All Commentary
Sunday, September 1, 1974

Political Freedom Is Not Enough

Dr. Upton is president of Beloit College in Wisconsin. This article is from an address of May 7, 1974, delivered in the C. A. Moorman Memorial Lectures at Culver-Stockton College, Canton, Missouri.

Freedom seems to be one of those words, along with love and democracy, which everyone makes use of to his own convenience. Its very sight and sound stimulate an immediate emotional response with substantial positive overtones. It is therefore a favorite part of the vocabulary of every inspired leader and demagogue alike, be he a Lincoln or a Stalin, a Gandhi or a Hitler.

We in our country make special use of the concept when we speak proudly of being part of the “free world.” We obviously feel good when we do so, but I wonder if we are being fully objective and honest with ourselves when we continue to caress our egos this way. If we don’t start to challenge the assertion, to reflect exactly upon what the term “free world” encompasses and what it is we’re free from, we may very well end up living a lie.

Certainly the term cannot stand for national freedom in the sense of national independence — that is freedom from domination by another sovereign power. All sovereign states— Russia, China, England, France, Cuba, Portugal, and so on—are “free” in this sense. So we must have in mind something else.

If I were to pose the question to this audience as to what is meant when we use the term “free world,” I am confident I would get two dominant responses. One group would assert that it has reference to those countries which believe in individual freedom; the other group would offer the response that the term applies to those countries which are governed under some form of democracy. Both responses have a common psychological effect, a favorable emotional reaction grounded on implied protection of the individual against exploitation. But I must submit that both answers are subject to serious challenge at the present time on the basis of objective reality.

All-Powerful Governments

It is manifestly clear that all countries in the world, including the so-called Western democracies, are trending towards a form of social organization in which the agency of government dominates individual behavior and action –where private property and private choice are less and less tenable; where the only difference between the world’s societies is not in the amount of individual freedom allowed but only in the manner in which the all-powerful government is chosen. Individual initiative and decentralized authority in all cultures has become suspect; collective action through the agency of government has become trusted. And as a consequence it is increasingly difficult to establish clear lines of demarcation between the “free world” and the rest of the world so far as government domination of the individual is concerned. Specific differences can be cited at this instant of time, but the statement seems impossible to challenge if historical trends are taken into account.

We therefore seem to be dependent entirely upon the proposition that the “free world” countries are those which rely upon some form of democracy to determine who shall be entrusted with the all-powerful authority of government. There is the suggestion implicit in this notion that “freedom” and “democracy” are somehow synonymous, that political freedom is all we need to enjoy the benefits of a free society. I submit that this is the unchallenged assumption that is leading our country Pied Piper fashion into the morass of collectivism and its concomitant of centralized authoritarianism.

We should have been alerted to this booby-trap type of thinking by Lenin’s assertion that Capitalism represents democracy of the exploiting minority whereas Socialism represents democracy of the exploited majority. Individual creativity and initiative, decentralization of authority and private property need to be sacrificed for what is presumed to be the common good. But that we have not learned from experience is evidenced by the fact that Lenin’s philosophical descendants now speak in terms of developing democratic socialism, hoping to suggest thereby that individual freedom can be preserved in a collectivized state.

No One Ought to Rule

The notion is implicit: if we have the freedom to vote for those who will govern us then our freedom is preserved. But such a notion is completely at variance with the concept of liberty. As Professor Douglas says in his recent article in The Freeman magazine, “Democracy is a theory about sovereignty, that is a theory about who ought to rule… The first principle of liberty, on the other hand, is that there is no one who, of right, ought to rule. The theory of liberty is not a theory of sovereignty at all.”1 Rather, I would add, it is a theory of social vitality and health. A theory which maintains that the whole of society is equal to the sum of its parts, that society prospers in all regards when individual freedom with its corollaries of individual creativity and initiative reign, that that government is best which governs least.

We have tended to lose sight of the compelling truth of this theory because we tend to confuse government with society. We operate under the false assumption that if it’s good for the government it’s good for society. We fail to deal consistently with the fact that government is a special creature of man and as such is only one agency of society established to deal with only some needs of society. The agency of government can become too dominant for the social good just as any other agency can become too dominant. The health of human society is directly dependent upon the health and vitality of its individual members. It is like any organism of the human body which is dependent for its welfare upon the health and vitality of its individual cells. If governmental authority grows malignantly, then individual freedom and social vitality are doomed.

Another reason we have lost sight of the truth of liberty is because we have too often confused freedom with security. President Roosevelt contributed to this confusion when he promulgated his four freedoms — freedom from want, freedom from fear, etc. —in defense of his policy to centralize more authority in the federal government. This has become the same defense for all others who would substitute some brand of socialism for individualism, arguing that one cannot be free if he is wracked by poverty or uncertainty as to the future. We therefore subordinate the liberty of all in the hope of improving the security of some.

