All Commentary
Saturday, October 1, 1960

The American Predicament


Dr. Gresham is President of Bethany College, Bethany, West Virginia. This article first ap­peared in the May 1959 issue of The Kiwanis Magazine.

A bronze tablet in Indianapolis records one of the wise and rele­vant remarks of a statesman and prophet: “Here February 11, 1861, Abraham Lincoln, on his way to Washington to assume the Presi­dency, in an address said: ‘I ap­peal to you to constantly bear in mind that not with the politicians, not with the Presidents, not with the office seekers, but with you is the question: Shall the union and shall the liberties of this country be preserved to the latest genera­tion?’ “

This timely warning calls each responsible person to assess the nature of the present American predicament with an appraising eye and a clear head. Three mas­sive facts appear. The state is al­ready enormous and is continuing to grow. The individual is very small and growing smaller. Only a revolutionary action can recover the autonomy of the individual person and the values of private enterprise.

War multiplies the size and power of the State. National sur­vival demands a dictatorship in a time of enemy attack or a time of international warfare. The two recent world wars have given most of us experience in totalitarian citizenship. The wake of World War II has continued the apparent necessity for powerful central au­thority to withstand the external threat of hostile communist pow­ers. Consequently, the American State has taken on colossal propor­tions. Approximately four fifths of the enormous federal tax reve­nue goes to pay for wars past, present, and future. The Kremlin helps to enhance the size and power of the American govern­ment.

Internal American strife has created larger and larger bureaus with more and more personnel spending more and more money. Big labor and big business require big government to serve as referee and arbitrator. Each time a labor union cries out for federal help, as in the Wagner Act, a new bureau is formed with its retinue of vested interest career people and its bureaucratic needs. Each time an industry seeks special advan­tage through subsidy or legislation to improve its position for sur­vival, or additional consideration in protection or profit from the various commissions, or seeks for regulation to avoid competition, new government agencies appear. As expenses mount, an army of tax collectors must be put in the field to divert funds from private to state use in order to meet the insatiable demands of Leviathan.

The General Welfare

The State grows because it is committed “to promote the general welfare.” This concept has come to mean a Welfare State with social security for the aged, unemploy­ment compensation for the jobless, support and services for the indi­gent, and health services for the many. The needs of man outrun his supply, no matter how vast the provision. Pressure for more so­cial security, more unemployment compensation, more pensions, more health services, and more secure and easy government jobs builds up until the Leviathan grows apace, whether his strange head resembles a pachyderm or a jack­ass.

Politicians must gain office and stay in office, or they are not poli­ticians. The most inviting and the most venerable means of getting elected is to make promises. The exclusive formula for retaining office is either to keep the promises or to make bigger promises to ob­scure the failure of performance with reference to those already made. Since giveaway promises ap­pear to get quick results, they oc­cur to parties and candidates alike. The State grows in proportion to its programs of expenditure. With the colossal greed of military demands and the insatiable pressure for welfare programs, the State must arrogate to itself more and more functions, power, and pro­portions. Parties and persons who aspire to office out-promise each other in a race to feed the Levia­than.

Inflationary pressures encourage the growth of the State. Every­body wants inflation for himself, but not for anybody else. As pres­sure builds up for more and more wages, prices must go up. The same pressures build up with re­spect to profits. The parties pinched by inflation cry out for government help, and the sensitive politicians respond with the crea­tion of new administrations, which involve more taxes, which require higher prices, which demand more wages; and the round repeats it­self. The net result is more and more government.

Individualism Discouraged

Alexis de Tocqueville, noted French political scientist of the last century, described individual­ism as “a mature and calm feeling, which disposes each member of the community to sever himself from the mass of his fellow creatures; and to draw apart from his family and his friends, so that, after he has thus formed a circle of his own, he willingly leaves society at large to itself. Individualists owe nothing to any man, they expect nothing from any man; they ac­quire the habit of always consider­ing themselves as standing alone, and they are apt to imagine that their whole destiny is in their own hands. Individualism is of demo­cratic origin and threatens to spread in the same ratio as the quality of conditions.” This crea­ture of early American origin is little more than a museum piece. The individual features have be­come blurred in a collectivist world.

