All Commentary
Sunday, November 1, 1964

What Price Freedom?

Leopold Schwarzschild (1891-1950), distin­guished journalist and editor and opponent of rising German nationalism, was forced to flee his native Germany by the Hitler government end lived in the United States after 1940.

This article is reprinted by permission from Primer of the Coming World published in 1944 by Alfred A. Knopf.

Socialism makes its principal ap­peal on economic grounds, but, paradoxical as this may sound, its economic aspects are in the last analysis secondary. It raises a problem of a quite different na­ture, a problem which towers above the economic one as the Hi­malayas tower above the cliffs of Dover. This problem is to what extent socialism imperils human freedom. And what we are discuss­ing here is not the freedom of mil­lionaires. No, it is your, our, my freedom that is in question. Nor is it the perverted thing repre­sented as “freedom” by modern sophists that concerns us, but freedom without sophisms, the one for which testimony has been given in prison and exile, on gal­lows and battlefields, in every pe­riod of history.

Frankly, if this were not the problem, it would hardly be worth while to argue, it certainly would not be worth while to fight about it. The prospect that socialism will slow up rather than hasten eco­nomic progress would not suffice to excite men’s minds. They would be disappointed in their expecta­tions; but, after all, they are used to that. If their faith and will are so strong, let them put their so­cialism into practice. Mankind will manage to get along with less eco­nomic progress. In fact, since they will be compensated for this by the abolition of unemployment, they will manage all the better. A lowered rate of economic upswing alone would not be worth any counter-agitation, determined re­sistance, tragedy.

But even if the economic aspects of socialism were as wonderful as its proponents say and believe, this alone would not justify any ecstatic enthusiasm for it. It would still have to be ascertained what price must be paid for the economic gains in terms of free­dom; it would still have to be de­cided—and in full knowledge of the dilemma, not in ignorance or frivolity—whether the will to pay this price really exists. The eco­nomic discussion skims only the surface of the problem of “basic changes.” At bottom, it is imma­terial who is right or wrong in this discussion. The serious fun­damental—I would even say the tragic—core of this problem re­mains unaffected by it. That core is the question of freedom.

A Single Employer

Let us avoid all abstractions. Socialism means that there will be only one employer in the country. The advancement, success, indeed the daily bread of every single man would be in the hands of that single employer. He alone could give jobs. He alone would decide whether you go up or remain down below. From him alone you would receive your bread, not to mention the butter on it. From him there would be no escape. You could no longer slam the door in the face of this employer, who would no long­er be one in a hundred thousand, but the only one. You could not look for another, for there would be no other. You could not escape into an independent way of mak­ing your living, for this would not exist, either. The prayer: “Give us this day our daily bread,” would, in point of fact, become a prayer addressed to the monopolistic em­ployer, the state.

It is not at all necessary to as­sume that this monopolistic em­ployer would be a hard boss, al­though this, too, is possible. We can readily suppose that in the factories and shops and offices and laboratories everything would be irreproachable and that the con­tent of the pay envelopes would be generous. This has nothing to do with the great problem. The great problem is that the state would be irresistible.

Who would be able to risk its displeasure? The laws might say a hundred times that you had the right to your own opinion, but they would no longer be a guaran­tee. They would protect you—as far as they went!—from arbitrary actions of the police, the courts, and the prisons. But they would not protect you from not obtaining the better position to which you aspired nor from losing the one you had. And this single fact would be more powerful than all the rights and freedoms. Against a government that controlled ev­eryone’s subsistence no one could really take advantage of his rights and freedoms. To arouse the dis­pleasure of such a government would be suicidal. If it asked any­thing of you, you could no longer refuse; you would risk being turned into the street a month later, under some pretext or other.

Even more impossible than to resist individually would be any kind of general organized opposi­tion. No one could risk being a candidate against a government candidate, if this were connected with the danger of economic ex­communication. No one could lead opposition parties or belong to them, start or support campaigns, call meetings and speak at them, if these were contrary to the wishes of the government. Yes, even if through some supreme inconsist­ency the newspapers escaped be­coming state property, they would still be unable to express any kind of opposition. The government, as owner of the printing plants and paper factories, would be able to cre­ate the most unbearable difficulties for them. The editors and writers who as a rule have ambitions to be­come playwrights, novelists, screen or radio writers and commentators, would not dare to expose them­selves to the vengeance of the sole play-producer, publisher, moving-picture producer, and radio-station owner. When the government is everyone’s only bread-giver, any opposition becomes a piece of fool­hardiness which no normal person would risk. And there are always more people ready to suffer the death of a hero in battle than to rot in civilian life.