Liberty or Collective Security?

But since liberty is defined as “freedom from arbitrary and despotic governmental authority” and security is defined as “freedom from danger, risk, etc.”2 it is clear that we are faced with a choice: liberty or collective security, one simply cannot have both. The true joy of liberty is the challenge to provide one’s own security. If one gets no joy in this challenge, then of course he’s perfectly willing to sacrifice his freedom and that of his neighbor for a promise of security. And if a society puts more importance on collective security than individual freedom, then that is its choice to make. But in doing so it must cease any pretensions to being part of the “free world” even though other countries may be no more free than it.

The fact of the matter is that there is no longer a “free world” in the Patrick Henry or Thomas Jefferson sense. And this is regrettable, not in any sentimental sense of clinging to the past but in the rigorous philosophical sense of doing what is best for human society.

This capacity for people to lose sight of their philosophical foundation brings to mind a true experience I had last year. I checked into a hotel in Cleveland for a one-night stay, having made a reservation in advance. I filled out the registration card, and as the young lady behind the counter was transcribing the information onto the room slip, she asked, “How do you plan to pay this?”

I immediately responded, “With cash.”

“Oh,” she said, and then after a short pause of apparent embarrassment she responded, “Then do you have some form of credit card for personal identification?”

After I got myself under control from laughing I said to her: “I was aware that the U.S. dollar had declined in value but I didn’t realize it was that bad.”

“Oh,” she said, still not cracking a smile, “I hadn’t thought of it that way.”

“I hadn’t thought of it that way.” There is the rub! While man is a unique creative being, he is also a creature of habit. And most of our behavior is controlled by conditioned reflex rather than reasoned judgment. Accordingly, our country is currently drifting as a society in a direction that is contrary to its creation and its basic mission.

Rigidities Develop as Government Grows Over-Extended

The genius of the United States that brought it so far in so short a period of time is its having broken with the established reliance on centralized government authority in favor of the principle of decentralized authority, thereby releasing the creativity and initiative of the ordinary individual citizen. This fact has been demonstrated in so many areas of social life—economic, educational and artistic—that even the opponents of liberty do not dispute it.

Now, however, we see this genius being threatened by the gradual erosion of the basic principle. To date, a major segment of the populace seems unconcerned either because “they haven’t thought of it that way,” they don’t want to bear the burdens of liberty, or they are content with their political freedom and blithely go on in the same blind fashion, apparently assuming that civil liberty is synonymous with political freedom. Our institutions of government, justice, taxation, business and education are all beginning to suffer from a form of institutional hardening of the arteries born of excessive centralization of authority. Although our political freedom has provided us with a degree of governmental resiliency that has been able to avoid violent eruption and revolution to date, it has become increasingly evident that political freedom, while central to all other social freedoms, is still not enough in itself. To provide the continuous opportunity for social self renewal so desperately needed, individual freedom must be respected and practiced more fully in all walks of life. When we speak of a free society we must encompass much more than political democracy if we are to preserve the genius of the United States.

The accelerated shift in attitude that took place in the 1930s toward using government in an intervening way rather than a facilitating way has brought us over the last 40 years to the point where we now seem to believe that the only way to solve any social problem is to pass a law. We experience daily the ridiculous spectre of our legislators competing with one another in trying to get legislative credits by having their names associated with bills. As a consequence, we are building a gargantuan government bureaucracy, with a morass of law unfathomable in many cases by the legislators themselves. Forty per cent of our gross national income is now attributable to government of one sort or another.

A False Hope

We continue blithely along this course, confident in our political freedom. But we fail to recognize that political freedom is not enough. A monolithic government produced over time by democratic process can become just as overbearing, cumbersome, repressive, and inefficient as such a government imposed by any other means. After all, a democracy at best can only determine who shall govern and not how to govern, and it provides little solace to know that one has the chance to vote for the people who are going to be in control of the government juggernaut that controls every facet of one’s life.

Government action can never effectively take the place of individual initiative and individual action for the solution of social problems. To propose such is tantamount to arguing that the vehicle should propel the motor. Therefore, laws in a free, self-renewing society must be proscriptive, not prescriptive. They must simply provide the broad limits within which the fullest amount of individual creativity and action is encouraged. The challenge to any society that is to remain resilient and vibrant and therefore continually self renewing is to achieve freedom within order, individuality within community, and equality within diversity. Centralized governmental authority can never achieve this kind of blending, for by definition there is no freedom. All is sacrificed for order; the individual citizen as a whole is not trusted. In a society based on decentralized authority and freedom there is a constant threat of anarchy and the absence of desirable order, but it is not absolutely denied. That is to say, order is possible under decentralized authority, but freedom is not possible under centralized authority.

