All Commentary
Thursday, October 1, 1964

The Flight From Reality: The Mind of the Reformer

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. This article marks the be­ginning of a new series.

He regarded the world as a flux to be formed by his own mind.


The supreme architect, who begins as a visionary, becomes a fanatic, and ends as a despot.


Two developments stand out on the canvas of the world scene in the twentieth century. Viewers may differ as to whether these two dominate the picture or not, but there should be no denying that they are there. The first is the tremendous surge of reform effort that has been going on in the world for most of this century and that is by now so pervasive that it could be called universal. In the United States hardly a day passes that some reform is not proposed, advanced, revived, or instigated. Speakers scurry about over the country describing the problems and offering the solu­tions. Newspaper columnists echo the sentiments of speakers or pro­vide them, as the case may be. One day attention may be focused upon the need for reform of the bail system. On another, the sys­tem of trial by jury may be up for examination, and proposals may be forthcoming for discard­ing it. Or again, the decaying centers of metropolitan areas may be described as the background for some proposal to use govern­ment to renew them.

Nor is the United States alone in being the scene of a prevalent reform bent. Many other countries share the bent with Americans but greatly exceed them in their willingness to radically alter ex­isting institutions to accomplish the reforms. Thus, in predom­inantly agricultural lands propos­als for redistributing the land are favorite remedies for what ails the population. This panacea often has to share the spotlight, how­ever, with plans for rapid indus­trialization. These economic meas­ures are usually only the most well known of the reforms being undertaken, depending upon the country and what its particular “problems” happen to be. Some countries may be occupied with “crash” programs of school build­ing, others with placating dis­sident racial or religious groups, others with providing various wel­fare programs, and so on.

This reform bent is not re­strained, however, by national boundaries nor restricted to sov­ereign states. It has promoted the establishment of institutions in international organizations. For example, the United Nations has associated with it an Inter­national Labor Organization, a Food and Agriculture Organiza­tion, a World Health Organiza­tion, and others. There have been gatherings for regional planning, such as those that were promoted by the Marshall Plan. There is the more general phenomena of for­eign aid, and there are interna­tional loan agencies to finance re­form programs. Conceiving the matter most broadly, the drive to make over men and societies is in the ascendant today.

The Corrosives of Civilization

The second development cannot be so readily reduced to a phrase for purposes of description. Actu­ally, this development has many faces. One of them, perhaps the most prominent, is disorder. There has been mounting dis­order in the world in the twen­tieth century: disorder in the re­lations among nations which evinces itself in almost continu­ous tensions and erupts in spo­radic catastrophe violence, dis­order in relations among groups which manifests itself in violence between and among groups, dis­order in families indicated by broken homes and juvenile delin­quency, and disorder of person­ality manifested in widespread mental illness.

Another face of this develop­ment is violence. The volume in the New Cambridge Modern His­tory which deals with the twen­tieth century is called “The Era of Violence.” The textbook on the Western world in the twentieth century by Frank P. Chambers has the interesting title, This Age of Conflict. Who has paused to consider how many kinds of vio­lence have begun to assume reg­ular forms and have even been institutionalized in this century?

A few examples of institutional­ized violence may refresh our memories. There are industrial strikes, concentration camps, pur­ges, “nationalization” of property; and even street fights among ju­veniles have assumed the semi-form of “rumbles.”

Yet another face of this devel­opment is the decline of liberty and the removal of protections from around the individual. In some countries this has occurred rapidly as in communist and fas­cist revolutions. In others, such as the United States, it has oc­curred by a process of attrition. The loss of liberty may occur in such an apparently innocuous manner as the zoning of city properties, or it may assume the most drastic proportions of being held in jail without a hearing.

The point, however, is that the circumscription of liberty is a virtual universal phenomena in this century, though there have been some movements to and fro in this matter. Certainly, the one new kind of government to emerge in this century has been totalitar­ianism. The tendency of govern­ments everywhere has been to adopt some of the features of to­talitarianism, though the exi­gencies of war may be the occa­sion for such adoption.