A Power Over Subsistence

This is the real danger of social­ism. A dreadful power is inherent in the means of subsistence. Alex­ander Hamilton, in the classical language of the Federalist, warned of this. “In the general course of human nature,” he wrote, “a power over a man’s subsistence amounts to a power over his will.” But there are various degrees of power over a man’s subsistence. The more easily a man can change the means of subsistence he has for another, the less power it has. General Motors Corporation has great power over a sub-manager who earns thirty thousand dollars a year and could find an equally lucrative job only with great diffi­culty. This sub-manager can be ordered around by General Motors – if it wishes to order him around – to a fairly considerable extent, even in regard to his private life. But in normal times General Mo­tors has very little power over an ordinary worker, who can get approximately equal wages else­where if he does not like his job.

And another important consid­eration must be added: there are also various degrees of interest that an employer can show in his employees’ will. A normal employ­er is rather indifferent to what his employees think, do, or want in matters that are not connected with his business. The radius of his interests is not so large that he needs to exert power over the whole radius of their interests. But for the employer who is the state, not only matters concerning one business are important; count­less other matters are important, too. Each man’s will interests him in innumerable respects. He has a far greater incentive to take real advantage of his power over peo­ple’s wills.

Stronger than the Guillotine

Should we not therefore tremble before the prospect of a social or­der in which there is only one sin­gle master over all the means of subsistence, and in which this sin­gle master is the state? A witness who knew something about this has warned us. Lenin himself ex­plained quite clearly the meaning of state power over the bread of every individual. This significant statement is in Peasants and Workers. He was referring not to the printed notes called money, which are the usual means of get­ting one’s daily bread, but to the printed notes called ration cards, which are a different way of get­ting one’s daily bread. If these two kinds of printed notes can be handed to you only by the state, then both of them represent its monopolistic power over your daily bread; and this is what Lenin said about the meaning of full state power over the people’s daily bread: “The ration books… are in the hands of the Proletarian State, the most powerful means of control. Those means will furnish a power unprecedented in the an­nals of history. Those means of control and compulsion are strong­er than the laws of the convent and the guillotine.”

“Unprecedented… stronger than the guillotine”! Why mince words when one wants to speak frankly? In the hands of the gov­ernment that wants to use it, the power over everybody’s subsistence amounts to a guillotine over every­body’s free will. Once in possession of this power, it can decapitate all the liberties of a country within a very short time. Let me repeat that in order to achieve this result it hardly needs to violate any laws, for no law can ever prescribe when an employer should find an employee satisfactory and when he can find him unsatisfactory. For this rea­son tyranny will be able to develop in spite of the barriers of the ex­isting laws as easily as rats pass under a fence.

It is difficult for the human mind to imagine things which it has not seen. For the inhabitants of a free country it seems almost impossible clearly to understand the process through which free­dom is lost. One must have per­sonally witnessed it once in order to realize its nature. As a rule, those who have never witnessed it, always remain too innocent about it. They think of the conditions to which they are accustomed. “It can’t happen here.” Why should anything change much? The state will become the sole owner of ev­erything, but for the rest—so peo­ple imagine—everything will re­main as it is. The old institutions and mechanisms, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, opposition, par­ties, elections, parliaments, courts, all this will continue to function the day after socialism just as it did the day before.

A Right Unexercised

What a delusion! Everything can change. The single fact that everybody’s bread is in the power of the government sterilizes all these institutions and mecha­nisms, even if they continue to exist in name. The right to speak against the state is of no value if no one dares exercise it. Mecha­nisms for the control of the state are of no value if the people, who are the life of these mechanisms, are compelled to behave in a ser­vile fashion. From the moment this monopolistic power falls into the hands of the state for the first time, the people who will then be entirely dependent upon it will be­come more and more cautious. The moment the guillotine of the with­drawal of subsistence falls on the necks of a few overbold dissidents, the sclerosis of the political organ­ism will set in. The blood which is still flowing through its old veins will be poisoned by fear. The body will no longer move, but will be moved. And once things have gone thus far, there will be no obstacle to transforming at will even the nominally subsisting institutions and mechanisms, the constitutions, bills of rights, and laws. Freedom will be lost. The blackout will de­scend.

“But my government will not do this,” replies the optimist. “It will be a government which I myself have chosen and put in power. It will be composed of people whom I know, who all their lives have fought for the cause of the people and for freedom. I can entrust my welfare to them without fear.” It can be said that behind all the en­thusiasm for “basic economic changes” there is a confidence that the governments which will wield the increased power will be benev­olent and noble and self-re­strained. This is an assumption which the optimists, whether they know it or not, simply cannot do without. The leaders think: “I will be the government,” and that settles the matter as far as they are concerned. The followers think: “This will be my govern­ment, and I can be sure that it will not abuse the instrument of increased power—at least it will not abuse it against me.”

