Mr. Barger, a public relations representative in Jackson, Michigan, is a frequent contributor to THE FREEMAN and other journals.
In my first freeman article, "The Lessons of Lost Weekends" (March, 1961), I related my experiences as a recovered alcoholic to many of the social and economic conditions of the world. For example, 1 noted that the tippler’s mistake is not unlike the error of those who see no harm in gradual doses of monetary inflation. The alcoholic’s drinking starts with "taking only a few." He has no intention of letting it get out of hand, and he is more surprised than anybody when it does. In somewhat the same way, inflation begins rather innocently, but soon "hooks" its victims before they’re aware of their danger. The same analogy was extended to other practices, such as deficit spending, foreign aid, and monetary controls.
As I review my article, four years later, I see no great weaknesses in the arguments made then. My modest conviction that the world is on a continuous bender of staggering proportions has, if anything, increased with the passing years. I am certain that a colossal "hangover" is waiting somewhere down the road. This causes me no joy, no hangover ever did. I hope I am wrong and that a miracle or some unexpected turn of events softens the blow or deflects it completely. But I suspect that in social affairs, as in alcoholism, the hangover is still a great unsolved problem.
In some ways, this concern over the drift of society became my own undoing, causing me to forget my own "lessons of lost weekends." 1 remain a grateful fugitive from John Barleycorn’s house of bondage. But this is not to say that I have always behaved wisely or have avoided emotional benders. Some of these "benders" followed the publication of "Lost Weekends."
A listing of some of these traps might be helpful to others. They may benefit the person who wishes to think clearly about the free market philosophy, and to champion it effectively, without being led down dead-end byways. At the same time, it’s good to remember that alcohol is not equally pernicious to all men, and the same ideas that "hooked" me will not be equally dangerous to all. In any case, here they are:
Treating Symptoms as Causes.
One difficulty that attends the prevention or treatment of alcoholism is that many people try to stamp out the drinking custom itself rather than the underlying problems. National prohibition was an attempt of this sort, as is the practice of imposing harsh punishments on alcoholics. In the same vein, many well-intentioned people try to rehabilitate alcoholics by yanking them away from their drinking cronies. Such solutions usually fail because they focus on "effect" rather than "cause."
In the past few years, I may have made a similar error in fretting over means of changing disturbing social trends. My own knowledge of the nature of things tells me that the drift into increasing statism goes on because people think in certain ways and entertain certain ideas very deeply. Until this thinking changes, in an entirely voluntary manner, it is all but impossible to stop the spread of statism. It is like trying to stop an out-of-control fire single-handedly or trying to gather up the waters of a dam that is already breaking up. This can be justified on the grounds that "we have an obligation to do something, to take action, not just to sit and let disaster happen!" The result can be an emotional bender of considerable dimensions, in which we fight a savage battle against effects long after the cause is lost for the time being.
Personalities be fore Principles.
Another characteristic of the alcoholic’s life in the shadowy barroom circuit is that he tends to think in terms of "personalities" rather than "principles." He forgives all things in those he likes (his drinking buddies, for example) and condemns all things in those he hates. Who is right is always more important, to this person, than what is right. It is said that alcoholics, as a group, are more or less emotionally immature, and nothing proves it more than this tendency to think largely in terms of personalities.
In the arena of social controversy and strife, this matter of putting "personalities before principles" is becoming a disconcerting and ugly thing. No political faction seems to be immune from it. And 1 found myself drinking the same heady juices as I read the literature on "both sides" and came to identify certain positions with specific individuals. Before long, I had formed lists of "good guys" and "bad guys" in my own mind. This did not help make me an effective advocate of free market ideas; if anything, it inhibited good thinking.
It’s quite true that I still share most of the views of those whom 1 identified as "good guys" and oppose the views of those 1 saw as "bad guys." But I owe it to the goddess of Truth to sympathize with the "good guys" only when I perceive that a worth-while principle is involved. There are times when the "bad guys" may be right on certain issues, and if one’s thinking is based on principles which be believes to be sound, he’ll know when these times are. He’ll be standing on the rock of principle rather than on that shaky platform which, for want of a better term, we could easily label "personalities on the rocks."
The dismal world of alcoholism is often a violent one, and one of the hazards of being a bartender or simply an innocent patron is the likelihood of getting caught up in a sudden fight or brawl. Even the most respectable saloons sometimes become the scenes of knockdown, drag-out matches. This is because people in their cups are prey to anger and frustration, and when other measures fail to solve a conflict or forestall a threat, they seize upon violent action as a last resort.