The composite face this second development wears is the disin­tegration of civilization. For what is civilization but order, peace, settled and regularized relations among men and groups, and con­ditions of liberty among individ­uals? Disorder, violence, and ag­gression are the antithesis of civ­ilization. To the extent that they become pervasive, civilization dis­integrates in equal degree. In short, the corrosives of civiliza­tion have become dominant in many places on the earth and they threaten to become pervasive everywhere.

Attempts to Reform Society Have Undermined It

The pressing question for all of us, of course, is why this turn of events occurred. Why have there been total wars, concentra­tion camps, confiscations of prop­erty, circumscriptions of liberty, institutionalizations of violence in this century? So far as we know, there were few who expected any such turn at the outset of the century. The literary evidence suggests the contrary, for it con­tains visions of peace, prosperity, and triumphant civilization in the twentieth century. And those who would be leaders have continued to hold out such visions up to the present, even as violence mounted and wars became total. Indeed, the glowing pictures of the future which reformers still paint have hardly been tarnished by this un­toward course of events.

Yet, it will be my contention that there is and has been a direct connection between the first and second developments described above. That is, reforms have re­sulted in disorder, violence, and the diminution of liberty. To put it briefly, the attempts to make over society and man have been made by the undermining of be­liefs, the destruction of institu­tions, the uprooting of traditions, and the aggressive use of govern­mental power.

The framework of order and liberty has everywhere been great­ly shaken by this course of events and in many places utterly shat­tered. A semblance of order has usually been maintained or restored in most places, but it has quite often been at the expense of lib­erty. To state it another way, the disorder resulting from the un­dermining of traditional morality and the unraveling of the bonds of social unity has been quelled by governmental power. The result has been the police state which has emerged everywhere in vary­ing degrees in the twentieth cen­tury.

The Bent to Reform

Since it will be a part of the burden of the remainder of this work to show the connection be­tween reforms and the disorder of these times, the matter can be left at this point with the assertion that the connection exists. The question can now be stated more directly. Why have men been bent upon reforms and used methods to achieve them which have re­sulted in varying degrees of dis­order and tyranny? Why are men bent upon reforming everything in our time?

This would probably appear to be a silly question to anyone who knows no history before this cen­tury. Indeed, the bent to reform goes back at least into the nine­teenth century, if not before. Ralph Waldo Emerson asked in 1841: “What is a man born for but to be a Reformer…?” In­deed, the bent to reform—the urge to change, to make over, to redo—was well established in the out­look of many considerably before this century got underway.

Even so, it should be made clear that this is not a usual attitude for most people. Quite likely, peo­ple have ever been inclined to pre­fer the well-worn path to the un­charted course, the familiar to the new, the customary to the in­novative, and the established to the prospect of reform. So deep-seated is this inclination that peo­ples have often rebelled against radical change and welcomed the restoration of the old order after a radical attempt at change. At most times and in most places in the past, reforms and reformers have gotten short shrift. Innova­tion has been much too perilous a game for a profession of innovators to be established. In short, for the reform bent to become acceptable to great bodies of people required a reversal of outlook on a huge and probably unprecedented scale. Insofar as reform depended upon popular approval, a great trans­formation of outlook had to take place.

The Intellectuals

The prime movers both of re­form and of the changed outlook have been those who may be iden­tified as intellectuals. This brings us to a third development of the nineteenth and twentieth centu­ries: the vast proportional in­crease in the number of intellec­tuals. They could not actually be counted, for the question of who is an intellectual has to be an­swered by definitions; opinions will differ, and the application of the most precise definition would be exceedingly difficult.

Nonetheless, there should be no doubt that the number and sway of intellectuals has greatly in­creased, probably in some direct proportion to the triumph of the reformist orientation. They teach school, profess at universities, write speeches, provide the ma­terial for the mass media of com­munication, advise businessmen and politicians, and so pervade so­cieties today. Government leaders are quite often accredited intellec­tuals, or so one may judge by the number of them (particularly in Latin countries) who effect the title of “Doctor.”

