Preface to Knickerbocker
Maxwell Anderson (1888-1959), noted American dramatist,
first wrote this article as a preface to his Knickerbocker
was published as a pamphlet by the Foundation for Economic
Education. It is again presented here because the ideas
seem even more timely now than ever before.
"A government is a group of men organized to sell protection to the inhabitants of a limited area at monopolistic prices." So said Peter Stuyvesant in Knickerbocker Holiday, and so I believe now. In other words, there’s no such thing as a "good" government; one and all they partake of the nature of rackets. But government is better than anarchy, and was invented as an insurance against anarchy.
And some kinds of government are far better than others. Specifically, our American experiment has worked so well that we can point to it as one of the most successful in the history of the world, if not the most successful.
In Knickerbocker Holiday I tried to remind the audience of the attitude toward government which was prevalent in this country at the time of the revolution of 1776 and throughout the early years of the republic. At that time it was generally believed, as I believe now, that the gravest and most constant danger to a man’s life, liberty, and happiness is the government under which he lives.
Balance of Selfish Interests
It was believed then that a civilization is a balance of selfish interests, and that a government is necessary as an arbiter among these interests, but that the government must never be trusted, must be constantly watched, and must be drastically limited in its scope, because it, too, is a selfish interest and will automatically become a monopoly in crime and devour the civilization over which it presides unless there are definite and positive checks on its activities. The Constitution is a monument to our forefathers’ distrust of the state, and the division of powers among the legislative, judicial, and executive branches succeeded so well for more than a century in keeping the sovereign authority in its place that our government has become widely regarded as a naturally wise and benevolent institution, capable of assuming the whole burden of social and economic justice. But there was nothing natural or accidental about it. Our government has done so well because of the wary thinking that went into its making.
The thinking behind our Constitution was dominated by such men as
Protection at Monopolistic Prices
A government is always "organized to sell protection to the inhabitants of a limited area at monopolistic prices." The members of a government are not only in business, but in a business which is in continual danger of lapsing into pure gangsterism, pure terrorism, and plundering, buttered over at the top by a hypocritical pretense at patriotic unselfishness. The continent of Europe has seen too many such governments lately, and our own government is rapidly assuming economic and social responsibilities which take us in the same direction. Whatever the motives behind a government-dominated economy, it can have but one result, a loss of individual liberty in thought, speech, and action. A guaranteed life is not free. Social security is a step toward the abrogation of the individual and his absorption into that robot which he has invented to serve him—the paternal state.
When I have said this to some of the youthful proponents of guaranteed existence, I have been met with the argument that men must live, and that when the economic machinery breaks down, men must be cared for lest they starve or revolt. This is quite true and nobody is opposed to helping his fellow man. But the greatest enemies of democracy, the most violent reactionaries, are those who have lost faith in the capacity of a free people to manage their own affairs and wish to set up the government as a political and social guardian, running their business and making their decisions for them. This is statism, or Stalinism, no matter who advocates it, and it’s plain treason to freedom.
Wards of the State
And life is infinitely less important than freedom. A free man has a value to himself and perhaps to his time; a ward of the state is useless to himself—useful only as so many foot-pounds of energy serving those who manage to set themselves above him. A people which has lost its freedom might better be dead, for it has no importance in the scheme of things except as an evil power behind a dictator. In our hearts we all despise the man who wishes the state to take care of him, who would not rather live meagerly as he pleases than suffer a fat and regimented existence. Those who are not willing to sacrifice their lives for their liberty have never been worth saving. Throughout remembered time every self-respecting man has been willing to defend his liberty with his life. If our country goes totalitarian out of a soft-headed humanitarian impulse to make life easy for the many, we shall get what we vote for and what we deserve, for the choice is still before us, but we shall have betrayed the race of men, and among them the very have-nots whom we subsidize. Our Western continent still has the opportunity to resist the government-led rush of barbarism which is taking
If the millions of workingmen in this country who are patiently paying their social security dues could glimpse the bureaucratic absolutism which that act presages for themselves and their children, they would repudiate the whole monstrous and dishonest business overnight. When a government takes over a people’s economic life, it becomes absolute, and when it has become absolute, it destroys the arts, the minds, the liberties, and the meaning of the people it governs. It is not an accident that Germany, the first paternalistic state of modern Europe, was seized by an uncontrollable dictator who brought on the second world war; not an accident that Russia, adopting a centrally administered economy for humanitarian reasons, has arrived at a tyranny bloodier and more absolute than that of the Czars. And if
All these dangers were foreseen by the political leaders who put our Constitution together after the revolution against
Since Knickerbocker Holiday was written, the power of government in the United States has grown like a fungus in wet weather, price supports and unemployment benefits and farm subsidies are the rule, not the exception, and our government has turned into a giant give-away program, offering far more for votes than was ever paid by the most dishonest ward-heeler in the daysof Mark Hanna. We march steadily toward the prefabricated state. Yet we see clearly that in
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The Great Learning
The ancients who wished to illustrate illustrious virtue throughout the empire, first ordered well their own States. Wishing to order well their States, they first regulated their families. Wishing to regulate their families, they first cultivated their persons. Wishing to cultivate their persons, they first rectified their hearts. Wishing to rectify their hearts, they first sought to be sincere in their thoughts. Wishing to be sincere in their thoughts, they first extended to the utmost their knowledge. Such extension of knowledge lay in the investigation of things.
Things being investigated, knowledge became complete. Their knowledge being complete, their thoughts were sincere. Their thoughts being sincere, their hearts were then rectified. Their hearts being rectified, their persons were cultivated. Their persons being cultivated, their families were regulated. Their families being regulated, their States were rightly governed. Their States being rightly governed, the whole empire was made tranquil and happy.
Confucius (556-479 B.C.)