All Commentary
Monday, January 1, 1973

The Premises of Freedom

Dr. Dozer is Professor of History Emeritus at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

The “mania of saving worlds,” wrote Thomas Carlyle, “is itself a piece of the Eighteenth Century with its windy sentimentalism. Let us not follow it too far. For the saving of the world I will trust confidently to the Maker of the world; and look a little to my own saving, which I am more competent to!”¹

As individuals we are not, in any realistic sense, as much a neighbor to the English clerk in Fleet Street, or to the Russian worker in Dnepropetrovsk, or to the Chinese peasant in Yunnan as we are to Mr. and Mrs. John Doe across the way. We all live in the world, but we do not live for the world at large except in a way which is meaningless for all practical purposes. “They have had a peace meeting here” in Concord, Henry D. Thoreau wrote to Ralph Waldo Emerson who was in England in November 1847, “and some men, Deacon Brown at the head, have signed a long pledge, swearing that they will ‘treat all mankind as brothers henceforth.’ I think I shall wait and see how they treat me first.”

Each of us lives in a community which has, to be sure, round-the world relationships, but which, at the same time has a hard core of community relationships transcending in importance those of any other area. The challenge to successful living on the Main Streets of America is greater and even more exhilarating than is the call to “Greenland’s icy mountains” or “India’s coral strand.” In each individual conscience is found the only true basis for universality.

“To be of one’s own region, of one’s corner of the earth,” writes the Brazilian sociologist, Gilberto Freyre, “is to be more of a person, a living creature, closer to reality. One must belong to one’s own house in order to belong more intensely to humanity.”2 Like Antaeus of old we renew our strength every time we touch our own earth. We will find our best inspiration in our own reality. Did not Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, Lincoln as they worked and lived in the service of their nation perform also a service to mankind in general? In this sense they can truly be called cosmopolitan patriots, whose fame endures precisely because they were, first of all, patriots. Universal values can have meaning for us all only within the framework of our own national realities. The more intensely we live our American beliefs the more fully we enrich the human race.

In international relations voluntarism or the free consent of peoples, growing out of the genius and efforts of each nation, must remain our principal reliance. Our dictates are resented by foreign peoples, for many of those peoples have traditions and cultures long antedating ours and they like their own ways. Our creed of liberty does not authorize us ever to say to another people: “We know what is good for you better than you yourself know, and we are going to make you do it.” Too many people think they know what is good for other people. To assume all wisdom and all justice is to fall into a fatal delusion of universality, if not indeed divinity. It was Hamlet’s tragedy that he believed that because the time was “out of joint” he “was born to set it right.” Our peccavimus must, therefore, include the greatest of all sins, blasphemy, or making ourselves equal with God. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes once said that the first lesson of philosophy is to learn that one is not God.

The Political Dilemma

Our persistent political dilemma arises from the fact that while we assume in our political philosophy that only the people can say, through their ballots, what is good for them they expect their leaders to tell them what is good for them and to get it for them. The ideological battle between John Stuart Mill and Karl Marx still goes on, projected with vital meaning into our present age. It is a conflict between those who hold that government should do only what individuals themselves lack the means to do and those who demand that government assume a positive role in promoting individual welfare; between those who would enlarge the area of individual initiative and freedom and those who would circumscribe it with legislative and official limitations; between those who regard society as only a changing complex of individual citizens and those who consider it as an organic specimen to be systematized and directed; between those who would keep open the book of life containing the pages of the past and those who would write a brand new book starting with the pat formulas of a narrow science. In this conflict the old liberalism of the free man in society will be destroyed by the new positivism unless we do something about it.

What we all desire is to get some of the advantages of conscious social management without sacrificing our individual freedom. Our most difficult problem as social beings is to derive from society the constant aid that we need without accepting its yoke. What we really want is the fullest possible individualism consistent with the putative benefits of collectivism. The individual action which is most highly esteemed and which is most satisfying over the years is not utterly free individualistic abandon but rather individual enterprise which is socially motivated. We desire a balanced combination of responsible individual action on the one hand and responsible social action on the other. But we must exert constant vigilance to ensure first the achievement and then the maintenance of this essential balance between the individualistic-anarchist impulse on the one hand and the collectivist-socialist impulse on the other. The emphasis must be placed not upon equality but upon the harmony of unequal classes and individuals. This is the synthesis which we desire. This is the reconciliation between the old liberalism and the new. “The individual,” Reinhold Niebuhr has acknowledged, “cannot find his fulfillment outside of the community; but he also cannot find fulfillment completely within society.”3