It will be my contention, then, that the reorientation of popu­laces in the direction of continu­ous reform has been the work of intellectuals. And, it may be inci­dentally noted at this point, the proposal and fostering of reform quite often provides intellectuals with their work.

It is in order at this point to make some distinctions which will help to focus attention upon the valid historical connections among the above developments. There are reforms and reforms, reformers and reformers, intellectuals and intellectuals. Not all reforms pro­mote disorder; not all reformers have been instrumental in insti­tuting tyranny; not all intellectu­als have contributed to the cir­cumscription of liberty. The spe­cies involved must be distin­guished from the genus.

Individual Reform

There are at least four levels or kinds of reform. The one that has been most universally appealed to and most generally recognized as beneficial has been individual re­form. Prophets, preachers, and teachers have ever exhorted their hearers to repent and to reform. They have usually meant that the individual should regroup and in­tegrate the forces within him, that these should be brought to bear upon some worth-while ob­ject or end, and that he should act morally and responsibly in the course of his life.

Advocates of this kind of re­form differ as to how it may be achieved. Some hold that such in­ner reform can only be wrought by the Grace of God. Others hold that it can be done by acts of the human will. Idealists usually hold that it is accomplished by focusing upon some worthy ideal. But they all agree that inward reform is possible and desirable. Such re­forms and reformers need not de­tain us for long. They have been with us for as long as there are records, and they have certainly not wrought the contemporary predicament. We need only pause to wish them well, and move on.

Institutional Reform

The second level may be called institutional reform. Such reform is concerned with the changing, creating, or disposing of organiza­tions. Examples of this kind of re­form would be the writing and amendment of constitutions, ex­tension or restriction of the Buf­f rage, changes in the modes of the selection of officials, the abolition of trial by jury, the creation of boards and commissions, and so forth.

Since institutions are means to ends, their reform does not neces­sarily entail movement in any par­ticular direction. Thus, institu­tions may be reformed so as to create a balance of power in gov­ernment and enhance liberty. Re­form may even give formal recog­nition to traditional but unestab­lished institutions. It can be so radical, however, as to disrupt the tenor of political life. And reform can be used to destroy or under­mine the institutions which pro­tect liberty and maintain order within society. It all depends upon the methods used and the end that is in view as to the tendency of such reform.

Liberal Reform

The third kind of reform is much more difficult to name. It should be called liberal reform, de­spite the semantic difficulties in­volved. Liberal reform is that which removes legal restrictions upon the individual and thus en­hances his liberty. There was a great deal of such reform in the eighteenth and nineteenth century in Europe and America. Examples would be the abolition of slavery, the removal of mercantile restric­tions upon the economy, the dis­establishment of churches, the abolition of primogeniture and en­tail, and the revocation of class privileges. It was these kinds of reform that gave reform a good name in the nineteenth century and helped to establish the reform bent.

It should be noted, however, that the method of reform is very important even if the end can be universally acclaimed. Thus, the abolition of slavery could be car­ried out in such a way as to re­spect the property values involved, or it could be carried out so as to amount to the confiscation of property. The latter was the meth­od used in America; hence, it was accomplished by aggression and accompanied by deep rents in the fabric of society. In general, though, where liberal reform was accomplished by appropriate means it was conducive to order, liberty, and prosperity.

Ameliorative Reform

The fourth kind of reform is ameliorative reform. This sort of reform involves the use of gov­ernmental power to improve peo­ple or the conditions of their lives. It is what is ordinarily meant today by social reform, though strictly speaking both institu­tional and liberal reforms are so­cial reforms. Examples of ame­liorative reform can be given that range all the way from a compul­sory social security tax to the wholesale confiscation of property. The advocates of such reform are usually called “liberals” in twen­tieth century America, but they have worn many labels in the world: democratic socialists, so­cial democrats, communists, revo­lutionary socialists, fascists, and so on.¹

Method is important, of course, and peoples bearing these names subscribe to a great variety of methods. It is better to have one’s purse stolen than to have his life taken. It is better to be put into prison, other things being equal, than to be shot in the back of the neck. It may even be better to have a moderate redistribution of wealth accomplished by parlia­mentary means than to have a dictator proclaim the confiscation of all private property. But all varieties of meliorists appear to share many common objectives in the contemporary world. They want to make over man and so­ciety by political means so that they will conform to some version they have in mind. Such reforms, when they have been undertaken, have resulted in widespread dis­order, suffering, violence, and loss of liberty.

