All Commentary
Thursday, September 1, 1955

Talking To Ourselves

Mr. Weaver (1889-1949) is the author of The Mainspring of Human Progress.

Between the great things we cannot do and the small things we will not do, the danger is that we shall do nothing

“But what’s the use of talking to ourselves? What’s the point of sending literature on free enterprise to people who are already sold on free enterprise? Is it not true that the real problem is one of reaching the masses—those who really need some sound ideas?”

So runs the argument whenever some useful enlightened statement is distributed among persons who favor individual freedom within a voluntary society and a free market economy. But when you stop and think about it, isn’t the idea of educating the so-called masses a case of putting the cart before the horse?

We are too much inclined to attempt the impossible. Little if any thought is given to the one thing that we can effectively accomplish, namely, how to improve ourselves and our own thinking as individuals. The idea that we are not all-wise seldom seems to occur to us.

It is true, of course, that many of us are wise in our own narrow and highly specialized fields. But it does not necessarily follow that we are wise in the broad aspects of the economic system in which we practice our professions and operate our enterprises.

When you come right down to it, the very idea of “educating the masses” is inconsistent with the ideals of individual freedom to which we give lip service. Just who are “the masses”? Can the term be more appropriately applied to others than to ourselves?

We are all individuals differing in qualities and abilities, but we all share a basic human nature capable of self-development. If this is not true, then the ideal of personal freedom is a fanciful myth.

But the ideal of freedom is not a fanciful myth. It is thoroughly attainable in a practical way. And it will be more readily attainable if we quit regarding those we wish to convert as either masses or classes, and recognize the individual person as the fountainhead of good, of energy, of all that is creative.

Free competitive enterprise is something we have loudly acclaimed. We have praised it, however, not so much because we have understood it, or even because we have wanted to practice it, but more because it has seemed to be the opposite of dreaded socialism. But many of us who are not socialists unwittingly play into the hands of the socialists.

Only now and then, among all of us in America, do we find a skilled advocate of free competitive enterprise. Most of us are left speechless in a debate with a socialist, a radical labor leader or any other ardent collectivist. We sputter, but we do not explain. We lose our arguments, and in the process we provide the opposition With a sounding board.

We cannot speak our subject well. Nor do we practice it any too well. And to be honest about it, we ourselves have inspired about as many anti-enterprise institutions as have our political opponents. Not only is confession justified and good for our souls, but the meekness that it inspires will make us more willing to learn. For we can learn free competitive enterprise just as we have learned our individual trades and professions. We can master the principles of freedom better than our opponents have learned the jargon of their systems, for the very simple reason that the principles of freedom are superior to anything that the collectivists are able to offer.

One understanding man summed it up this way: “I’m not smart enough to run the personal affairs of the great masses of people. I’ve got enough to do just trying to improve myself as an individual citizen.

“If I work hard enough and long enough at that one job, then the time may come when two or three, or four or five, or maybe even eight or ten persons may voluntarily seek my counsel. Then and only then can it be truly said that I have earned a worth-while influence.” []

I do not find any evidence that Jesus laid down any basic doctrine beyond that of a universal loving God and a universal brotherhood of man . . . . His teaching appears to have been purely individualistic. In a word, it came to this: that if every one would reform one (that is to say, oneself) and keep one steadfastly following the way of life which He recommended, the Kingdom of Heaven would be coextensive with human society.

Albert Jay Nock, “Memoirs of a Superflous Man,” 1943

You can read a Portuguese version of this article here