legislative, ju­dicial, and executive branches suc­ceeded so well for more than a century in keeping the sovereign authority in its place that our government has become widely re­garded as a naturally wise and benevolent institution, capable of assuming the whole burden of so­cial and economic justice. But there was nothing natural or acci­dental about it. Our government has done so well because of the wary thinking that went into its making.

The thinking behind our Con­stitution was dominated by such men as Franklin and Jefferson, men with a high regard for the rights of the individual, combined with a cold and realistic attitude toward the blessings of central authority. Knowing that govern­ment is a selfish interest, they treated it as such, and asked of it no more than a selfish interest can give.

But the coddled young re­former of our day, looking out on his world, finding merit often un­rewarded and chicanery trium­phant, throws prudence to the winds and grasps blindly at any weapon which seems to him likely to destroy the purse-proud haves and scatter their belongings among the deserving have-nots.

Now he is right in believing that the accumulation of too much wealth and power in a few hands is a danger to his civilization and his liberty. But when the weapon he finds is economic planning, and when the law he enacts sets up bureaus to run the nation’s busi­ness, he is fighting a lesser evil by accepting a greater and more deadly one, and he should be aware of that fact.

Protection at Monopolistic Prices

A government is always “or­ganized to sell protection to the inhabitants of a limited area at monopolistic prices.” The mem­bers of a government are not only in business, but in a business which is in continual danger of lapsing into pure gangsterism, pure terrorism, and plundering, buttered over at the top by a hypocritical pretense at patriotic unselfishness. The continent of Europe has seen too many such governments lately, and our own government is rapidly assuming economic and social responsibili­ties which take us in the same direction.

Whatever the motives behind a government-dominated economy, it can have but one re­sult—a loss of individual liberty in thought, speech, and action. The greatest enemies of democracy, the most violent reactionaries, are those who have lost faith in the capacity of a free people to manage their own affairs. A guaranteed life is not free. Social Security is a step toward the abro­gation of the individual and his absorption into that robot which he has invented to serve him—the paternal state.

When I have said this to some of the youthful proponents of guaranteed existence, I have been met with the argument that men must live, and that when the eco­nomic machinery breaks down, men must be cared for lest they starve or revolt. This is quite true and nobody is opposed to helping his fellow man. But the greatest enemies of democracy, the most violent reactionaries, are those who have lost faith in the capacity of a free people to manage their own affairs and wish to set up the government as a political and so­cial guardian, running their busi­ness and making their decisions for them. This is statism, or Stalinism, no matter who advo­cates it, and it’s plain treason to freedom.

Wards of the State

And life is infinitely less impor­tant than freedom. A free man has a value to himself and perhaps to his time; a ward of the state is useless to himself—useful only as so many foot-pounds of energy serving those who manage to set themselves above him.

A people which has lost its freedom might better be dead, for it has no importance in the scheme of things except as an evil power behind a dictator. In our hearts we all de­spise the man who wishes the state to take care of him, who would not rather live meagerly as he pleases than suffer a fat and regi­mented existence.

Those who are not willing to sacrifice their lives for their liberty have never been worth saving. Throughout remem­bered time every self-respecting man has been willing to defend his liberty with his life. If our coun­try goes totalitarian out of a soft-headed humanitarian impulse to make life easy for the many, we shall get what we vote for and what we deserve, for the choice is still before us, but we shall have betrayed the race of men, and among them the very have-nots whom we subsidize.

Our Western continent still has the opportun­ity to resist the government-led rush of barbarism which is taking Europe back toward Attila, but we can only do it by running our government, and by refusing to let it run us.

When a gov­ernment takes over a people’s eco­nomic life, it becomes absolute, and when it has become absolute, it destroys the arts, the minds, the liberties, and the meaning of the people it governs.

If the millions of workingmen in this country who are patiently paying their social security dues could glimpse the bureaucratic absolutism which that act pre­sages for themselves and their children, they would repudiate the whole monstrous and dishonest business overnight. When a gov­ernment takes over a people’s eco­nomic life, it becomes absolute, and when it has become absolute, it destroys the arts, the minds, the liberties, and the meaning of the people it governs.

It is not an ac­cident that Germany, the first paternalistic state of modern Eu­rope, was seized by an uncontrol­lable dictator who brought on the second world war; not an accident that Russia, adopting a centrally administered economy for human­itarian reasons, has arrived at a tyranny bloodier and more abso­lute than that of the Czars. And if England does not turn back soon, she will go this same way. Men who are fed by their govern­ment will soon be driven down to the status of slaves or cattle.

Professional Planners

All these dangers were foreseen by the political leaders who put our Constitution together after the revolution against England. The Constitution is so built that while we adhere to it, we cannot be governed by one man or one faction, and when we have made mistakes, we reserve the right to change our minds. The division of powers and the rotation of offices was designed to protect us against dictatorship and arbitrary authority.

The fact that there are three branches of government makes for a salutary delay and a blessed inefficiency, the elective ro­tation makes for a government not by cynical professionals, but by normally honest and fairly incom­petent amateurs. That was exactly what the wary old Founding Fathers wanted, and if we are wise we shall keep it, for no scheme in the history of the world has succeeded so well in maintaining the delicate balance between per­sonal liberty and the minimum of authority which is necessary for the free growth of ideas in a tolerant society.

But we shall not keep our Constitution, our free­dom, nor our free elections, if we let our government slide gradually into the hands of economic plan­ners who bribe one class of men after another with a state-admin­istered dole.

Do we want a gangster govern­ment? That’s what we’re going toward.

Since Knickerbocker Holiday was written, the power of govern­ment in the United States has grown like a fungus in wet weather; price supports and un­employment benefits and farm subsidies are the rule, not the ex­ception, and our government has turned into a giant give-away pro­gram, offering far more for votes than was ever paid by the most dishonest ward-heeler in the days of Mark Hanna. We march stead­ily toward the prefabricated state…The guaranteed life turns out to be not only not free—it’s not safe. Do we want a gangster govern­ment? That’s what we’re going toward.

  • Lawrence W. Reed is FEE's President Emeritus, having previously served for nearly 11 years as FEE’s president (2008-2019). He is also FEE's Humphreys Family Senior Fellow and Ron Manners Global Ambassador for Liberty. His Facebook page is here and his personal website is