It would take us too far afield from the present inquiry to enter into extensive proofs of the con­nection between ameliorative re­form and the resultant disorder and tyranny. Let us be content, then, with an axiomatic statement of the reasons for the connection. To wit: men live their lives within a framework of customary rela­tions and patterns for achieving their ends and solving their prob­lems. In the absence of positive force, they have worked out and accepted these patterns volun­tarily, or they submit to them willingly. Any alteration of these by government involves the use or threat of force, for that is how governments operate. The old or­der must be replaced by a new order for the reform to be achieved. The result of the force­ful effort to do this is disorder.

Theoretically, the new order re­places the old order; in fact, it does not. It is, at best, an uneasy peace maintained by the presence of armies, as it were, for these may be only an augmented police force. Men may adjust to the new disorder, resume the course of their lives as best they can, and submit more or less to conditions. In time, they may even forget that the system is maintained by force, or that things could be otherwise. After all, most peoples at most times have lived under varying degrees of oppression. Nonetheless, ameliorative reform introduces violence into life. The force charged with keeping the peace becomes the disturber of the peace. Traditional relation­ships are disrupted. Liberty is restricted and reduced.

Reform Creates Suffering

The amount of suffering de­pends upon the kind and degree of reforms. In communist lands, actual starvation often follows the attempt to make over society. More moderate reforms may only lead to the decline of investment in industry, to the deprivation of those on fixed incomes, to the loss of spontaneity in human rela­tions, to a desultory conformity to the establishment, to the rigid­ity of conditions, and so on. A considerable literature now exists detailing the consequences of ameliorative reform efforts by governments; anyone not con­vinced by theoretical proofs should avail himself of it.2

The blueprints for ameliorative reforms (and revolutions which have eventuated in reform) have been provided by intellectuals. They run the gamut from Saint-Simon to Karl Marx to Eduard Bernstein to Georgy Plekhanov to Karl Kautsky to George Bernard Shaw to Sidney and Beatrice Webb to Eugene Debs to Lester Frank Ward to John Dewey. These, and many others, have made analyses, drawn plans, de­scribed utopias, provided visions, and, in short, have supplied the ideological ammunition in the bat­tle for ameliorative reform. There is a sense, then, in which it can be said that intellectuals have caused the reform effort.

Intellectualism Defined

Certainly, it would be valid to say that the initiative for such efforts has come from reformist intellectuals under the sway of ideologies. This fact has brought forth from some the conclusion that the attempt to make man and society over results from some in­herent trait in the intellectual, or that the real villain of the piece is something that may be called in­tellectualism. Undoubtedly, “intellectual” can be defined so as to refer only to those who want to make the world over, and “intel­lectualism” can be defined as the inherent outlook which promotes such reformism.

This is a dubious use of lan­guage. It does not conform to con­temporary conventional usage nor does it take into account the ety­mology of the words. In the cur­rent parlance, an intellectual is one who works mainly with ideas. The American College Dictionary defines “intellectual” as “appeal­ing to or engaging the intellect…, of or pertaining to the intel­lect.., directed or inclined toward things that involve the in­tellect…, possessing or showing intellect or mental capacity, esp. to a high degree….”

Such definitions apply equally as well to those who oppose re­form as to those who favor and advance it. It may be that those who work with ideas are more likely to make mistakes in the realm of ideas than those who do not, in something of the same way that those who construct tall buildings are more apt to die from falling than those who stay on the ground. At the same time, those who are at home in the realm of ideas should be least likely to use them wrongly. If that is not the case, the matter re­quires explanation, not definition.

