All Commentary
Tuesday, December 1, 1970

What You Don’t Know – Might Help You!

The Reverend Mr. Opitz is a member of the staff of the Foundation for Economic Educa­tion. He is the author of the book, Religion and Capitalism: Allies Not Enemies, recently published by Arlington House and also avail­able from FEE.

The practice of liberty in human affairs is an acquired skill and, like every other skill, the practice of liberty must be learned. Im­agine a ballet performed upon a stage and involving a dozen dan­cers. Each dancer must perfect various motions and then learn a routine of steps so that the en­semble creates a moving work of art before our eyes. The dance must exhibit a pattern, else the performers—however skilled in­dividually—would simply get in each other’s way. The practice of liberty includes the knack of keep­ing out of each other’s way, thus giving free play to the natural forces of social cohesion.

There is an aspiration toward liberty inherent in our very be­ing; it’s a corollary of the fact of our individuality. But this poten­tiality is not realized unless we learn techniques for expressing it. Liberty has to be learned—as well as earned—and like every other skill we acquire, it may be lost. The circus juggler who has learned to keep six plates in the air must work constantly to re­fine and improve his skill or he begins to lose it. And it is the same with liberty; liberty may be unlearned, and the unlearning of liberty goes on at a constantly ac­celerating rate in our time. Per­haps we’d know why, if we knew more about the learning process itself.

Every one of you who plays golf, or bats a tennis ball, or bangs away on a piano has mo­ments of frustration. It’s not the occasional bad shot or wrong note that causes the irritation; it’s the fact that our progress is so un­even. There’s such a thing as beginner’s luck, and it may be that after our first golf or tennis les­son we surprise everyone by mak­ing a number of good shots. And so we approach the second lesson with expectations keyed high—only to fall flat on our face. Ev­erything goes wrong. We may ex­perience similar frustrations in the course of the next several les­sons, and then something seems to click. We hit the ball, and it feels right. Enthusiasm flares, but the improvement doesn’t last. Or, if it does, we seem to bog down again on this level. Sometimes there’s a slump; but if we persist there is eventually another break­through, and then the struggle to consolidate our gains goes on once more.

All learning takes place in some­what this fashion. The psycholo­gist speaks of “plateaus of learn­ing,” and if you draw a graph it will resemble a profile of a stair­case with deep treads and low risers. The line does not show a steady rise; instead, it shows the learner slogging away on one level, and then a breakthrough to a higher level; more slogging, an­other breakthrough, until we reach our potential.

Unlearning is as much a part of life as learning. Sometimes we want to unlearn, but there is also the all-too-common involuntary unlearning of a skill we’d like to retain. The great pianist, Pade­rewski, once remarked that if he went a day without getting in his customary hours and hours of practice, he knew it. If he went two days without practice, the critics knew it. If he went three days, his friends knew it. Ath­letes have the same problem; once they’ve reached a peak and then lost it, the comeback trail is rough. Similar difficulties beset all human affairs.

Liberty in Our Time

Our subject is human liberty, and the fate of liberty in our world. When this country was young, the accepted belief was that men were by nature free, and that governments were instituted among men to secure that free­dom by defending the rights of all men alike. “The God who gave us life gave us liberty at the same time,” wrote Jefferson. Liberty now, in the twentieth century, is viewed as a permissive thing, to be exercised by the citizen at the discretion of his political masters within the lines laid down by the government. Liberty, once re­garded as a birthright, now par­takes of the nature of a political favor. The ways of liberty once learned by some of our ancestors, and in some measure applied by them in actual practice, were un­learned by other forebears of ours. And a good deal of learning and unlearning has been going on in this generation, perhaps even by us.

If we examine the learning proc­ess more carefully we realize that there’s more to it than conscious effort, important as this is. A great deal of learning takes place behind the scenes, below the level of consciousness. We are learning between one practice session and the next. It is not by a mighty effort of will that you move from one plateau to another; if you practice correctly, the break­through will be accomplished for you. Here’s an illustration of the way it works, taken from the writ­ings of the great French mathe­matician of a generation ago, Henri Poincare.

