Dr. Carson is Professor of American History at Grove City College, Pennsylvania. Among his earlier writings in THE FREEMAN were his series on The Fateful Turn and The American Tradition, both of which are now available as books.
Anyone who announced to an academic audience that he was going to do a work on "The Flight from Reality" might expect that the first questions he would be asked would go something like the following: "What is reality?" Or, "What do you mean by reality?" That such questions would almost certainly be asked may be itself the leading sign of the flight from reality. The questions are important, of course, and will require answers, but for the moment that can be deferred to deal with their implications.
Indications are that few people in academic circles would consider it strange that the question of what constitutes reality should be raised. In a contemporary work on the history of Western philosophy—a book which traces thought from Thales in ancient Greece to Bertrand Russell in modern Britain—the scholar concludes with these observations, among others:
So far we have tried to suggest that, even though they are not eternally true, the answers philosophy gives are useful and significant in terms of their cultural context. Now we must point out that, valuable as philosophy’s answers are, they are not as important as the questions philosophy asks. In fact, we may say that the chief function of philosophy is to ask questions, rather than to answer them. Its function is to rebuff all forms of dogmatism and intolerance, to keep before the mind a sense of possibilities unrealized…. Thus the real utility of philosophy lies precisely in what seems to some its futility. Its especial competence lies in its seeming incompetence—in the way in which it discourages too definitive conclusions and too neat solutions.1
In short, it appears that philosophy succeeds to just that extent that it fails to answer the questions that it raises. But lest this state of affairs be supposed to be restricted to philosophy, the writer assures us that the matter is otherwise.
The "incompetence" of philosophy is… not a peculiarity of philosophy. None of the sciences has attained an eternal truth. Consider what relativity has done to Newtonian physics…. Or consider what the discovery of the non-Euclidian geometries has done to mathematics.2
Professors and Patrons and the Quest for Truth
One might suppose, then, that intellectuals, scholars, and teachers would be found in sackcloth and ashes, repenting their impostures upon society or praying for guidance that they might find some truth. Obviously, such is not the case. They make a virtue of the failure to attain truth and belabor those who would proclaim truth as "intolerant" and "presumptuous."
We might expect, at the least, that the clients and patrons of such education would withdraw their support. On the contrary, as is well known, intellectuals, scholars, and teachers have never before enjoyed such influence and affluence as they do today. Billions of dollars are poured into education; students come forth in ever greater numbers to educational institutions; research receives bountiful support from governments and industries, philanthropists and politicians. The failure to attain truth does not appear to inhibit men from "professing" it and students from purchasing whatever it is they have to teach. If the value lies only, or even predominantly, in the quest, one wonders why so many should choose the academic endeavor. Why not, instead, "quest" for a lower golf score? At least there are standards by which improvements in a golf game can be measured.
There is much more to the story of contemporary education, however, as will become clear later. But on the face of it, such attitudes as the above surely constitute symptoms of a flight from reality, both by professors and patrons.
The Central Problem: What Is Real?
The matter cuts deeper, too. It is true that the study of philosophy has been in somewhat of a decline for a good many years. This would appear to be a realistic response to the bankruptcy of philosophy, understandable and even commendable. Actually, no such interpretation can be allowed. If philosophy is indeed bankrupt, we cannot know whether the giving up of the quest for truth by way of philosophy is realistic or not. For we do not know what is real. The central problem of philosophy is the determination of what is real. If philosophers have not arrived at truth in this regard, it should be obvious that truth cannot be attested in any other area of thought. The possibility of illusion in all matters would be ever present, and no means for separating the illusory from the real would exist. Reason would be of no use, for reason is only as valid as the premises upon which it rests, and the premises must be referable to some reality.
Nor can the scholar take refuge in methods and quests. The man who claims that he is concerned only with imparting a method may be making an honest statement, but he is evading the central question about his labors. How does he know that his method is of any value? The method can only be of use in arriving at truth if it is related to reality in such a way as to discover truth. The employment of a method or an endless quest for the unattainable may have subjective personal value, of course, just as mountain climbing may have, but this can only concern the individual involved, not the public at large.