Voluntary Cooperation

Social action taken primarily for the purpose of creating favorable conditions for individual development, if undertaken cooperatively, is not inconsistent with the fullest individual freedom. In just such endeavors men may reach their highest sense of accomplishment and feel their greatest glow of satisfaction. By voluntary, cooperative action the American pioneers raised their homes in new wildernesses and organized joint stock companies without direction by government. By concerted group activity a people not only may harden their own fiber and character but may enrich themselves by their own efforts, literally raising themselves by their own bootstraps. All the people in a society acting together can do many constructive and wholesome acts which single individuals cannot do. But the value of every cooperative effort, every institution, every governmental policy must be judged by its effect upon individuals. If it is not conducive to individual growth it must be abandoned, for the aim of society must be not society but the individual. The objective that must be kept steadily in mind is to increase the range of opportunities open to each individual in society and to create the kind of conditions which will predispose him to make moral choices as between the largest possible number of available opportunities.

The Great Danger of Ascribing Moral Attributes to Government

Great danger comes from ascribing moral attributes and therefore moral duties to government. For government is not moral, though a state may make itself a champion of moral causes and may claim moral power for political purposes. The proper function of government is to enact and enforce legal justice as between man and man, not to establish changed economic and social relations between them. When it tries to do the latter it finds itself lacking in legal criteria for action. Statutory enactments may adequately define legal justice, but they cannot define social justice. When a government undertakes to be the fountainhead of social justice it makes itself responsible not simply for the legal or orderly operation of society but also for the moral conduct of individuals in society. As the number of citizens who act illegally is much smaller than the number who act immorally, the state which claims social justice functions must enlarge not only its obligations but also its coercive authority. Love and charity are primarily individual responsibilities. They cannot be practiced or enforced by society as a whole. Social justice is a paradox and social love is meaningless. What kind of social action can possibly be taken which will assure to all citizens freedom from want and freedom from fear? And would not such action also necessarily have to assure them freedom from desire and ambition, freedom from adventuring, and freedom from risk?

We can be certain that no social action can be justified in the long run if it causes individuals to lose their integrity and character. The indispensable thing is the preservation of personal morale, the élan vital or inner drive of individuals, the right of each individual to be a person. What is needed is a reassertion of egoism, a new ringing, hands-clenched affirmation by each individual that “I am I. I am a unique human being. I want to live my life, and I am not willing to be suffocated even by those who wish me well and say that they intend to do me good.” As Ayn Rand is pointing out, it is a psychological impossibility to live someone else’s life. If people do not live their own lives, nobody will live at all. If life, as Coleridge defined it, is “the principle of individuation” then fusion, coalition, alliance, and merger which destroys variety and suppresses individualism is death.4 Whatever builds up individual virtue, therefore, is socially good; whatever tears it down is socially evil. Whatever increases human worth increases the strength of our society; whatever reduces it weakens us all.

The maintenance of the proper balance between individualism and collectivism requires that state intervention should only supplement individual requirements in character and degree. When it does more, the state starts down the road toward totalitarianism. What is acceptable social conduct for an individual must be determined largely by the individual himself, except in cases which have been deemed to be of overriding social concern ever since the Mosaic code.

Man Inclined Toward Goodness

This conception assumes that an impulse toward good citizenship is the natural condition of mankind. If it were not so, government and social life generally would be impossible. To nurture this condition but not to smother it is the true function of government. Governmental action should be limited merely to attempts to remove the more formidable barriers to the achievement of this goodness, without, however, forgetting that the individual struggle for goodness, is, by divine law, a necessary part of the process. Our assumption that we can eliminate tragedy from human life is an impious conceit, for tragedy is embedded in the very processes of history. The ancient Greeks, who perhaps attained the finest adjustment to life of any people in the world’s history, accepted tragedy and tried to sublimate it into something constructive. “The final wisdom of life,” says Niebuhr, “requires, not the annulment of incongruity but the achievement of serenity within and above it.”5

Only the travailing soul experiences great spiritual revelations and produces great works of art. The most beautiful lines in a human face are the lines etched there by struggle. Unless the chrysalis of the butterfly is allowed to struggle out of its cocoon it does not develop the wing strength necessary to fly. If the stone in the arch of great cathedrals is not made to bear its full share of structural stress, it will crumble away — not from strain but from lack of strain. Opposition must not be undervalued as a stimulus to action. “To overcome difficulties,” wrote Schopenhauer, “is to experience the full delight of existence.” The destiny of humanity, it appears, is to advance through personal struggle. Nothing is more certain than that in the divine scheme of things each individual must endure the consequences of his own wrongdoing, misjudgments, and shortcomings.

