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 state.is 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.
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.