That philosophers should blithely announce the futility of their quest, that scholars should ignore the consequent absence of underpinnings in their endeavors, that the public should provide support for research that has not been carefully related to some truth, that students should spend years learning methods which may have no applicability to the achievement of their ends, and that hardly anyone in a vast establishment should bother to mention the matter, should certainly be construed as a symptom of the flight from reality. Indeed, the lack of concern about first things that is involved in the state of philosophical thought comes very close to being the flight from reality itself.
But let us stick with symptoms at this point in the study. There are a great many of these. Only a few can be given, and the ones chosen as examples should demonstrate that the flight is widespread, that the intellectuals have succeeded in drawing much of the populace, or at least policymakers, into the web of their illusion. The next two examples will be drawn from economics.
One of the most pronounced symptoms of the flight in economics is the handling of monetary matters by governments. Specifically, governments virtually everywhere engage in monetary manipulation. They engage in deficit spending, public works programs to revive sagging economies, issuance of fiat money by banks under their control, the establishment of minimum wages, and so on. In order to be able to do this, governments make one of the simplest flights from reality: they cease to make payments in specie—that is, gold or silver. Following this, their flights become much more imaginative and complex.
The justifications for monetary manipulation are numerous and ingenious. Money is identified with "purchasing power," and apologists propose to increase "purchasing power" by increasing the amount of money in circulation. Monetary manipulation is used as a method of spurring investment. Consumer spending is promoted by government expenditures which will place money in the hands of consumers.
Such practices, and the justifications offered, are founded upon misunderstandings about the nature of money, if we assume that the apologies are seriously made. Money is a medium of exchange. It is that through which an exchange of goods and services is effected. Transfers of commodities from one owner to another are made by the use of money. The "purchasing power" resides in the commodities, however, not in the money. (Money may, of course, be a commodity itself, as when some precious metal is used. In this case, it would have "purchasing power," which would derive from its commodity value.) The fact that people will turn over goods and services to others in return for money creates an illusion that money has "purchasing power."
Governments, presumably operating under the sway of this illusion, increase the amount of currency in circulation. By so doing, they do not increase the "purchasing power" of the citizenry. Instead, they reduce the amount of goods which will be turned over for a given amount of money, reduce it in proportion to the amount of the monetary increase. Since what money will purchase depends upon the amount of goods and services available, the only way to increase the "purchasing power" of the citizenry is to increase the amount of those goods and services. If the amount of goods are increased and if the amount of currency remains the same, a given amount of money will, in effect, command more goods.
While an increase in the supply of money does not increase "purchasing power," it does have consequences. By increasing the amount of money in circulation, governments confiscate a portion of the value of the money which anyone happens to hold or have due him at the time of the increase. Governments also can and do redistribute this confiscated wealth by spending programs and by other devices. In short, programs which are advanced as stimulants to the economy are, in effect, programs for the redistribution of the wealth.
It is difficult to determine whether inflationary programs are symptoms of a flight from reality by those who advance them or by the general public which accepts them. The United States government has had economic advisers in influential positions for years. These have consistently advanced inflationary policies. They are either ignorant of the consequences of such actions or they are guilty of making surreptitious proposals for the redistribution of the wealth.
Another symptom can also be given from the economic sphere. This one has to do with economic assistance given by the United States to other countries since World War II. As is well known, the United States government has spent huge sums of money on foreign aid. This aid has taken many forms: outright grants, technical assistance, "mutual" assistance, loans, and so forth. The aid has been justified on many grounds: the responsibility for aiding allies in postwar reconstruction, the containment of communism, national self-interest, humanitarianism, among others.