Poincare on Insight

Poincare was stumped by a cer­tain problem, and for fifteen days spent an hour or two a day trying to work out a proof, with no re­sults. Then, “one evening, con­trary to my custom, I drank black coffee and could not sleep. Ideas rose in crowds; I felt them collide until pairs interlocked, so to speak, making a stable combination. [I dozed off, and] by the next morn­ing I had established the exist­ence of a class of Fuchsian func­tions…. I had only to write out the results…. The idea came tome, without anything in my for­mer thoughts seeming to have paved the way for it.”

Poincare is credited by other mathematicians with several im­portant breakthroughs, which oc­curred in the manner described, in the form of sudden illumina­tions. These insights, he says, are “a manifest sign of long, uncon­scious prior work. The role of this unconscious work in mathemati­cal invention appears to me in­contestable.” There’s a condition—persistent prior work. Break­throughs “never happen except after some days of voluntary effort which has appeared absolutely fruitless and whence nothing good seems to have come, where the way seems totally astray. But these efforts have not been as sterile as one thinks; they have set agoing the unconscious ma­chine and without them it would not have moved and would have produced nothing.”

Genius, as someone remarked, is 90 per cent perspiration and only 10 per cent inspiration. Sir Francis Galton, who did the pio­neering studies of genius about a century ago, observed that his subjects were bigger, stronger, and more energetic than average men and women—otherwise they couldn’t have performed the re­quired prodigies of work.

The achiever, then, knows how to apply the pressure, and how long. He also knows that there is a time to let up, to relax the con­scious effort and let a deeper wis­dom take over. If we may use the word Application for the first stage, we might call this second stage Incubation; ideas appar­ently must ripen before they can hatch. In order to successfully negotiate this stage of learning—the period when nature takes its own course—we must practice the difficult art of letting things alone—which is quite different from doing nothing. Albert Jay Nock, who edited the old Freeman, from 1920 to 1924, had a stable of bright young writers under his editorial command. One day a friend said to Nock, “Albert, it’s wonderful what you have done for these young people.” “Nonsense,” Nock replied, “all I’ve done is let them alone.” “That may be so,” was the response, “but things would have been different if some one else had been letting them alone.”

The Notebook of Coleridge

The mind has a front end or top layer, and we consciously feed data into this part of our mind through our eyes and ears, by ob­servation and experiment. Then the raw data of experience is mulled over and reflected upon. We talk it over with colleagues, argue it out with opponents, write it up, act it out. And all the while, learning is taking place. At the proper moment we shift gears and put the subconscious mind to work on the material the conscious mind has prepared for it. And if the conscious preparation is adequate, the rest of the job is taken care of with a finesse and expertise that is simply astounding.

Let me cite the case of Sam­uel Taylor Coleridge, one of the supremely gifted poets of our lan­guage. Apart from his published works, Coleridge left a notebook in manuscript, in a kind of short­hand, recording his reading and his observations. This notebook forms the basis for a classic study of Coleridge, really a study of the workings of the imaginative en­ergy itself: The Road to Xanadu, by John Livingston Lowes. In­cidents and phrases got into Cole-ridge’s notebook and thence into his subconscious mind, to be trans­formed there by his genius, tak­ing final shape in his poetry. “Every expression of an artist,” writes Lowes, “is merely a focal point of the surging chaos of the unexpressed. And it is that surg­ing and potent chaos which a doc­ument like the Note Book recre­ates.” The word “chaos” here is not used with connotations of con­fusion or randomness; chaos is a term for the teeming, primordial raw material which challenges the artist to shape it into forms of beauty by the power of his imagi­nation. “Unless a man has a little chaos in his soul,” wrote Nie­tzsche, “he’ll never give birth to a dancing star.”

The Subconscious

Below the level of conscious mental activity there are deeper layers of the mind, and an enor­mous amount of hogwash has been written about the subconscious mind, some of it by amateurs but a lot of it by medical men engaged in the practice of psychiatry or psychoanalysis. I have been sug­gesting, by the two examples I have cited—Poincare and Cole­ridge—that the mental processes which occur behind the scenes are mighty allies, able to accomplish beneficial results we could achieve in no other way. The subconscious mind is the silent partner of our rational faculties, wise and trust­worthy. Turn to the popular liter­ature of psychoanalysis, however, and the picture is quite different. There, one gets the impression that only the conscious mind is us; that each of us is shackled to an idiot; that the subconscious mind is a mere collection of drives, im­pulses, and emotions; that this unconscious part of us tyrannizes over our rational faculties and must be squelched.

