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Sunday, January 1, 1956

Two Points Of View

The author, for nine years a parish minister, formerly directed the conference program for Spiritual Mobilization, and in that capacity held a number of two-day seminars for clergymen and laymen designed to promote a better understanding of the libertarian philosophy. Similar questions recurred at many of these conferences, and experience suggested ways of clearing up certain persistent misunderstandings. The following dialogue is a reconstruction of many conversations. Mr. Opitz is now a member of the staff of the Foundation for Economic Education.

A: I am in favor of private enterprise—wherever it can do the job—and I am as much opposed as you are to big government. But I am more opposed to poor housing, poor medical care, unemployment and other social evils. These evils are so pressing that I am willing to risk the dangers of big government to overcome them.

B: I am in full sympathy with your desire to rid society of the evils you mention, so let’s talk then about your suggested method: relying on the instrumentality of government as a means of getting better housing, better medical care and full employment.

A: Please remember that I do not favor strengthening the power of government for its own sake. I would much prefer that private enterprise provide the necessary housing, medical care and so on. But let’s face the fact that private enterprise is not adequately providing these services for large numbers of people.

For example, I’m thinking of what was once a bad slum in Chicago. Private enterprise had every opportunity to clear that slum and erect decent dwellings on the site. But it did not do so. That would have been my first choice as a remedy for that evil condition. My second choice would have been for the local government to take care of that situation, and my third choice would have been the state government. But none of these agencies did anything, so the federal government stepped in, and now we have large apartment houses where once there were slums.

B: You said that private enterprise failed to do the job. What do you mean by private enterprise?

A: I mean private investors who would supply the funds and private builders who would do the building, both groups having an eye for profits. The prospect of profits looked slim, so both groups selfishly failed to act.

B: In other words, when you speak of private enterprise, you have in mind a contractor in business for himself who would be hired by other private individuals for this slum clearance job. And the spark that sets in motion this chain of events is the decision of individuals that the best way to employ their time, skills and money is to clear a slum and build an apartment house.

A: That is what might have happened, but it didn’t happen, so the government stepped in.

B: Take these investors who would prefer to use their money in some other way than you might prescribe. Who are they?

A: Banks or insurance companies, most likely.

B: Do you have a bank account and carry insurance?

A: Yes, I have both.

B: Do you expect interest on your money, or dividends from your insurance policies?

A: Yes, of course.

B: How is it possible for a bank to pay you interest, or an insurance company to pay you dividends?

A: That’s easy. My money is pooled with the money of others and is then loaned to people who will pay for the use of it.

B: Suppose your bank loaned your money to people who used it unwisely and could not repay it.

A: I’d raise a big howl, naturally.

B: Of course you would. But the only way your banker can show a legitimate return on your money is to loan it to people who can make productive use of it. This means to use it profitably in satisfying the most urgent needs of the consuming public.

So when you say that private enterprise did not replace slum dwellings with an apartment house, you are saying that the people hired by you to manage your money did not think it profitable to invest it in a housing project.

A: That sounds plausible.

B: Let me put the matter another way. There is no such entity as “private enterprise”; it is not a small, clearly identifiable group of people. What we call “private enterprise” is simply the result of uncoerced decisions on the part of millions of people as to how they might best use their energies, skills, time and money. So when you say that private enterprise had an opportunity to clear a slum and did not do it, you are merely saying that individuals of their own volition had decided to use their energies in other directions. Now if you feel that people are mistaken and foolish in their decisions, you have a right to try to persuade them to do differently.

A: That process is too slow. We’d never get the slum cleared if we waited until people had been educated to recognize their responsibilities.

B: When you act on the idea that you know what is best for other people, that you know what are wise decisions for them to make, you are building up a dangerous frame of mind in yourself.

A: I don’t see that it is dangerous. What do you mean?

B: it is dangerous in three respects. In the first place, the lust for power over the lives of others is spiritually disastrous. Trying to run other people’s lives is harmful to you. Secondly, resentment piles up in the people you are trying to control; they don’t like being pushed around and would rather make mistakes, provided they are their own mistakes, than achieve successes, if they are your successes. They feel that a precious part of them is being violated. Thirdly, when the energy of people is at your disposal, they have been made into your creatures. According to the religion you profess, men are creatures of God. If this is so, then your effort to make them your creatures means that you are trying to play God to them.

A: You have me wrong! I don’t want to run anybody’s life for him, and I think I agree with everything you say about the evils of trying to do so. All I have in mind is that the needs of the community shall be paramount over the selfish desires of individuals.

B: Does the community have needs which are separate and different from the needs and desires of the people who compose it?

A: No, what I meant to say was that people should not be allowed to build such things as movie theaters, ball parks, saloons or beauty parlors until the demand for good housing is met.

B: we are now back on the point you raised earlier: People should not be allowed to spend their money or invest their energy as they might choose, but rather, as you want them to do.