A Pithy Question

The question can now be framed which will bring us to the heart of the inquiry. Why have so many modern intellectuals been devoted to ameliorative reform and/or revolution? Why have they (and do they) promote re­forms which, when put into effect, result in disorder, violence, and oppression? Is it because they love disorder? Is it because they are violent men by nature? Is it because they despise liberty and long to see oppression introduced? There may be intellectuals of such a character, but most of them cer­tainly are not. Probably, no group of people has ever been so devoted to the ideas of peace, harmony, freedom, and plenty as have mod­ern intellectuals. Their works are replete with references to these words, and contain numerous plans for the realization of the goals that are implicit in them.

There have been explanations from those who perceive that many intellectuals are actually at war with that which they profess to seek. One of these stems from the conspiracy theory of history. According to some versions of this view, intellectuals are “dupes” of the conspirators, nota­bly those in the communist con­spiracy, or else they are part of the conspiracy. This view is given a certain plausibility by the exist­ence of a communist conspiracy, and by the attraction which com­munism has had for intellectuals over the years.

But it must be noted that com­munism was an idea before any conspiracy existed, that it too was a product of intellectuals. More­over, there have been and are many anticommunist intellectuals who are wedded to melioristic re­form. Most reformist ideas have been openly advocated or pre­sented, quite often long before any conspiracy existed. Conspira­cies have to do largely with the destruction or seizure of govern­mental power, though this is sometimes advanced by ideologi­cal subversion, which may also be covert. It should be noted, too, that some intellectuals have been taken in, or so they claim, by “front” organizations.

But after everything has been said for this theory, there are too many facts, and too many intel­lectuals, which it does not account for. Why, for instance, are intel­lectuals so readily attracted to communism? Since they are sup­posedly adept at ideas, they ought to be the first to perceive errors in them. Instead, intellectuals are the one group in a country from which the largest contingent sym­pathetic to communism can be drawn. This must mean that many intellectuals are already committed to the idea of reconstructing the world before they accept any particular ideology, or, to put it another way, that they are prone to ideologies which contain plans for remaking the world. Conspira­cies are not causes of ideas, but effects; they may be used to pro­mote particular causes, but they are creations, not creators.

There is another explanation, not quite a formal theory, for ac­counting for the reformist predi­lections of intellectuals. It goes something like this: Intellectuals want power and prestige. Reform­ism offers opportunities for them to achieve these, for they can draw up the plans and to some extent direct the execution of them. To put it baldly, intellec­tuals do not care how much de­struction they wreak so long as they can achieve their own per­sonal power objectives. To any­one who has known or read the works of many reformist intel­lectuals, this view should be in­credible.

Of course, none of us knows the hidden motives of another, but such a view does not square in many instances with what we do know. The theories of most re­formists have not been power theories at all. Earlier reformers quite often envisioned a condition in which all political power had been destroyed, when relations among people were free and spon­taneous, when the last vestiges of the exploitation of man by man had been removed from human re­lationships. This thesis can have only limited application at most.

The Great Disparity

This work will be devoted to making a quite different explana­tion. My thesis will be that the gross disparity between the vi­sions of the intellectuals and the realities which they help to create and perpetuate has resulted from limitations in their conception of reality. They visualize freedom and create oppression. Assuming their good faith and sincerity, this can only mean that they have misconceived the materials with which they are working. Many in­tellectuals are indeed deluded, but it is no simple delusion such as is imagined when they are described as “duped.” It is a delusion rooted deeply in the contemporary out­look, supported by voluminous re­search, propagated by a prodigious educational effort, and developed by a steadfast attention to an as­pect of reality. It has an extensive history and has been developed by some of the best minds of the last century.

The centerpiece of the delusion is the belief that there are no limits to man’s creativity. Reality can be endlessly shaped and reshaped to suit the purposes of men. In effect, man has no fixed nature; the universe contains no unalterable laws. Stated so bluntly, many intellectuals might hedge at subscribing to these premises. Yet these are substan­tially the premises upon which re­formist intellectuals have based many of their programs. They have, as R. R. Palmer said of Na­poleon Bonaparte in the prefatory quotation to this piece, “regarded the world as a flux to be formed by… [their] own mind [s].

