All Commentary
Saturday, December 1, 1962

They Arent Like Us

The Reverend Mr. Opitz is a member of the staff of the Foundation for Economic Educa­tion.

Collectivists, in all but a few instances, try to base their case on economic grounds. They call at­tention to the plight of needy per­sons or groups and then propose legislation designed to alleviate the situation. Is there a slum? Re­place it with a government hous­ing project. Is there a “depressed area”? Build a “defense plant” there. Is X industry in trouble? Give it a subsidy. Does the econ­omy need a shot in the arm? Hand out a veteran’s bonus. And so on and so on; the list is endless. Each of the items, however, has some­thing in common with all the others; each one proposes to cor­rect an economic problem by po­litical action. There is no deny­ing, in many instances, that the economic problem alluded to is a genuine problem; at issue is the efficacy of political remedies.

The natural way of tackling economic problems, one would think, is by the use of economic means; and so one calls this point to the attention of the “liberal,” the socialist, or the welfare stater. It is wasted effort, for the seed usually falls on barren ground. The economic argument is not hard to follow, and it clearly demonstrates that the economic ends the “liberal” says he wants to attain cannot be reached by the legislative route. This conclusion is buttressed by a brief analysis of the nature of political action, to show its limitations; govern­ment has no economic competence. The “liberal” is singularly un­moved; your arguments don’t seem to get anywhere near him. He acts as if they dealt with con­siderations of only incidental interest to him—and I have been forced to conclude that this is in­deed the case! That is to say, the collectivist is only incidentally concerned with the economic plight of this or that person, or even the country at large. He seizes upon economic problems as an excuse for political action, be­cause at our stage in history this is the handiest and most accept­able excuse available. And he un­dertakes political action to pro­mote his private utopia.

Utopian Dream—Every Cog in Place

The Holy Grail the collectivist pursues is a political vision; he is bemused by the dream of a society running with the smooth precision of a machine—every cog in place, individual performance reduced to routine, novelty eliminated, pre­dictability established. Such is the Brave New World of collectivism; it is a pseudo religious vision, a down to earth rendering of the Kingdom of Heaven, and its prophets hold out economic con­siderations merely as a come-along for the populace, and as a ration­alization. They are unaffected by rebuttals of their economic argu­ments because they attach so little importance to economic matters. Only their utopian vision is really vulnerable, but the problem is—to paraphrase an old cliché—that “we are all utopians now.”

Former Assumptions

These tentative conclusions are rather recent, so far as I am con­cerned. Until recently I tended to assume that “liberals” and welfare staters are folks like us—”us” re­ferring to libertarians and con­servatives. Our goals, while not identical, were at least compatible. We differed on the question of means, but our differences here were discussible. Therefore, when­ever I was buttonholed by a man of the Left, my pitch would run something like this: “You and I are pretty much of one mind on the questions of temporal ends or goals; we desire to see other folks in better circumstances. We would like to see them better housed, better fed, better clothed, and bet­ter educated. We’d like to see them healthier, receiving improved medical care, enjoying more leis­ure, and living in anticipation of a happy old age in a world where the evils of war and poverty are remote. There is more to the truly human life than this, of course, but these are genuine human goods, and they are precisely those ends which many of our contempo­raries hope to attain by using gov­ernment as a means.

“As to the desirability of these ends,” I would tell my “liberal” friends, “we have no particular quarrel; where we differ radically is in the realm of means. You believe that government is an apt instrument for attaining the aforesaid goals, while I hold that these goals cannot be reached via the political route. That is to say, the nature of the political action is such that government cannot possibly be used as a lever to raise the general level of economic, phy­sical, and intellectual well-being. We must, therefore, rely on other means—on men and women in a market economy, working competi­tively and cooperatively, with gov­ernment seeing to it that the rules of the game are not being violated.”

A Confusion Over Means

The assumption behind this opening gambit of mine is that the great social drift of our time—away from the free society and toward one in which men are in­hibited and directed in every sec­tor of their lives—is explicable in terms of a confusion over means. If the way we are traveling is ac­tually the road to serfdom, then—I told myself—it is only be­cause those who are taking us step by step down this road do not realize what awaits us at its end.