Abuse of Power

It is ironic that the political party that has been proclaiming over the last 40 years the grave threat to the United States of excessive centralization of authority is now the party that is being embarrassed through the overzealous use of that power by some of its leaders. It may just be this irony, however, that saves us, for the people at large are being forced to see the ultimate danger to our way of life of such concentration of power in a way that would never been seen if the irony were not there. They are at long last being forced to stop and admit: “I never thought of it that way!”

The press and the Congress are relentlessly belaboring the President in this regard, but in the final analysis it is the Congress that has been at fault and not the President. Even more accurately, it is we the people who have tolerated and even encouraged the actions of Congress over the years who are ultimately at fault. In our weakness we have willingly sacrificed our individual liberty for a fleeting promise of security. Patrick Henry would have to be aghast!

Congress is being criticized for its apparent impotence in the face of a strong President. But the fault lies not in its current impotence but in its previous irresponsibility in breaking with the genius of the United States by having opted for a highly centralized government structure instead of being faithful to a decentralized social structure. It has passed law after law after law for the Executive branch to administer, laws that are aimed at controlling every facet of our lives, laws that are paternalistic in nature, laws that circumscribe individual initiative and individual creativity rather than assure equal justice and equal opportunity, laws that prescribe individual action, laws that nullify private property.

After all, our constitution provided for a strong executive office in the presidency. The greater the federal bureaucracy and the greater the centralization of authority in Washington, the greater will be the power of the individual President. The way to avoid a Frankenstein calamity is to avoid creating the monster to begin with.

Security Is a Mirage

The sad reality of it all is that the glittering promise of security through central governmental authority turns out to be a mirage. We experience full employment only when we wage war. And aside from dislocating and brutalizing our individual lives, the wars maim our economy by stimulating inflation and disrupting our monetary system. Our productivity declines in relation to other nations. Poverty perseveres; but now it’s looked upon as a political issue, which it isn’t, rather than an economic issue, which it is. Its prospect for solution therefore declines. In fact, all economic issues become politicized and therefore not dealt with properly. An intense adversary relationship develops between owner, employee and consumer, which is just contrary to what should exist.

The fact of the matter is that what is good for an individual business is good for owner, employee and consumer alike and therefore society at large. We see this truism violated in legislative action regularly, currently by the absurd determination of some legislators to penalize the oil companies for presumably profiting unduly during the recent oil crisis. Who do they figure own the companies, work for the companies and buy from the companies if not citizens whom they supposedly represent? Who else but the citizens of the United States will be forced to suffer if Congress penalizes the operating efficiency of these companies? Is not such legislative action, such arbitrary use of governmental authority, a case of our collectively cutting off our nose to spite our face?

A Miracle of Progress

When one considers the miracle that has been wrought in this country over the last 200 years —the conversion of a wilderness into what is generally recognized, for the time being at any rate, as the wealthiest and most powerful nation in the world — one wonders how anyone can be critical of the economic system which brought it about. The land is no wealthier than many other lands in the world; the people are no different from those in other sections of the world; the climate is not superior to many other sections of the world — the only distinguishing characteristic is the extent to which we have relied upon decentralized authority in the making of economic decisions and thereby capitalized more fully on the initiative and creativity of the individual person.

There is no question that there have been instances of specific suffering from excesses. Individual freedom in all areas — political, press, academic and economic —will always be abused by some. But it simply cannot be denied that this economic system eliminated more poverty, created more leisure time, offered more cultural enjoyments and created more educational opportunity in a shorter period of time than any other economic system or government program any place and at any time in the history of the world. So why now ridicule it, shackle it and substitute bureaucratic governmental programs for it? If we want to work on problems of the environment, world-wide poverty, cultural and educational deprivation, etc., we had best leave our economy free.

Of course a free economy produces its own elite just as any and every social system, but it is far safer to have these elite determined through the anonymous polls of the market place in serving the wants of the public than by political appeal or demagoguery. We should penalize severely those who abuse the system and thereby violate the trust implicit in any decentralization of authority. But we should not throw out the baby with the bath. It is well worth reflecting upon how much more advanced our economy and society would have been had there not been the heavy intrusion of the federal government into the operations of our individual businesses over the last 40 years.

There simply can be no doubt that the more individual initiative and creativity is circumscribed by governmental restraints and usurpation, the less productive the society becomes. A paternalistic government inevitably becomes an oppressive and suffocating government. While I readily use the seat belts in my automobile for my own protection, I don’t want the government telling me I have to. It’s a very short step from Washington telling me what I have to do in order to protect my own body to telling me what I can or cannot do in order to protect my mind.