The Values Individuals Hold

We must believe that the final judgment on our handling of the problems of our times will be expressed in terms of individual values. The passion for the preservation of those values is ineradicable in every human being. Even mod, which represents the height of collectivist effort, must still be “sold” to the people under the guise of promoting individual liberty. The first desideratum for an ordered universe is to establish order within each individual self. This point was made many centuries ago by the Chinese philosopher Confucius, as follows:

The ancients who wished to illustrate illustrious virtue throughout the kingdom first ordered well their own states.

Wishing to order well their own 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 kingdom was made tranquil and happy.6

The question that constantly haunts each one of us, despite all the hapless confusion and obscurantism with which it has been surrounded, is “How shall I live up to the best in my own nature?” This is intensely personal. Each one must begin with himself, through a repentance and rebirth which will establish a new and right relationship between himself on the one hand and God and his fellow men on the other. Only such an effort of individual wills can restore the sanity and relieve the hypertension of our years. The essential problem is the problem of sin in the world, and no one has ever found a mechanistic answer to that. When a durable answer is found it will have to be found in each human heart. We perceive that the rules that govern our mastery of the physical world are of little avail in spiritual matters. Our material wealth is accompanied by spiritual poverty. We realize that “the infinite perfectibility of man” of which Thomas Jefferson spoke is not attainable by our methods. It is our spiritual deficiencies which predispose us to failure and fright.

The human adventure is not a really human adventure unless it is viewed as also a divine adventure. The founders of the American government wisely warned that the durability of the new nation would depend upon individual virtue. Whether to make that our goal or not is the decision on which our future hinges.

Faith in Freedom

We must place our faith in the excellence of free institutions and their destiny to survive. The Soviets have preached so dogmatically the inevitable triumph of Communism that they have contrived to draw the design of history over to their side. We need a counter-faith in the inevitable triumph of freedom. We need to remind ourselves that everything truly evil will in time disclose and punish itself. It is the function of evil to destroy itself. Otherwise we would not be living in a moral universe, a universe which makes sense. Collectivist pressures to make the American system over in a foreign image muffle our voices when we try to speak out for human freedom. A society in which the government is supreme over its citizens is not a free society. A governmentally managed economy is not a free economy. A state which is the master and not the agent of its citizens is a total state.

To the extent to which we subordinate ourselves to foreign influences or limit the freedom of individual citizens beyond traditional bounds the authority of our national example is limited. It behooves individuals, therefore, so to order their lives as to conform to the framework of history within which they live and move, confident that this framework is divinely implanted within it.

We can do so only when we make sure that the present lives in harmony with the past. If we can accomplish this result we can be optimistic about the future, for, in the words of Professor William Ernest Hocking, “no man who knows reality as purposeful, and history as therefore significant, can have a right to ultimate doubt, nor to ultimate fear, nor to ultimate condemnation.”7 Freedom should not be impatient, for she is immortal.



1 “The Hero as Man of Letters” in Heroes and Hero Worship (Boston, 1902), 203.

2 Gilberto Freyre, Região e Tradicão (Rio de Janeiro, 1941), 20.

3 Reinhold Niebuhr, The Irony of American History (New York, 1952), 62.

 4 Samuel Taylor Coleridge, quoted in Joseph Needham, Time, The Refreshing River (London, 1943), 187.

5 Reinhold Niebuhr, op. cit., 62-63. ern war

6 James Legge, The Chinese Classics, 5 vols., (Hong Kong University Press, Hong Kong, 1960), I, 357-359.

7 William Ernest Hocking, Strength of Men and Nations: A Message to the U.S.A. visa vis the U.S.S.R., (Harper and Brothers, Publishers, New York, 1959), 8.



Nature’s Way

Sentimental men and women, observing the weaknesses of the human race, hope to spare their fellow-beings pain and suffering by relieving them of personal responsibility.

Thus we get our uplift movements, our paternalism, our coddling of the shiftless, the thriftless, the unfit.

This man will not save money for his old age; therefore, we shall do his saving for him.

Another man will not learn a trade; therefore, we shall protect him against the consequences by unemployment insurance. A third man refuses to conserve his health; therefore, we shall pay him a weekly dole in time of sickness.

That is not nature’s way. Nature would compel us to suffer the consequences of our acts. Nature puts the responsibility on the individual.

I do not argue for less sympathy and kindness. I merely urge the necessity of responsibility.

From The William Feather Magazine, October, 1972