The society at the end of the road is regimented; it is operated according to a Plan, and the Plan is imposed by the few at the top on the many at the bottom. Now, planning takes place in every so­ciety. In a complex society, such as the one we live in, the number of plans by individuals, groups, and corporations is virtually in­finite at any given time. The de­cision-making process is split up into millions of parts, and there is free choice in profusion. This sort of thing is incompatible with a Planned Society, and so the Plan­ners must prevent people from carrying out many of their pri­vate plans. Repressive tactics are used to make people conform to the Plan and some people are hurt thereby.

When this deliberate injury to some people as a matter of public policy is pointed out to the Plan­ners, they offer us, in expiation, some words of Lenin to the effect that you can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs. This thought, when it is allowed to sink in, carries some unpleas­ant connotations—even when it is obvious that the egg-breakers ac­tually do have an omelet in mind. But the connotations worsen as the suspicion deepens that perhaps the egg-breakers have no thought of omelets at all! The Plan itself has become their end and goal; they break egg after egg looking for a pearl!

Go back a century or so. Spokes­men for all parties of The Left enunciated their goals in words to which those of us who feel some affinity for the Classic Liberal tradition could respond. They said they wanted to abolish poverty, and so do we; they said they wanted to eliminate war, and we, too, favor peace; they aimed at overcoming man’s epidemic sense of alienation, and we go along.

The Classic Liberal Remedy

No libertarian could conscien­tiously undertake a blanket de­fense of the nineteenth century; and when Karl Marx lit into some of the injustices of his time with the stridency of an Old Testament prophet, he appealed to that sense of fair play which is deeply rooted in our culture. Marx’s remedy, however, was an aggravation of the disease because his analysis and diagnosis were so wide of the mark. He was warped by hatreds, and came to regard the market economy as the fountainhead of social evil—a sort of inverse Deus ex Machina.

Proper analysis, on the other hand, reveals that “the market”—shorthand for the system which provides for unfettered consumer choice—has always been ham­strung by unwarranted political interventions, and that unforeseen injustices invariably occur in con­sequence of such interventions. The Classic Liberal remedy, based on this diagnosis, was to limit government to its proper compe­tence, to the role of an umpire with the power to penalize aggres­sors. This remedy was never fully applied and, given human nature, probably never will be. But under Classic Liberal prodding, society did move in this direction.

In brief, all men of good will, until recently, could come to a rough agreement as to ends, but “liberals” and libertarians clashed on the question of means. Today, however, the “liberals” have a new end: The Plan. The “liberal” es­chatology culminates in a utopia run by their kind; a heaven on earth. They endorse this or that political intervention, then, not as a political means toward some eco­nomic end, but as a Good Thing in itself and as a necessary step in the direction of a society con­ceived in terms of a work of art, the product of a few men’s design and artifice.

The New “Liberal” Alternative

This is not to say that some group of “liberals” has produced a manifesto in which this new tack is announced. Nor is it to suggest that every interventionist is a utopian; many are honestly in error as to the far-reaching ef­fects of some piece of legislation which seems momentarily to con­fer a benefit on AB industry or CD pressure group. A man’s real creed is to be determined by exposing the assumptions on which he habitually acts, and discover­ing their purport.

Perform this surgery on the professional “liberal” and things begin to make more sense. The real pros put through a program of legislation ostensibly to build houses, electrify rural areas, re­lieve the unemployed, take care of the aged, protect the investor, and so on—listing every intervention­ist item in the New Deal-to-New Frontier pharmacopoeia. The sound economists then come for­, ward with an overpowering array of arguments to demonstrate that each intervention will result in a new situation, worse than the old one it was designed to correct; that it will produce economic con­sequences at variance with those intended. These economic argu­ments are not abstruse, and even if they were, the interventionists are not stupid. To the contrary! Why, then, are they immune to economic arguments which rebut their proposals?

Economic Rebuttal Irrelevant

There is only one answer that makes sense. If the pros advo­cated political intervention to at­tain economic ends, they would be crushed by the perfectly valid ar­guments which show that their stated aims cannot be achieved by the means they employ. But if, on the other hand, the pros advo­cate political intervention as a means to attain political ends—with a few economic sops tossed in as a camouflage—then econ­omic rebuttals are irrelevant in this instance. The pro is not try­ing to attain economic ends, even though his words convey this im­pression, and therefore he is not dismayed when someone demon­strates that he cannot attain eco­nomic ends! He seeks a collective utopia as men of other ages have sought personal salvation.

