March 1971—the 25th Anniversary of The Foundation for Economic Education!
"Well, what on earth have you accomplished in a quarter century?"
That is a valid question which, alas, cannot be answered with a Victory salute. Indeed, surface appearances point to nothing but losses, the broad social practice of freedom having steadily waned through the years since FEE began. In the light of such evidence, why keep trying?
There is reason aplenty for persistent effort, not only on our part but on yours, whoever you are.
The private ownership, free exchange, limited government way of life, more stumbled upon than brought about by any precise design, has no long-range survival value except as a supporting rationality comes to the rescue.’ This remarkable politico-economic arrangement cannot last without intellectual, moral, and spiritual underpinnings, many of which have yet to be discovered, understood, explained. In the absence of understanding, coercive collectivism—statism—spills in to occupy the vacuum. Witness what’s happening!
In a sense, then, these 25 years have been a period of probing beneath our waywardness to solid foundations upon which to erect and refine a rationale that will make a free society possible.
Do our troubles stem from economic illiteracy? We thought so in the beginning. Without discounting the need for economic understanding, we no longer view it as the bedrock on which to build. For were everyone lacking in moral scruples, the mastery of economics would not make a whit of difference. Fundamentally, ours is a moral problem.
What Accounts for the Rises and Declines of Society?
All history attests to the rise and decline of nations, societies, civilizations. And any thoughtful person, when his own society appears to be on the wane, will try to get at the root of the matter. What is the unique strength of an emerging society or the peculiar weakness that leads toward social decline? What accentuates these ups and downs? Why this monotonous evolutionary-devolutionary sequence?
If there were a simple and obvious explanation, it long since would have been brought into the open for all to see and, hopefully, bent to our purpose.
I believe that this obscure force, or the lack of it, must be identified with the human psyche; it is a quality that develops or deteriorates in the minds of men. The cause of these ups and downs occurs within each individual. Contagious, yes, for like begets like; but this would be the only sense in which the force might be construed as social. Unquestionably, this is a personal problem.
What, then, can it be? I suggest that it has to do with the rise and decline of integrity: the accurate reflection in word and deed of whatever one’s highest conscience dictates as Truth. Such dictates of conscience may not in fact be Truth but they are the nearest approximation possible for any human being—the closest he can ever come to The Kingdom.
What is to be inferred from "The Kingdom"? If one posits, as I do, an Infinite Consciousness, an out-of-reach Ideal—Creation —then Infinite Truth is The Kingdom. And the eternal challenge to imperfect man is that he bring himself into as much possession of Truth as he can.
The key is familiar, though rarely understood as related to the ups and downs of societies: "Seek ye first the Kingdom of God and his Righteousness, and these things will be added unto you." This admonition is being ignored and thus lies in near obscurity.
In other words, if one will first and foremost seek Truth (The Kingdom) and Righteousness (integrity), then these things—a societal rise being one of "these things"—will be the dividend. But, seek first the dividend, thereby relegating Truth and Righteousness to an inferior position, then the result surely will be a society in decline. In the words of C. S. Lewis, "Aim at Heaven and you get earth thrown in. Aim at earth and you will get neither."²
Truth Is Righteousness
Now to my point: Truth and Righteousness cannot be torn asunder without obliterating Truth; these are two sides of the same moral coin, that is, they are the inseparable components of The Kingdom on earth! To illustrate: It is a sin to feather my own nest at the expense of others. My highest conscience pronounces this as a Truth. For me to speak or write or act in a contrary manner is to indulge in dissimulation, to flout Righteousness, to live a lie, to deny the Truth that is within me.
With reference to the rise and decline of integrity, it is necessary, at the outset, to re-emphasize that whatever any individual’s conscience dictates as Truth may not in fact be Truth but here, and here alone, reside such Truths as mankind possesses. One’s highest conscience not only can but often does hold fallacies and errors to be Truths. No human being is or ever has been free from this flaw. Thus, even our most accurate reflections—integrity—pronounce fallacies and errors, perhaps more often than not.
Reflect on the millions of people who make perfectly honest pronouncements on subjects about which they know little, if anything at all. For instance, according to the tenets I hold to be Truths, Karl Marx expounded numerous errors. Yet, he was—at some points—a man of integrity and in 1848 proudly claimed this virtue for himself and his kind: "The communists disdain to conceal their views and aims." I like the young Marx for that!
And I admire integrity in everyone despite the fact that accurate reflection in word and deed projects an enormous amount of nonsense.
Consider those who speak or write or act contrary to what they believe to be Truth, those who practice dissimulation. Is nonsense thereby curbed? Indeed, it is not; it is multiplied. Were everyone to behave in this manner, Truth would have no way of coming to light—mankind confronted entirely with falsehood!
There are Truths and many are known, else we would not be here. But we must look upon man-perceived Truths as extreme rarities when compared to Infinite Truth. These rare and precious gems of Truth, like diamonds, are mined—brought to the surface—for man’s use in company with inordinate amounts of useless residue.
When integrity is the rule, fallacies and errors are brought honestly into the open, where they can be seen and discarded. Precisely as in mining, the waste is relegated to the slag pile!