But one has no right to be sure of any government—least of all, of the unknown government of to­morrow. We cannot put ourselves blindly into anyone’s hands. “Se méfier c’est l’ essence de la liberté.” (“Distrust is the essence of free­dom”), says Montesquieu. Even what is in the minds of those who have fought all their lives for the cause of freedom is, in reality, never quite clear. When such peo­ple achieve power, they often enough show surprisingly differ­ent faces. And even aside from this, hardly any government has ever refrained from using the full measure of power it had. When difficult situations and crises arise, when opposition threatens, every government goes to the extreme limit of its actual power. Yes, per­haps the more firmly they are con­vinced that they are right and beneficent, the more readily they go to this extreme limit. Good in­tentions are one of the most com­mon bridges to tyranny; the road to hell is paved with good inten­tions.

Is It Worth the Price?

Are any economic advantages worth this dreadful price? Even if the economic hopes of socialism came true, would this compensate us for the loss of freedom? Would it compensate even for the loss of part of our freedom? Would it compensate even for the establish­ment of a regime which implied a grave danger to freedom?

The genuine socialists of the Marxian school were at least clear in this respect. They declared roundly that what we call freedom did not interest them. What they proclaimed was explicitly dictator­ship. They called it dictatorship of the proletariat—which is again an illusion, because a dictatorship can be exercised only by an indi­vidual or by a few individuals. Their minds were quite made up that a dictatorship was to rule. And Lenin explained: “The very meaning of the word ‘dictatorship’ signifies the existence of an abso­lute government which is not lim­ited by any laws, takes no notice of any rules whatsoever, and relies directly on violence.”

These socialists, too, believed that dictatorship would disappear some day. But it must be empha­sized that they promised a curi­ous, not very reassuring kind of disappearance. Dictatorship was to pass away only after a very long period of transition—”after a whole historical epoch has elapsed.” And the process of its disappearance was to be accom­plished by virtue of a mystic apoth­eosis that, with the best will in the world, does not sound very convincing. The end of the dicta­torship, we are told, will not come because it will be abolished; no, something much more grandiose and mysterious will take place. After socialism has ruled for a whole epoch, the state will disap­pear. Such a perfect harmony will set in that no state or government will any longer be necessary. “The state withers away,” as Marx put it. “The state renders itself super­fluous… it dies,” as Engels com­mented.

Utopia Proclaimed but Never Described in Detail

Unfortunately they never told us in greater detail what the world would look like in this paradisiac condition, without states and governments. Although this millennium is the proclaimed final goal and ultimate justification of the whole socialist adventure, any concrete description of it has so far not been vouchsafed to us. To­day most socialists do not seem to know anything at all about this last goal of their journey. It is no longer mentioned—least of all in Moscow. The bulk of today’s so­cialists thus have no idea of how distant and how extremely uncer­tain the end of the dictatorship is, according to their own doctrine; they do not realize that it would depend upon an absolutely unsub­stantiated miracle. But be that as it may, the genuine communists and Marxian socialists cannot be reproached with being obscure, deluded, or irresolute in the mat­ter of freedom. The socialist doc­trine is unequivocal on the point that freedom as we know it must actually be sacrificed, and sacri­ficed for an indefinite period.

But do you, reader, share this resolute contempt for freedom? If people were clearly confronted with this dilemma, would any pro­portion of them worth mentioning consent to abandon even a part of their freedom, were it only for the duration of a “historical epoch,” until that fata-morgana world without states and governments was achieved? Despite all the con­fusions, the opposite is certain! Confronted with this dilemma clearly, understandably, without any hocus-pocus, the overwhelm­ing majority in the democratic countries would refuse to sacrifice their traditional rights and freedoms for the sake of any other ad­vantage.

A Downward Path

So let us make the dilemma clear instead of obscuring it by sophisms. Let us establish clearly that there is hardly a surer way to lose all freedom than to make the state the monopolistic owner, em­ployer, and feeder. Tragic is the error of those who dream of being able to lead mankind upwards on this path. For it is the path down­wards. Tragic is the role of those who hope to attain a flourishing liberalism by following this road. They would lead all liberalism in­to the desert.

Tragic, indeed, is the role of so many liberals in this matter. Nothing has changed in the ulti­mate philosophy of the liberal camp, which is my camp. Now, as before, the basic ideals of this camp are those of humanity: the rights, sovereignty, dignity, and inviolability of the individual. It has never been more necessary to fight for these ideals than it is to­day. Without groups and centers which constantly and tenaciously wage the struggle for these ideals, conditions would soon degenerate everywhere. Today the liberal mis­sion is more important than ever. But how pitiful it is to see so many liberals fall victim to the il­lusion that their ideals are best served by means which in truth would strangle these ideals! What a tragedy to see them embrace the idea that the quintessence of lib­eralism is something which is in reality the negation of the whole liberal heritage!