What about power and privi­lege as “liberal” aims? That these are ingredients of every political picture goes without saying. And collectivism of every variety and however diluted—from totalitar­ian communism to the welfare state—creates new power struc­tures in society and aggravates existing ones. It is inevitable, therefore, that some people will be attracted to collectivism by the hope that the revolution will put them on top. Power and control for the sake of power and control exerts an irresistible attraction on some personality types, a topic which occupies the stage in politi­cal writings from Niccolo Machia­velli to Gaetano Mosca; and the minimizing and dispersal of power in society has always been chief among the aims of Classic Liberals.

The drive toward power for its own sake which crops up in to­day’s “liberals” and welfare staters is not a novel thing in hu­man experience. We have met the type before, and thus we can more or less take him in stride. History familiarizes us with power struggles, and we have had some experience in defending our­selves against power seekers.

But defending ourselves against those who pursue a political vision with religious intensity is some­thing else again. This is a mutant form of the political virus and our antibodies are not up to par. The visionary, hitherto, has been a harmless fellow toward whom we tried to be polite. The political visionary, on the other hand, is an armed prophet who hears voices. Against this type our old defenses are of little avail and we must build new ones. Against an intel­lectual and spiritual infection there is no defense except under­standing, and so we must make an earnest effort to understand how this new mood and mentality—utopianism—has arisen.

A Modern Development

It is only since the Renaissance that men have dreamed up utopias in earnest; the attempts associ­ated with the names of Plato and Lycurgus in ancient Greece are half-hearted by comparison. Theancient world looked back to a Golden Age, a lost Eden, by com­parison with which the present and future are unprepossessing. In the modern world, on the other hand, a significant number of peo­ple has been encouraged to be­lieve that progress toward a fu­ture earthly paradise is an inex­orable law of nature. This is not the outlook of the laboratory or the observatory; it is a popular mood generated by the extrava­gant expectations people attach to the largely mysterious goings on in the laboratory and observatory. The various sciences have, since the sixteenth century, accumulated an immense stock of knowledge about the universe and man, in which knowledge there inheres enormous powers of control over both man and nature. Many peo­ple are thus disposed to believe that nothing is beyond the capac­ity of Man, once Man puts his mind, heart, and hands into a project.

The physical sciences have, in the modern era, far outdistanced the social sciences and other dis­ciplines. So much is this the case that the word “scientist” in con­temporary discourse is usually re­served to the chemist and physi­cist alone. The knowledge which comes through other means than those employed by the physical sciences is thought of as protoscientific, and perhaps untrust­worthy. Now, natural science ab­stracts from the totality of things those aspects which are quantita­tive and measurable. It puts to one side, as not being amenable to treatment by its methods, those as­pects of things which are qualita­tive and nonmeasurable. This need not imply any disparagement. The scientist in his laboratory is inter­ested in the classifiable, which means the common features of things; the unique individuality of things eludes the scientific method.

Overworked Scientism

All of this is perfectly legiti­mate, as a method! It is only when that which has been set aside—the qualitative and the unique—is for­gotten or denied that trouble en­sues. The guilty parties here are, more often than not, nonscien­tists; contemporary scientists are quick to point out the limitations of the laboratory. There is the British scientist, E. L. Grant Watson, for instance, who writes, “Life defies measurement. Only the properties of nature, not the essence, can be described in quan­titative terms.” But many of the scientists and publicists of a cen­tury ago were less cautious; they vested science with a messianic significance. Science was to be the universal solvent for all human problems, the means for social re­construction. Socialist theories and socialist parties sprouted abundantly in this climate.

Men of previous ages had dreamed of a society in which the masses of people would be con­trolled by an elite, so that society would run according to rote. The will to control was there, but the only means at hand were so primi­tive that the controls couldn’t be made to stick for long. But now “science” gave would-be control­lers the means, and collectivists tooled up for the job of making men conform to the Plan. The universe, as “science” pictured it, was analogous to a piece of mech­anism, so it was only natural that any society scientifically estab­lished and operated would be a piece of social machinery requir­ing social engineers for its main­tenance.