Why these conflicting views? The main reason is that psychia­trists deal with sick people, and the subconscious mind of psy­chopaths may very well be as psy­chiatrists describe it. Geniuses and normal people do not ordinar­ily wind up in psychiatric clinics, and clinical findings, therefore, do not pertain to great poets and mathematicians—or to normal people.

We are not talking about achievement without tears, or learning while you sleep, or awak­ening your hidden powers. There are no short cuts. But we do have the assurance that if our conscious thinking is sound, persistent, and hard, our subconscious mental pro­cesses will cooperate to mobilize the constructive forces that bring about the final result.

The capacities of the human mind are almost limitless, and those of the human body are only slightly less so. The incredible feats of endurance, strength, speed, and skill that we witness on track, field, arena, and stage are beyond most of us. Only a handful of people will ever run a four-minute mile, no matter how hard they train, or win the heavy­weight championship, or break 65 at golf, or perform on a trapeze, but almost anyone who wills to do so can play a good game of golf, or develop unusual strength, or multiply his endurance. The rec­ipe is the same as that for acquir­ing mental skills—an alternation of hard workouts with rest, or Application followed by Incubation. Endurance, strength, and skill im­prove even when you do nothing—provided you preface the quiet time by intense effort. This phys­ical partner of ours has enormous potential in many directions, but few people ever realize their po­tential. When reasonably fit, this physical partner of ours displays a remarkable wisdom in its work­ings. Through its organs of sight, hearing, and touch we are proper­ly oriented toward our physical environment. There are two other sense organs: The sense of smell is not as important to us as to other creatures, but we know how important his taste buds are to an infant. I think it was Gerald Heard who suggested that a baby’s motto might be: Seeing is believing, but tasting is knowing.

The Amazing Human Body

This body of ours performs so­phisticated chemical operations with the raw material we take in as food, distributes nourishment to the tissues that need it, cart­ing off the waste products. Chem­ical balances are maintained, temperature is regulated, foreign bodies are neutralized, wounds are healed—and all this is done qui­etly without fuss or stress, un­less we interfere. We are “fear­fully and wonderfully made,” and the body performs miracles daily. There’s a genius down inside us. The most awe-inspiring perform­ance of that genius is the master­work he accomplishes before we are born. The eminent biologist, Hudson Hoagland, delivered a paper at M.I.T., in 1967, in which occurs this passage: “Frank Crick has estimated that the amount of information contained in the chro­mosomes of a single fertilized human egg is equivalent to about a thousand printed volumes of books, each as large as a volume of the Encyclopedia Britannica. This amount of coded instruction packed into the size of a millionth of a pinhead is the remarkable material which transmits informa­tion from parent to offspring to tell the next generation how to make a person.” Each one of us passed that test, else we wouldn’t be here.

A skilled adult scientist in an expensive laboratory gets a do-it-yourself kit with various amino acids, colloids, and protein mole­cules. He combines these in a cer­tain way and exposes the com­pound to electrical currents for a week or so. And then, for a short time his concoction appears to ex­hibit some characteristics of life. The scientist gets headlines. But each of us, when no more than a tiny speck, was brilliant enough to manufacture a person! Stupid­ity, of course, sets in shortly after birth and full recovery is rare.

Work and Wait

Learning something, whether it be the mastering of a new subject matter or the acquiring of a new skill, is more than conscious ef­fort. Conscious effort is an indis­pensable part of the total learning process, however, for it is the spark that gets the machinery going. Learning is a dual process. It reminds us of an iceberg with much of its bulk below the sur­face. Go about the topside matters correctly, and events of great im­portance take place below the waterline without any human agency directing, controlling, or managing them. This is a fact of great significance, to be taken into account in deciding the na­ture of this universe in which we find ourselves: Things work for our benefit if we know how to cooperate with them and other­wise let them alone.

