All Commentary
Sunday, May 1, 1960

On Talking to Ourselves

The Reverend Mr. Opitz of the Foundation staff replies to a FREEMAN reader’s observation that “we are talking to ourselves when we ought to be addressing the world.”

Dear Mr. ……….

Perhaps you have had the experi­ence of expressing your concern over the mounting national debt and being reassured, “There’s nothing to worry about; we owe it to ourselves.”

Most people now see through this bit of semantic sleight of hand. “We” who owe the debt are one set of people. The “ourselves” to whom the debt is owed are—with possibly some overlapping—a different set of people.

Similarly, welfare staters try to brush off objections to collectivist political interventions by telling the critics, “This is majority rule at work; we are doing it to our­selves.” But, obviously, the “we” who are doing it are not the “our­selves” to whom it is being done! Some Americans are doing certain things to other Americans, and our question concerns the rightness of those “certain things.”, When one of our citizens assaults another citizen, people don’t dismiss the in­cident by saying, “We are doing it to ourselves”; they pass judgment on the act. When our group does something to another group, all of us know that “we” are the first set of people and we never think of the second set as “ourselves,” but as the others.

Such distinctions as these are clear to many people, but move the discussion over into the area of libertarian concern—the collectiv­ist trend and how to roll it back—and the distinctions begin to blur. Libertarians rely on the written and the spoken word as their main tools. The high quality of some of this work is widely acknowledged, but collectivists, nevertheless, con­tinue on their way unheeding. Why? Because, it is alleged, we libertarians are talking to our­selves when we ought to be ad­dressing the world, no less! This seems to be your feeling.

You “heartily applaud” our pro­gram, you write, and are interested in what our “capable writers have to say.” This encourages me to deal with the one critical matter you raise, the point about “talking to ourselves.” “I am afraid,” you write, “that there is a good bit of talking to ourselves going on in this field. . . .”

The Listener’s Choice

Let’s face it: we are, in a sense, “talking to ourselves”! But is this fact surprising or in any way de­plorable? No! Not if it be under­stood that “ourselves,” in this con­text, refers to all the persons suf­ficiently interested in liberty to concern themselves with its future. Obviously, we cannot force people to read THE FREEMAN or any other libertarian literature, nor would we do so even if we had the power. Nor can we force anyone to par­ticipate in one of our seminars or be part of the various audiences we address. Such people as do open their pores to the several ef­forts of this Foundation are self-selected; they come within our orbit because they feel that we have something to contribute to their determination to understand liberty better—its economic and political implications as well as its spiritual and moral postulates.

Our material goes out each month to a mailing list numbering upwards of forty thousand. True, we have a number of readers who are hostile to our point of view but who read us just to see “how the other half lives.” This is all right; we read Marxian and col­lectivist literature for the same reason. And every so often one of these persons gets a better focus on our philosophy and moves in our direction. I don’t know how many readers we can claim for each copy of THE FREEMAN, prob­ably several; but let’s keep the figure at a minimum. Let’s say that “ourselves” in this context refers to only forty thousand per­sons; forty thousand persons try­ing to better their own grasp of the philosophy of liberty. I am far from asserting that we are doing a good job at this thing; our in­adequacy in the face of what needs doing is obvious. But the better job, if and when it is done, will be done in the same way, by “talking to ourselves.” “We” have to talk to “ourselves” for a simple reason: the “not-ourselves” are not listening!

Consider this problem as it is exhibited on the church scene. Church people, by and large, ex­hibit standards of probity some­what higher than the standards which obtain in the society at large. One might say, therefore, that churchmen do not need the ministrations of the pulpit as badly as do those who never be­come part of a Sunday morning congregation. But in the nature of things a sermon can be de­livered only to those who come to hear it; it is the already converted who continue to draw upon the in­spiration and wisdom each person needs for further growth. Simi­larly, the people who are already within FEE’s orbit are, by and large, the very persons who are already the ablest expositors and practitioners of liberty. It has to be this way.

At the same time, we’d be happy to be reaching forty million a month. We’ll approach this figure only as those now in the “not- our­selves” category are attracted into the circle of the “ourselves.” But our work, by its very nature, im­poses a demand on the people ex­posed to it. We don’t peddle attrac­tive labels which people can simply pin on themselves; we offer facts, ideas, and arguments which are merely the raw materials out of which each person must fashion the philosophy and convictions which become peculiarly his own. This requires time and personal effort, and all we of the Founda­tion claim is that we can initiate a person into this field. Perhaps we can counsel his first few steps and offer suggestions for further read­ing and study; beyond this he must find his own sources of in­struction. We know from our own experience, reinforced by the testi­mony of countless others, that while this effort may be painful at times, it is genuinely re­warding.