For some inexplicable reason we have come to distrust individual initiative and freedom of action and assume that by substituting governmental action for individual action we will have greater wisdom and greater integrity, forgetting somehow that it’s the same fallible individuals who exercise power in the government halls as in the market place. If individuals can’t be trusted as servants, how can they be trusted as masters? If evil is to prevail it is far better to have it decentralized. Is not this the prime lesson of Watergate?

Centralized Societies Fall

History readily records that all societies founded on a highly centralized authority structure ultimately die from a hardening of their societal arteries — a loss of resiliency, an inability to renew themselves. Our country was to be the great global experiment to prove that a society based upon trust in the individual and decentralization of authority would develop best and last longer. If we can’t be faithful to the principle in our own country, it is not likely to be respected elsewhere. And if it does not prevail ultimately, human society at large will most certainly be doomed for want of a creative, self-renewing character. As Jean Ravel so well develops in his book, Without Marx or Jesus, the United States is the only country remaining that still has the requisite freedom in its social functioning to offer the prospect for liberating change. If this quality be lost by our going the way of all other countries, then what profits us, and what profits man?

Shortly we shall celebrate the Bicentennial of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. This was a notable event in itself, but we have more to celebrate and venerate than this. Subsequent to it there was a war to be fought and won; true independence as a sovereign state to be achieved; political compromise and agreement to be worked out; a constitution to be written and agreed to; a government to be formed; President to be elected and installed; and the whole governmental structure to be put into successful operation. It was not until 1787 that the Constitution was signed, and 1789 that the government of the United States was launched under that Constitution with the great promise of the Declaration of Independence hopefully realized.

Relive the Earlier Concepts

Let us not, therefore, content ourselves with a crash celebration of the Bicentennial of the beginning — July 4, 1976. Such a celebration we should have, but we have more to think about than that. We have the opportunity during the 13-year period 19761989 to reawaken the nation to the nature of its origin and the genius of its concept. All segments of our contemporary society should be involved in recovering the mission and pride of our existence — not for the sake of pride alone but to reassure our contribution to the social evolution of man by fidelity to the principle of decentralization of authority.

This is not something the government whose birthday we will be recognizing can do or should do. Remember that government is only one agency of society! It was the creativity and initiative of private individuals that inspired and wrote the Declaration of Independence. It was the creativity and initiative of private individuals that hammered out the Constitution of the United States. It was the creativity and initiative of private individuals that fashioned this governmental structure that has become the prototype for so many revolutionary governments throughout the world in the evolutionary process toward individual freedom and decentralized authority. It was the creativity and initiative of private individuals that converted a wilderness into a modern state almost overnight. It was the creativity and initiative of private individuals that in no more than an instant of history created the wealthiest arid most powerful nation the world has ever known. And it is the creativity and initiative of private individuals which alone will solve the immense problems of the future and enable man to proceed apace in keeping with his social evolutionary design.

A Non-Governmental Celebration

Let us, therefore, pay our respects to the Bicentennial of the founding of our government in the only way consistent with its origin and its essence. Let us take the initiative as private individuals and institutions in diverse ways to recall our heritage, honor our uniqueness, and plan for our future. In doing so, let us not be satisfied with a crash celebration as of a single date. Let us make use of the full bicentennial era of 1976 to 1989.

Let us grasp this unique opportunity to reawaken the citizens of this nation to its special genius and destiny in serving the evolutionary destiny of man. Not in any narrow, nationalistic, flag-waving sense which at times is willing to destroy the true genius of America in a misguided effort to promote its physical embodiment. Rather, let us strive to sensitize everyone to be aware of the fact that our forefathers attempted to create a society in which freedom could exist within order, individuality could exist within community, and equality could exist within diversity — that is, in which individual liberty is prized over collective security.

This is the great challenge to us; this is the well-known American dream. To achieve it we must have faith in the individual citizen while fostering a thorough going judicial process to penalize those who violate the trust. To achieve it we must assure equal justice under the law and equal opportunity for self-development. To achieve it we must renounce governmental bureaucratic authoritarianism of any and every sort. To achieve it we must respect private property and rely upon the creativity and initiative of the free individual. And most of all, to achieve it we must give up the naive notion that adherence to a democratic form of government is the sole requisite to realization of these other freedoms. Individual liberty can be violated by a government democratically chosen just as readily as one autocratically imposed. A tyranny of the masses is no less tyrannical because it represents majority will. The record of the past and the conditions of the present demonstrate conclusively that political freedom alone is not enough. We need liberty as well as democracy!

1 George H. Douglas, “Mr. Mencken on Liberty,” in The Freeman, December, 1973.

2 The Random House Dictionary of the English Language, unabridged edition.