Yes, in the whole thousand year-long history of liberalism there has never been any uncer­tainty as to the source of the over­whelmingly greatest danger to the rights, sovereignty, and inviola­bility of man. There was never any doubt that while there are many small, diffuse, special dan­gers to the dignity of every indi­vidual, there is only one single great concentrated danger to the dignity of all: the danger of strangulation by the organized power of the state. The fight for freedom, human rights, and hu­man dignity has always consisted in restricting the power of that crushing thing, the state, in bal­ancing it and dividing it. This was the whole proclaimed meaning of liberalism. All the struggles for freedom in history were struggles against the power of the state. In the last analysis they all amounted to conquering and preserving that simple indefinable thing which Jus­tice Brandeis called the most fun­damental of all rights: “The mak­ers of the Constitution sought to protect Americans in their beliefs, their thoughts, their emotions, and their sensations. They con­ferred, as against the government, their right to be left alone—the most comprehensive of rights and the right most valued by civilized men.”

The “New Liberalism”

What a spectacle to find so many liberals of our day following the exactly opposite path! They no longer erect walls against the state and defend them. They call upon us to tear down existing walls. They no longer try strictly to limit the zones to which the state has access; they invite it to supervise ever widening zones. They are furious against small, diffuse, special damages which they find anywhere or of which they only suspect the existence. Their sharpest attacks are di­rected against the “monopolies”—that is, against the biggest among the hundreds of thousands of employers. But to banish the real or imaginary sins of these mo­nopolies, they call for a titanic super monopoly which would com­bine the power of all the hundreds of thousands of employers and which represents all the great dangers in concentrated form. Liberalism is the descendant of the doctrine of “divided powers”: let no power be totally in one hand! Today, completely reversing this doctrine, the liberals desire to place in one hand the economic power which, thank God, is now divided among a hundred thou­sand; and, to place it in the very hand that already holds the politi­cal power. And all this for the sole purpose of achieving an extraor­dinary improvement in living standards—which again is imagi­nary!

Important Questions

Is there no road back from this error? Can you no longer recog­nize the truth that the hundreds of thousands of employers, what­ever the sins of any one of them, are still incomparably more bear­able than would be one single total employer? Is it still not clear that a thing can be bad, but its op­posite immeasurably worse? The faith in the saving virtues of the opposite has in our lifetime led to an unprecedented catastrophe; it led mankind directly into a new war instead of into the hoped-for perpetual peace. Are we destined to discover that the faith in the opposite will through a new direct development bring servitude to mankind instead of the hoped-for higher freedom?

Abundance for all: what an al­luring aim! It cannot be achieved more successfully through social­istic methods than through “free enterprise.” But even if it could be, do not lose sight of the price! Let not this one passion, this one de­sire, this one appetite rob mankind of all sense to such a point that it takes the risk of giving the state all power over every man’s subsistence—or even over most of it. Then once again Edmund Burke’s dictum will be confirmed: “Men are qualified for civil liberty in exact proportion to their disposition to put chains upon their own appetites…. It is ordained in the eternal consti­tution of things that men of in­temperate habits cannot be free. Their passions forge their fet­ters.” Should the passion for gi­gantic economic progress lead to the plunge into economic omnipo­tence for the state or to anything approximating it, fetters would be forged of which the innocent do not suspect the true nature. A cruel historical irony will ma­terialize: the “total state,” against whose power victory has been won on the battlefield, will after the war be admitted through the back door.

Let us, therefore, remember the truth that man’s well-being is composed of many elements. Let us not forget that what seems to favor one element can be fatal to another. Let us not sacrifice one in order to improve another, let alone to improve it in a purely imaginary fashion. And least of all let freedom be the sacrificed element! If after this war destiny mercifully asks us the Shakes­pearian question: “What is’t thou canst demand?” let our answer be, first and foremost, now and al­ways: “Our liberty!”

Let us agree that the govern­ment’s power over the means of production means its power over everyone’s subsistence. Its power over this sounds the knell of indi­vidual freedom.



The Wrong Approach

A free economy and society expands the opportunities for all its members but leaves it largely to them to decide what they will do about it. This is the antithesis of the present sociological approach, which regards the poor as a segregated class; either they must be dragged out of their poverty by mechanical Gov­ernment programs or else maintained in their poverty by the rest of society. Since there are always those only too willing to live at the expense of others, that approach may only swell the ranks of the shiftless and help perpetuate poverty.

The Wall Street Journal