Let us restrict our discussion to the economic and humanitarian justifications, however. The humanitarian argument usually goes something like this: There is great suffering in the world, occasioned by hunger, malnutrition, and disease. The United States is a wealthy nation, and it should share its bounty with those in need. The two statements which follow are based mainly on these premises. The first one was made by a representative of the National Council of Churches of Christ in the U. S. A., and on its behalf:
We believe human life is sacred, being of primary value, so mutual aid is indispensable as it literally makes the difference between life and death for some people, and improves living for millions of others.3
The second is from a statement made for the Society of Friends:
United States policy should be designed to help that part of the human race, about two-thirds of whom are sick or illiterate or politically or economically disadvantaged, develop their God-given potentialities. It means primarily helping others help themselves to do the things they want to do toward our joint community aspirations and ideals. This kind of program must express both a deep, passionate concern for people and a determination that they need not suffer from conditions which are not their fault. We should settle into this task on a long-range basis.4
It is understandable and even commendable that men should be concerned with suffering and deprivation in distant lands. Let it be noted, too, that American policy was (and is) responsible to some indeterminate degree. This responsibility was not, however, humanitarian; it was economic, though there might well be humanitarian grounds for objecting to the economic policy which fostered suffering. To understand American responsibility for foreign deprivation, it is necessary to know something about how foreign trade is conducted. Presumably, foreigners suffered to some extent because they could not purchase goods which Americans had for sale. They could not purchase these goods because Americans could not (or would not) spend or invest comparable amounts abroad.
We can back into an explanation of this state of affairs by stating the reason for it in this way: Foreign goods were more expensive than their equivalent in American goods. Therefore, Americans bought mainly goods of domestic manufacture. In consequence, foreigners could not buy the needed goods from America.
The Obstacle to Exchange
The solution to this problem should have been rather simple, economically speaking. The people in a foreign land who needed American goods should have devoted themselves to producing those items which could be sold cheaper in America than the ones of domestic origin. This would have provided the wherewithal to purchase American goods. So they might, and probably would, have done if the matter had been left in the economic sphere. It was not. Instead, political interference had made economic solutions virtually impossible. Indeed, such responsibility as Americans bore for the situation could be ascribed to political interference, though it should be kept in mind that countries in which there was suffering contributed to their own condition quite often by domestic political interference.
To be more specific, the main obstacles to international trade in the postwar period, so far as American action affected it, were tariffs and subsidies. Protective tariffs kept foreigners from being able to undersell American products quite often. If some foreign land were able to overcome even this handicap, a clamor would arise from the domestic interest involved for higher tariffs or quotas, or both.
The other great difficulty was that American food products were quite often too high to be sold abroad or to effect a general lowering of food prices in the world. This was directly related to hunger and starvation. American prices were kept high by allotments, parity payments, and other subsidies. It should be kept in mind that foreign governments aggravated the situation by their own subsidies, price supports, minimum wages, and import quotas. Many governments scared away investors by nationalization and confiscation of property, thus creating "underdevelopment" and then clamoring for government-to government loans to take up the slack.
Solution Creates More Problems
It should be axiomatic that when political interference has caused a problem, the solution to the problem would be the removal of the political interference. It should be, but it is not today. Instead, the attempt was made to solve problems created by political action by additional political intervention. By and large, governments continued their tariffs, subsidies, regulations, and nationalizations. America granted and loaned money so that other countries could buy goods from America, hire technical assistants, and make capital investments.
The problems that this course of development has created are legion. Foreign countries became dependent upon the United States; the aid was quite often used to bolster corrupt regimes; nations spent huge sums upon prestigious items such as steel mills (though it cost them much more to produce steel than they could have bought it for on the world market) and airlines; and Americans have become busily engaged in interfering in the internal affairs of countries around the world. The debilitating effects of these developments upon the independence and strength of the countries involved need not be dwelt upon here. The economic distortions produced by progressive intervention are manifold.