The Nature of Scientific Laws

A scientific law is more than a terse statement expressing un­varying relations between brute fact; it embodies elegance, sim­plicity, and convenience. A re­cent writer on the philosophical perspectives of modern science en­titles one of his chapters, “Es­thetics and Relativity.” Discus­sing the concept of Invariance, he writes: “Invariance with its im­plied relativity is at least as im­portant in science as it is in art, for in science it introduces not only elegance in the formulation of laws but also a large measure of simplicity and convenience.” A society at once elegant, simple, and convenient would be run like a clock, needing only occasional winding and repair. The collec­tivists had their ideal utopia in direct view.

A piece of clockwork, composed entirely of interlocking, recipro­cating parts conforms more nearly to the requirements of ele­gance, simplicity, and convenience than any living thing. The pro­fusion of life in even a tiny garden patch—its individuality, its wildness, its defiance of en­tropy, its lack of uniformity, and its unmanageableness—is the despair of the mind that demands elegance. And when a man with this cast of mind regards the an­tics of his fellow men when they are free, it is with a kind of hor­ror and loathing. So it was with Sir Thomas More—if his Utopia really reflects his own taste. Hu­man waywardness must be stamped out of utopia; uniformity inflicted. “Having rooted out of the minds of their people all the seeds both of ambition and fac­tion,” writes More, “there is no danger of any commotion at home.” Nor would these de-in­dividualized robots be able to dis­tinguish one of their territories from another: “He that knows one of their towns, knows them all.”

Every utopia is regarded as a final accomplishment; it is at the end of a line. Development has proceeded up to that point, but at that point it must stop. Such a society has a symmetry which can­not be matched by the free so­ciety, not even in theory. It is the perfect adjustment to environ­ment attained only when life and growth are over, that is to say, by a corpse!

A Spell Is Broken—A Chance To Breathe Freely

But perhaps a new mood is evolving in our day, more con­genial to life and liberty. The ap­pearance of anti-utopian fiction is one straw in the wind. The spell of utopianism is broken when men begin to write novels like 1984 and Brave New World, giving the forces of life, develop­ment, growth, and freedom some air to breathe. Aldous Huxley’s hero in the latter book is a rebel, called simply The Savage. He fails to adjust to the generally im­posed uniformity, and when he fi­nally confronts the dictator, Mus­tapha Mond, this exchange oc­curs:

The dictator says, “We prefer to do things comfortably.”

The Savage replies, “But I don’t want comfort. I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness. I want sin.”

“In fact,” said Mustapha Mond, “you’re claiming the right to be unhappy.”

“All right then,” said the Sav­age defiantly, “I’m claiming the right to be unhappy.”

“Not to mention the right to grow old and ugly and impotent; the right to have syphilis and can­cer; the right to have too little to eat; the right to be lousy; the right to live in constant appre­hension of what may happen to­morrow; the right to catch ty­phoid; the right to be tortured by unspeakable pains of every kind.”

There was a long silence.

“I claim them all,” said the Savage at last.

The assessment of life implied by this dialogue is profoundly anti-utopian, but it corresponds to a proper reading of the human condition. The facts of life are stubborn things indeed, and we neglect them at our peril. There is no social insulation capable of shielding us from the way things are; we must face life as individ­ual persons in a society which is not based on any attempted mass denial of life. The map of life has no spot marked “utopia.”



A Heal Problem

Our generators, machines, and computers are precisely measur­able, controllable, and predictable but the causes of the release of human energy are not; least of all the ultimate source of all energy and creativeness: the human mind. A real problem in our society today is to find the way to keep free, to foster, and to incite that great source of all our accomplishments: the restless exploration and creativeness of the human mind.

N. J. Mckinnon, President Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce

  • The Rev. Edmund A. Opitz (1914-2006) was a Congregationalist minister, a FEE staff member, who for decades championed the cause of a free society and the need to anchor that society in a transcendent morality. A man of wide reading and high culture, Opitz was for many years on the staff of the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington-on-Hudson, New York. He was one of the few voices in the 1950s through the 1990s calling for an integrated understanding between economic liberty and religious sensibility. He was the founder and coordinator of the Remnant, a fellowship of conservative and libertarian ministers.