Today I see growing violence in the social order around me, and I can well understand how such things happen. Caught up in the vortex of concern over the drift of things, and being unable to take effective action against it, it was amazing how often I was tempted to think dark, even violent, thoughts about those whose policies I opposed. I joined no mobs, 1 wrote no hate letters, I mounted no soapboxes to denounce my opponents. But at the same time 1 found myself feeling occasional resentment or contempt toward those with whom I disagreed. Such malicious thinking is, of course, the source of violence. This is dangerous wine, indeed, and even a little of it produces an awful hangover. And like the wine of the drinking world, it never solves the problem.
Fear. One final malady that often caught me up was a growing sense of fear concerning the future of our society, of life itself. On every hand, I saw institutions and ideas that seemed to threaten all that I cherished. On the world scene, for example, I saw militant communism making its way steadily and with the apparent cooperation of many men who professed good will. On the domestic scene, 1 sensed that there was apathy toward this menace as well as indifference to the essential injustice implicit in communism. At the same time, there was a growing materialism and cynicism that had weakened the moral fiber of many, and had left countless others with no real principles to live by.
Peering down the tunnel of time, I could see only eventual disaster. There were times when I felt real despair. Sometimes, for example, a magazine article would paint such a hopeless picture that it would leave me reeling with worry. At other times, a particularly arrogant and fatuous utterance by a high-placed government official would destroy what fragile confidence I had in our own leaders. 1 was, in a very real sense, terribly afraid.
Yet fear is no friend of freedom, and it has its role in "lost weekends." When the malady of alcoholism is thoroughly examined, fear is found to be the root illness. Fear drives men to the slavery of the bottle, and it is also fear that keeps them in political bondage. In dangerous times, fearful men do not protect freedom, they throw it away. Fear put Hitler at the head of the German nation, and it’s fear that keeps most of the world in servitude today. Any student of freedom has, as his first duty, the job of banishing fear from his own mind, heart, and soul.
I’ve released much of my fear today, though it’s clear that the world conditions which caused me so much concern are getting worse, not better. Beyond the shadow of a doubt, mankind is in real trouble in a number of ways. Growing forms of strife seem to be the rule rather than the exception, the economic structure is shaky at its foundations and the world itself lives on the edge of instant holocaust.
But why should I fear these things, when 1 have lived through personal defeat and disaster that, in a small way, is certainly no less severe than the evils that might descend upon the earth on a grand scale? 1 survived the inferno of alcoholism, lived for years in the purgatorio of occasional loneliness and self-doubt, and finally moved into the paradiso of some self-knowledge and self-assurance. If the world passes through an inferno, I am convinced that there is a purgatorio and a paradiso on the other side of the flames. I am also convinced, as I wasn’t fully convinced in my hour of fear and alcoholism, that we are guarded by a Love, a Power, and an Intelligence able to see solutions that have not yet passed into our own field of vision. In short, 1 believe that the world and freedom and justice will be saved in God’s own good time.
So I would urge my friends to share these additional "lessons of lost weekends." 1 would urge them to focus more on causes and less on effects, to think in terms of principles rather than personalities, to think understandingly and tolerantly of all men, and to believe, above all, in a Supreme Justice and Love that knows no fear. They may be surrounded by people who think otherwise. But like the recovered alcoholic who must maintain his own equilibrium even when immersed in cocktail parties and liquor advertisements, they must know that they are on the right path and that someday they will shine as the sun in its strength. Sometimes they may be outvoted, and they may be temporarily in eclipse. But Truth was never established by a show of hands.
Inflation During the French Revolution
The jacobins’ financial policies were guided exclusively by one principle: to employ everything for present satisfaction and not to worry at all about the future. The tomorrow did not count for them. Every day the public administration was conducted as if it were the last day. This was the characteristic feature of all the acts of the Revolution. This was also the secret of its astonishing duration. In a rich and powerful nation the daily squandering of the accumulated reserves of wealth provided an unexpected amount of resources.
The assignats—as long as they still retained a minimum of purchasing power—inundated the country in continually increasing quantities.
The prospect of bankruptcy did not even for a moment slow down the flood of new emissions. Their emission stopped only when the public absolutely refused to accept any sort of paper money.
Rene Stourm, Les Finances de l’Ancien Régime et de la Revolution, Paris ¹885, II Vol., p. 388.