Much more could be said about these matters, but enough has been said to make the point. Under the guise of humanitarianism and defense, Americans have been drawn into a web of intertwined interventionism. Foreign aid has often forestalled the economic consequences of intervention for foreign countries (such as bolstering the Labor Government in England in the late 1940′s), but it could not solve the problems, for it was related to the causes only in the sense that it was like them. Intervening to solve problems caused by intervention can be likened to breaking the other leg of a man who already has one broken leg in order to get him back on his feet. The fact that Americans have been pursuing such policies rather consistently is another symptom of the flight from reality.
Identity of Government with People
Let us take an example now from the area of political theory. The most fruitful field for discovering some flight in the contemporary world would be theories concerning democracy. The myths about democracy are so numerous that to select one is necessarily to neglect a great many others. Perhaps the central one, however, can be phrased this way: In a democracy the government is the people. A complete identification exists between the government and the people. According to this view, government in a democracy manages to catch up, congeal, and utilize the whole being of a people. More than a hundred years ago, the American historian, George Bancroft, suggested some such notion in the following words:
Thus the opinion which we respect is, indeed, not the opinion of one or of a few, but the sagacity of the many. It is hard for the pride of cultivated philosophy to put its ear to the ground and listen reverently to the voice of lowly humanity; yet the people collectively are wiser than the most gifted individual, for all his wisdom constitutes but a part of theirs…. It is when the multitude give counsel that right purposes find safety; theirs is the fixedness that cannot be shaken; theirs is the understanding which exceeds in wisdom; theirs is the heart of which the largeness is as the sand on the seashore.5
Whatever this passage may mean, it is certainly intended as a justification of democracy. And, so far as it is, it suggests that a complete identity of people and government occurs. Of course, Bancroft actually assumes such an identity and is bent upon arguing the superiority of decisions reached by the people collectively. Our concern, however, is not with the contention but with the assumption.
Public Debt No Problem
All sorts of conclusions are regularly drawn from this supposed identity of the government with the people. For example, some say that there is no need to worry about the public debt. After all, they say, we owe it to ourselves. Others impute morality to government because of its identity with the people. The foreign aid, discussed above, was supported on moral grounds, and this was made to appear logical by assumptions about democracy. Some would hold the American people individually and collectively responsible for the actions of the government in a democracy. It has been alleged, fur example, that the American people bore such guilt as there may have been for the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. Again, the identification theory tends to validate such an allegation.
Let us set this assumption beside political realities in America, since it is commonly held that the United States is a democracy. Is, or could, such an identification be effected by the political processes now employed? The most common procedure followed by the citizenry to participate in government is by voting. By voting the citizen marks an "X" or pulls a lever beside the name of the candidate for whom he votes. He has chosen one name from among two or more, if the office was contested. If a majority of those voting chose the name, he has helped to select the man who will serve, if the vote was in the general election. If his candidate was not elected, he has participated in the election, but only to a most limited extent in the governmental actions that stem from the man elected.
But, to keep matters simple, let us suppose that his candidate won. Does this mean that there is a complete identity between the voter and the man elected? Hardly. The voter may have known nothing of any of the candidates and have marked his ballot for the one who headed the list. On the other hand, he may have carefully considered the positions of the men on a number of issues and voted for the man who favored a preponderance of those he favored. The voter would not have been unusual, however, if he had voted against the man he disliked by voting for the other candidate. Quite possibly, none of the candidates suited him, but he voted for the one he considered the lesser of the evils.
In any case, so far as the elected official represents the government, so far as voting coincides with participation, no complete identification has been made between the people and the government. By participating in the election, the citizen may have given his tacit approval to the electoral system. By failing to revolt, he may even have given tacit approval to the government. By voting for the candidates of one political party rather than those of another, he may have some effect on general policies to be pursued.