The Phenomenon Recognized

The flight of the intellectuals from reality has not gone entirely unremarked. In the following quo­tations, each taken from a differ­ent contemporary writer, the phe­nomenon is recognized, though the intellectuals are characterized by different names by each writer. Thus, Thomas Molnar calls them “progressives,” but he is talking about the reformist intellectual:

… It [his description] points to the basic attitude of the progressive, his contempt for the structure of life, its given situations and hard data; and it evokes the impatience with which he presses for the social, political, economic, international pattern that his ideology dictates him to favor…. The envisaged and blurred picture of what would be the opposite of life’s actual im­perfect conditions has a great fasci­nation for him, and he is apt to denounce as cynics those who call him back from the nowhere-never land to reality.3

Eric Voegelin calls the phe­nemenon “gnosticism,” but he, too, is describing the attitude of the reformist intellectual in the fol­lowing:

… In the Gnostic dream world… nonrecognition of reality is the first principle. As a consequence, types of action which in the real world would be considered as mor­ally insane because of the real effect which they have will be considered moral in the dream world because they intended an entirely different effect. The gap between intended and real effect will be imputed not to the Gnostic immorality of ignoring the structure of reality but to the immorality of some other person or society that does not behave as it should behave according to the dream conception of cause and ef­fect.4

Calling them “liberals,” and getting down to specifics, James Burnham says:

… The liberal ideologues proceed in a manner long familiar to both religion and psychology: by constructing a new reality of their own, a transcendental world, where the soul may take refuge from the pro­saic, unpleasant world of space and time. In that new and better world, the abandonment of a million of one’s own countrymen and the capit­ulation to a band of ferocious ter­rorists become transformed into what is called “liberation.”… A crude imperialist grab in the South Seas or the Indian subcontinent be­comes a clearing up of the vestiges of colonialism. The failure to re­taliate against gross insults and injuries to envoys, citizens and prop­erty becomes a proof of maturity and wisdom.5

The Quest for Truth

But this view has to be seen to be believed. It must be set forth in its complexity and depth, with an understanding that the quest for truth is not undertaken in a well-lighted room. It is under­taken by men who see only in part, and to the extent that they concentrate their attention upon the most illusory part, to that same extent they may be drawn farther and farther from the object of their search. None of us is im­mune from this partiality of sight. Thus, it is necessary that we re­pair to the concrete realities of history, in humility submitting assertions to the test of fact and reason. We must relive, if only in the imagination of the recreation that is history, the sojourn of the reformist intellectual before we can understand him and the delu­sion into which he has been en­snared.

The reformist intellectual, then, has been caught up in a flight from reality. What is to follow will be largely an account of that flight, told against a background of the central Western tradition of what constitutes reality. The main attention will be focused upon the thought of the American reformist intellectuals, but this will be recounted alongside Euro­pean intellectual developments, of which the American forms a part.

The next article in this series will concern “Symptoms of the Flight.”



1 Technically, Marxist revolutionaries are not reformers. In fact, however, they have not destroyed governmental power. as they were supposed to do, but have seized it. They then use it to effect their ends. That is, they become reformers.

2 It is not my contention that all disorder and suffering are caused by governmental intervention or that they would disappear if it did. On the contrary, suffering and disorder—both in­dividual and social—have always existed for human beings and, so far as I know, will continue to do so. My concern is with that portion of suffering and dis­order caused by planning and executed by collective endeavor.

³ Thomas Molnar, The Decline of the Intellectual (Cleveland: World Publish­ing Company, A Meridian Book, 1961), p. 132.

4 Eric Voegelin, The New Science of Politics (Chicago: University of Chi­cago Press, 1952), pp. 169-70.

5 James Burnham, Suicide of the West (New York: John Day, 1964), p. 302.

  • Clarence Carson (1926-2003) was a historian who taught at Eaton College, Grove City College, and Hillsdale College. His primary publication venue was the Foundation for Economic Education. Among his many works is the six-volume A Basic History of the United States.