With “security” as a major aim for the earning motive and con­formity as the principal considera­tion for the consuming motive, there is precious little individual­ism left. The virtues of Puritan America—honesty, industry, and frugality—are widely ignored as irrelevant. People who can attain security by belonging to the asso­ciation, the union, or the party are not likely to knock themselves out by working and planning for it. Even wild birds prefer the feeder to the tent caterpillars in the for­est. The responsibility to save for a rainy day has been turned over to Uncle Sam. “Honesty,” which once included payment of debts, has been delegated to posterity. The conditions of contemporary society do not encourage individual responsibility.

Keeping up with the Joneses has taken a new turn under the spell of mass media. It may be “keeping down with the Joneses,” or “up,” as the case may be, but it must be like the Joneses. Consequently, our coeds move their waist lines up or down, and our cars get bigger and “finnier,” or small and for­eign. Our homes grow more auto­matic and our children grow more nervous in an effort to belong to the crowd. Deferred payments en­able the newlyweds to conform to the pattern of their parents. Our music tastes level out to match our preferences in architecture, drama, and literature. We have variety without great difference. We pre­fer the organization man to the individualist. The dissenter, or the private thinker, is an inconven­ience.

The individual feels powerless against the political organization. Consequently, the voter tends to join the consumer quest for the candidate who fits the norms of sincerity and federal generosity. Only the conformist can belong to the machine, and only the machine can elect. The responsible citizen is obscured. The campaign oratory becomes perfunctory and dull, since it has little bearing on the election returns.

The private enterpriser in learn­ing has become lost in the crowd on the campus. The Benjamin Franklin formula of a lifetime of learning has been replaced with the “four years and a degree” formula, with as little learning as possible. Individual thought on crucial issues is hard to come by. Executives read a few cult papers and a few mystery thrillers with very little else to stir up the neu­rons.

Even the last citadel of man—his religion—has become socialized. Instead of a vertical answer to God, man tends to give horizontal answers to the well-dressed and highly respectable congregation that has status. Private prayer has become beautifully professional­ized. The multitudes huddle to­gether in Jerusalem without much recollection of the lonely vigil on a mountain top at midnight or the silent walk by the shores of Galilee.

As the State grows big, the in­dividual becomes small. People huddle together to dispel their loneliness and increase their share in security and advantage. The family becomes weak as a social unit. The peer group outranks the parents in prestige for the young. The conditions that beget autono­mous people have given way to conditions that encourage the mass society.

The recovery of private enter­prise begins with religion. No per­son is an individual until he can say: “I must obey God rather than men.” This is the moral basis for all private judgment. The individ­ual human mind which operates in culture, economy, politics, or fam­ily life can be reinforced and sus­tained only by a divine influence which transcends all society. This is no invitation to fanaticism or antisocial attitudes. It is rather the basis for autonomous self-realization and private enterprise in acts and letters, as well as in money management and citizen­ship. Robert Frost has a wise old Yankee farmer say: “I call you to a one-man revolution; the only revolution that is going to come.”

The right to be wise is posited on the assumption that a person thinks privately. Education must be restored. Invention, creative art, new developments in the social order, and new ideas are the result of individual thought rather than educational conformity. The quest for wisdom is a highly indi­vidual matter. The appetite for learning is antecedent to intellec­tual achievement.

A One-Man Revolution

A one-man revolution in the economy begins when a laborer stands up against his union or an industrialist stands up against his association in behalf of some worthy moral principle. The man who resourcefully develops his business without running to Uncle

Sam is a one-man revolution. The young man who earns what he can by hard work and spends what he can afford is a private individual. The young wife who buys what is practical and beautiful rather than what is popular is a true person. The executive or statesman who decides on the basis of his best in­sight into the will of God rather than expediency has found him­self.

The problem of the ever-grow­ing State must be met if any sphere for individual initiative is to be maintained. There are two massive social forces that resist the encroachment of government. These are resentment against high taxes and resentment against the loss of individual liberties. The man of independent mind can en­courage these forces by intelligent conversation and astute action. The employer has responsibility to make employees acutely aware of the tax that is diverted from his pay check. He is responsible to dramatize the loss of liberty that comes with the overwhelming State. The intellectual, the clergy­man, the worker, the homemaker, the common man in any vocation is involved in the struggle to recover the cherished concept of individual responsibility that is essential to personal fulfillment and the good society under God.


  • Dr. Perry E. Gresham (1907-1994) was President Emeritus and Distinguished Professor, Bethany College. Bethany, West Virginia.