But there is no way to stretch the cloth of the present political process to make a suit that will fit the notion of complete identification between the people and the government. Since no such identification has been vouchsafed, all programs based upon the premise of identity are insecurely based. In fact, they have no real base or foundation. In short, American acceptance, so far as it exists, of the belief, that the public debt poses no problem because we owe it to ourselves, that governments can act morally, that there is a collective responsibility for all government action in a democracy, should be taken as another symptom of the flight from reality.
Government and Birth Control
One other symptom may be in order. There is much professed concern today about what is known as the population explosion. Dire predictions are made about what life will be like if the population increase continues as it has in recent decades. They may be right, but what do they propose to do about it? Most proposals have had to do with birth control. An effort has been made to get the United States government to make available information and perhaps devices for birth control. How much and to what extent governments could or should effect birth control is, of course, highly controversial. But, if government action is taken, it should be noted that governments will be discouraging with one hand what they have been encouraging with the other.
Surely, one of the greatest rational deterrents to having children is the considerable financial responsibility involved. When parents are responsible for feeding, clothing, educating, innoculating, and entertaining their children, they will be most likely to have second thoughts about large families. Modern governments have, however, taken over a considerable part of these activities. Presumably, the same people who favor government propagation of information about birth control would favor an extension of governmental activities in education, in building parks, playgrounds, and zoos, and in providing medical care. They would thus favor relieving parents of responsibilities which they still have. Moreover, tax exemptions for children would seem to promote the bearing of children, if government action affects the matter at all. In short, proposals are made that government facilitate child bearing on the one hand and promote birth control on the other.
No one, to my knowledge, has pointed out these inconsistencies. The fact that they are not generally recognized as inconsistencies is yet another symptom of the flight.
Many other examples could be given of the symptoms of the flight from reality. They could be taken from developments in the arts, in religion, in international relations, in the use of technology, and so on. But perhaps the point has been made. There are widespread indications that programs, policies, studies, and actions are not being checked against any reality. Philosophers proclaim that they cannot determine what is real. Economists sanction programs which bear only a tangential relation to any discernible economic reality. Political theorists concoct relationships that can by no stretch of the imagination be induced from the facts. School building goes on apace and students multiply; yet many professors are in the position of not being able to decide whether education deals with reality or not. These must be signs of a flight from reality.
Sky Hook Systems
Now it is not my contention that no system of ideas would support the programs and actions described. On the contrary, it is my belief that there is a vast ideological edifice being used as a launching pad for the flight from reality. My point will be, however, that this launching pad is suspended in mid-air, hanging from a sky hook, as it were. To be more literal, the systems of ideas which are supposed to support the programs are themselves not founded in reality.
The proof of this assertion must be made in connection with a conception of reality, however. Until that is set forth, the above are largely examples of inconsistencies, evidence of a widespread disparity between announced aims and the methods used to arrive at the aims. Inconsistencies are symptoms, not the thing itself. Diagnostically, symptoms tell us something is amiss, in this case that departures have been made from reality. Such a conclusion in the realm of ideas is roughly equivalent to a medical conclusion that the patient is ill. What is wanted, in both cases, is to know what the specific cause of the trouble is. To adjudge the character and content of a flight from reality, it must be viewed from the vantage point of reality.
The next article in this series will concern "The Nature of Reality."
1 W. T. Jones, A History of Western Philosophy (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1952), p. 995. Italics mine.
2 Ibid., p. 997.the failure to attain truth and belabor those who would proclaim truth as "intolerant" and "presumptuous."
3 Waldo Chamberlin, "Statement on Behalf of the National Council of Churches of Christ in the U. S. A.," United States Foreign Aid, DeVere E. Penton y, ed. (San Francisco: Howard Chandler, 1960), p. 48.
4 Edward F. Snyder, "Statement on Behalf of the Friends Committee on National Legislation," in Ibid., pp. 50-51.
5 George Bancroft, "The Office of the People in Art, Government and Religion," Social Theories of Jacksonian Democracy, Joseph L. Blau, ed. (New York: Liberal Arts Press, 1954), p. 269.