What Are the Questions?

To your observation that we are “talking to ourselves” you add that “not enough of us are listen­ing.” There you have a point! Liberty in this country has lost ground, in large measure, because so many people think they already understand all that needs to be known about it! “We sound thinkers,” they say in effect, “know all the answers; all we have to do is wrap them up in a pleasing bundle and sell this package to the masses.” Well, the person who thinks he has all the answers is really one who has never asked all the questions! Every one of us is, to some degree and in most subjects, part of “the ignorant masses”! This means that ours is really an educational task, not a selling job; and the education should begin with the only person over whom we have control—one’s self. Thus, the improvement of self has been one of FEE’s major emphases.

If a person has properly tended to this first order of business, he will stimulate questions in others and become a source of learning upon which others will draw. And as he formulates and candidly gives off his best insights, his own understanding grows. But, if he thinks he has all the answers and tries to peddle them to people who are not asking the questions, he makes a nuisance of himself, does little for the cause of liberty, and may eventually quit the cause in utter discouragement.

There is a handful of us here at FEE working full time, according to our lights, on behalf of liberty. There are several other organiza­tions motivated by a similar phi­losophy. We are joined by a num­ber of clergymen and teachers and writers who understand liberty and work for it in their own bailiwicks. But add us all together and our numbers are insignificant com­pared to the team the other side can put into the field. Start with the Communist and Socialist par­ties, add the theorists of the monopoly unions, the lobbyists of private organizations pressing for this or that bit of collectivization, the left-wing professors and preachers, segments of the Repub­lican and Democratic parties, the numerous pressure groups who want government intervention in order to help their particular en­terprises, and it must be admitted that we face a formidable array. The odds would be much too great, except for the fact that we can count on having our team filled out by volunteers.

The Individuality of Growth

The philosophy of freedom aims at personal growth by removing the obstructions which stand in the way of creative release and direction of individual human en­ergy. This means that the persons most accomplished in the actual daily practice of freedom are largely the busy and successful persons on whom all of us depend to get the work of the world done, in business and in the professions. These people are practitioners of liberty. I have reference to the creative efforts of the free mind as it produces a better medicine, a more efficient tool, a safer tire, a sounder philosophy, a lovelier poem or song, a more useful gadget, a more apt technique of management. These are the benefi­cial fruits of free men at work, available to each one of us.

But in the same sense in which today’s technologist or merchan­diser is a projection of yesterday’s researcher in pure science, we must acknowledge that every one of us who today reaps the many fruits of a free society is in debt to those who have worked and con­tinue to work at the philosophy of liberty. Each one of us, of course, has priorities on his time, and it is up to each person to allocate his own time according to his convic­tions. But unless the practitioners of liberty at the level of goods and services become students of the subject as well, the freedom team is in a bad way. Unless a signifi­cant number of people can become as skilled in the exposition of libertarian concepts as they are in the practice of freedom principles, the free society will go on steadily contracting. The only way to push back these boundaries is to con­tinue “talking to ourselves”—but not necessarily in the same old way. Liberty, it has been said, de­pends on eloquence, and eloquence is effective communication. Men want freedom as much as they ever did, but not many have learned to voice their aspirations effectively in a modern idiom. The literature of liberty is mostly “past tense”; our job is to make it contemporary so that it meets the modern mind at its growing edge. When that is accomplished, we’ll still be “talking to ourselves”—but the world may pause to listen in.


Edmund A. Opitz




Ideas on Liberty

Education and the Individual

If man were merely an animal, his “education” would con­sist only of scientific feeding and proper exercise. If he were merely a tool or an instrument, it would consist of training him in certain response and behavior patterns. If he were a mere pawn of the political state, it would con­sist of indoctrinating him so completely that he could not see beyond what his masters wanted him to believe. Strange as it may seem, adherents to each of these views can be found in the modern world. But our great tradition of liberal education supported by our intuitive feeling about the nature of man, rejects them all as partial descriptions.

From the pamphlet published by
The Intercollegiate Society of Individualists

  • The Rev. Edmund A. Opitz (1914-2006) was a Congregationalist minister, a FEE staff member, who for decades championed the cause of a free society and the need to anchor that society in a transcendent morality. A man of wide reading and high culture, Opitz was for many years on the staff of the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington-on-Hudson, New York. He was one of the few voices in the 1950s through the 1990s calling for an integrated understanding between economic liberty and religious sensibility. He was the founder and coordinator of the Remnant, a fellowship of conservative and libertarian ministers.