A: Not as I want, but as society wants. Don’t you understand?

B: I understand this much, that some people are going to make other people do something against their wills, and that you approve and advocate such a system.

A: It is not that I approve of this necessity, or advocate it. I merely face the harsh fact that this is the way people are; they won’t take care of themselves, they waste their resources on cheap entertainment, and some of them drink and gamble.

Now I personally do not want to run the lives of other people; goodness knows I have enough trouble with my own. All I am saying is that the majority wants good housing and has the instrument of government through which it can get good housing. You say that some people will make other people do things against their wills. But if a majority wants to achieve a social end by means of political action, isn’t that all right? This is still a democracy where a majority has some rights, isn’t it?

B: Permit me to retrace one or two of our steps. I am only interested in providing an accurate translation of the words you use, so that we may better understand what it is we are deciding. Thus, when you said that private enterprise refused to do what you thought it ought to do, we agreed that this meant that people would not voluntarily consent to do what you wanted them to do. Then, when you suggest as a remedy for this situation that the government step in, the translation reads, “You people had your opportunity to do this thing voluntarily, and you didn’t take it—so we’re going to make you do it whether you want to or not!” You seek to take the curse off this by making it appear to be the will of the majority and by using government to implement your will. I should like to put a few questions to you on this. First, let me ask how you feel about preventing a man from following the dictates of his own will and conscience and forcing him to do your bidding—assuming that the man is not injuring anyone.

A: It would be wrong for me to do that. I would be violating the moral law.

B: i am glad to hear you put it in terms of moral law. If you declare that it is wrong for you to attempt to dictate another’s life for him, do you believe that the moral law abdicates when you are joined by a majority to run someone’s life?

A: I don’t believe that the moral law abdicates, but neither do I think it right that a majority should be thwarted in its will.

B: It is not likely that a majority will be prevented from having its way, because it has the power to achieve it by force. But, can a majority repeal the moral law?

A: Why no, of course not.

B: Then you contradict your earlier statement that the majority should not be thwarted in its will. A majority has no right to do wrong.

Right and wrong, if they have any real meaning at all, have a meaning independent of numbers. If it is wrong for you to control another’s life, it is equally wrong for a majority to do it. Under our form of government, and also in our culture patterns, it is unconstitutional as well as immoral for majorities to tamper with your religion or deprive you of your right of assembly, petition and so on.

A: I agree with you about majorities. But how about government? Isn’t government the instrument of all the people for the attainment of certain social goals?

B: To be consistent, I must argue that anything which is wrong for us to do is equally wrong for governments to do. The same moral law binds both. Government is composed of men, and it is a social agency amenable to our wills; therefore its actions are judged by the same criteria that you recognize as binding upon yourself. This means that when government forces some people to clear a slum and build an apartment, though they would rather spend their energies building a ball park or a factory or a church, it is violating the same moral law that you would violate if you personally secured the same result with gun in hand.

A: I get your point, but let me ask you a question. Are there no social goals which people can attain through the instrumentality of their government without violating the moral law?

B: Whenever government grants a special privilege or grants a subsidy, there is a seeming benefit conferred upon some people—but this seeming benefit is always at the expense of someone else. Everybody pays into the tax pool, but only the political favorites take out of the pool more than they put in. As another example, some industries have obtained tariffs which spared them the competition of foreign manufacturers. These industries were thus able to force the citizens of this country to pay more for the things they buy, or do without them. To put the matter as a generalization: Government has the power to confer economic privilege; and because government has no economic goods of its own, the privilege conferred upon some must be at the expense of others.

But a government which does this cannot be a government of equal justice for all—a concept which is part of the American dream.

A: What you are saying, as I understand it, is that the moment government does more than protect individual rights, it invades them.

B: Correct. There is no neat set of answers to social questions, nor to any other questions. Human beings are not in possession of ultimate truth. The collectivists, however, seem to feel that they have captured truth for their side. That accounts for their willingness to back their convictions with force. True, they don’t force others to re-cite their creed, but the only way that government can carry out the program they advocate is by using force on people.

We create troubles when we conceal reality from ourselves by the words we use. There are not many evil men who enjoy using violence on people, but there are millions who do not know that they are actually advocating violence when they recommend a certain course of action.

A: Perhaps I am among the guilty ones. I just hated to see people living under those dreadful slum conditions, and I wanted those conditions corrected.

B: Every man of good will is in agreement with your aim of clearing up bad housing conditions. But you ought to apply two tests to your remedy. We have been examining the first test: Does the application of the remedy violate the moral law? Any remedy that seeks to help some people by actually hurting other people, is a violation of the moral law. The second test is a practical one: Is the remedy the most efficient one that can be found? To seek a remedy by political action is to employ violence as a stimulant to action, rather than some other motivation, such as the desire to help one’s fellows, or the desire to profit.

You can read a Portuguese version of this article here

  • 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.