"We are all dwarfs mounted upon the shoulders of giants."3 Who are the giants, the ones on whose shoulders all of us are mounted? Exclusively the ones who have, over the ages, combined Righteousness with such Truths as they apprehended—men of integrity! Civilization, indeed the very existence of mankind, rests on integrity! Civilizations can rise only as that virtue is practiced and held sacred; they must decline when dissimulation is the mood and the mode.
What of those who seek first the dividends rather than the Kingdom? What are "these things"? One need not look into the behavior of others in order to find this reversal of emphasis. I can look into the mirror and there are plenty of examples. True, some of these desires for "things" have been overcome, disciplined out of practice, but the scars remain and the memories persist as temptations. However, they must be recognized for what they are—"these things" or dividends—if I am not to yield to them.
For instance, I wish to be favorably received by a certain scholarly, affluent individual who believes in the essentially free society—except tariffs. Shall I conceal from him my belief in free exchange, thus trying to win his approbation, or shall I reveal what my conscience dictates as Truth, inviting his enmity? This is a considerable temptation. But if I were to yield, and everyone else did the same, freedom in transactions would be an unknown concept. To yield is dissimulation; not to yield is integrity.
Or, take the thesis I’m propounding here. Suppose "The Kingdom" were positively scorned by everyone else rather than simply ignored as it is today by those who proclaim that God is dead. Shall I reveal, or conceal, what my conscience dictates as Truth? One is tempted to "go along" with the crowd, rather than risk abuse and disgrace.
"I must be practical" is among the most forbidding obstacles to Righteousness. When socialism is rampant, as now, there is the temptation to weasel, to compromise or, at best, to counsel a cautious and gradual retreat, thus condoning by implication the socialistic thesis. I once asked a distinguished economist why he inserted one socialistic chapter in an otherwise excellent book. He thought it would save him from excessive condemnation by the academic fraternity. There is the temptation not to stand alone with conscience; one fears being regarded as "a nut."
Fame, fortune, acclaim, popularity, and the like are "these things." And to seek them first is to risk a substitution of dissimulation for integrity. Seek Truth, then "these things" come along as the dividend.
Admittedly, this basic admonition calls for faith in something beyond the obvious. Why my faith?
Not Dangerous to Be Honest
Twenty-six years ago, I came to New York City as the Executive Vice-President of the National Industrial Conference Board. Shortly after arrival, I was invited to meet with a dozen top corporate executives, an ad hoc affair unrelated to the NICB. Following dinner, the purpose of the meeting was revealed: "We are here not to discuss the merits or demerits of the Full Employment Act; we are all opposed to it. The question is, what shall we do about it?" Immediately, I resolved to be a listener only. For how these men might appraise the newcomer would have much to do with my career.
For two hours I listened: "We must not reveal our position; instead, we shall hire college professors to appear before the Congressional Committee and speak our piece." And so on.
Finally, one of them asked my views. The thoughts that raced through my mind! If I tell these men what I really think, I am a goner. Not to tell them is to live a lie, to seek approval before men rather than God. I told them! There was dead silence, my fate seemingly sealed. Then one of them exclaimed, "Read is right!"
As it turned out, their views were presented openly to the Congress by one of them. As for me, this was among the most rewarding and instructive experiences of my life. Every one of that group welcomed me as a friend, often seeking my counsel. Why? Each felt certain that I would tell him the truth as I saw it.
Experience tells me it is not dangerous to be honest, to practice integrity. Indeed, accurate reflection of what one believes to be Truth engenders respect, trust, friendliness—assuming, of course, that one is not argumentative, abusive, and cantankerous. And why should one be? I have no call to compel anyone to accept my views; my moral obligation is to express my thoughts honestly for whatever others may wish to make of them.
Truth for Its Own Sake
While it is true that integrity breeds respect, trust, friendliness, and other desiderata, it is well to keep in mind that these are only dividends. Therefore, it is not for these that one is righteous but for Truth’s sake, and that alone. It is simply a matter of getting the priorities in proper order.
Finally, the individual who practices integrity is teachable for, by definition, he is a Truth seeker. The dissimulator, on the other hand is, at best, no more than a dividend seeker. He has torn Truth and Righteousness apart and, thus, has alienated himself from such Truth as is within him. Until he reverses the priorities, he is not educable.
As one reflects on this subject, it becomes obvious that when dissimulation is widespread, as it seems to be now, nations, societies, civilizations suffer decline. To reverse the direction requires only that integrity become the way, the mode, the style. Then Truth will out—not all at once, never fully to any man or any generation or even during any century, but bit by bit to those who persist in the eternal search.
To Reverse the Direction
ONE FREE MAN says frankly what he thinks and feels in the midst of thousands who by their actions and words maintain just the opposite. It might be supposed that the man who has frankly expressed his thought would remain isolated, yet in most cases it happens that all, or the majority, of the others have long thought and felt the same as he, only they have not expressed it. And what yesterday was the novel opinion of one man becomes to-day the general opinion of the majority. And as soon as this opinion is established, at once by imperceptible degrees but irresistibly, the conduct of mankind begins to alter.
LEO TOLSTOY, from the essay, "Patriotism and Christianity" (1894)
1 For a development of this point, see "A Role for Rationality" in my Let Freedom Reign (Irvington-on-Hudson, N. Y.: The Foundation for Economic Education, 1969), pp. 9-24.
2 See Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis. (London: Goeffrey Bles, Ltd., 1953), p. 106.
3 Fulbert of Chartres (Eleventh Century)