The art of letting things alone applies to the complex interac­tions we have with nature. Each spring we are impressed anew with the exuberance of the earth, by its fruitfulness, its hospitality to the endless variety of living forms. Men poke seeds into the ground but plants grow by inter­acting with nonhuman forces; “God giveth the increase,” as a pious old poet said. Make prepara­tions of the right sort, work hard, and the good earth cooperates by focusing nature’s powers of growth to put a multiplier onto your efforts. We have to overcome natural obstacles, but we enlist the help of natural forces to do so. “A mighty help in our contest with nature,” writes Böhm Bawerk, “is nature herself.”

The Invisible Hand

Move now into our final ex­ample, which has to do with so­ciety and the economic order. Remember Adam Smith’s famous metaphor of “the invisible hand”? What was the problem he sought to explain? He observed countless millions of people in the different nations of the world, engaged in thousands of different occupa­tions and trades, each busy with his own affairs, pursuing his own aims. But what is the result of this seemingly chaotic situation? The result is an orderly transfer of goods and services; people are fed, clothed, and housed; the wealth of the world is brought within reach of all who enter into these multiple transactions. There is a marvelous harmony in this situation, just as if some invisi­ble hand were guiding each person to produce the kinds and quantities of goods the market is calling for. It is the result of human action but not the execu­tion of human design. The right kind of human effort in the mar­ket place enlists the help of an other-than-human intelligence. Anyone who has looked into the economic order must marvel at the intelligence displayed in the way the market works—intelli­gence manifesting itself in the precise adaptation of means to ends throughout the system. Yet no human agency is putting peo­ple through their paces; there is a spontaneous order which arises when men obey a few moral rules and otherwise act in freedom. Why do things happen this way? Because it’s that kind of a uni­verse!

Three-quarters of a century after Adam Smith, Frederic Bas­tiat mused over the miracle of the provisioning of Paris. Here are a million human beings who do not grow their own food, nor do they make most of the things they use. Yet food and other necessities appear as if by magic! No Napoleon commands these movements. “What, then, is the ingenious and secret power which governs the astonishing regu­larity of movements so compli­cated?” Bastiat asks. And he answers his own question, “That power is an absolute principle, the principle of freedom in trans­actions.”

I have been stressing the point that there is wisdom and intelli­gence directing the events which happen below the surface, or be­low the level of conscious action. This is not to diminish the im­portance of willed effort; it is to suggest that we have to know when to let up and let go, trust­ing the forces of growth and co­hesion we find at work in our bodies and minds, as well as in nature and the market. This will­ingness to take the plunge is a matter of mood—a mood of faith or confidence or trust or belief that the universe is on our side. But just as Adam Smith was writ­ing his masterpiece a new and hostile mood was emerging in Western nations.

The Age of Enlightenment

The eighteenth century is re­ferred to as the Age of The En­lightenment. It was a period of great overreaction to the ages of religion, a time when Man with a capital M was exalted into a god, able to fashion men in his own image. It was an age of op­timistic rationalism, with all mysteries resolved. It was the age of the Rights of Man, confident of its power to wipe out an old society and manufacture a new one at will. A take-charge mood came to dominate many minds, a managerial mentality. The idea was that the world would fall apart if we stopped holding it to­gether; things wouldn’t work un­less we made them work; every­thing was defective and had to be patched up, rigged out, put into functioning order.

This was the mood of the men who engineered the French Rev­olution, the rootless intellectuals of the day; but the mood was infectious and it has spread all over the globe, seeping into and out of every sector of life. It seeped into the theory and prac­tice of medicine about a century ago. Certain medical theorists ex­amined the human organism and found it a crude contrivance of pipes, tubes, levers, and dead weight. This botched mechanism could be kept going only if some­one constantly patched and re­paired it. Writing of this anti­quated medical theory, a his­torian says: “This held that the body was a faulty machine and Nature a blind worker. The stu­dent made an inventory of the body’s contents and found, as he expected, some out of place, some wearing out, some clumsy make­shifts… and some mischievous survivals left over.” Medical prac­tice, based on this theory, was to interfere with the body’s working by probing, operating, removing, and altering. The practice often proved disastrous to the patient! Today’s medical theory is quite different.

The Managerial Mentality

The managerial mentality gets into philosophy, and is especially marked among the Existentialists. One of them writes: “Being a man is deciding what man will be…. Man remains the author of his own destiny, the creator of his own values.” Philosophy used to be the pursuit of truth for its own sake. No longer. The con­temporary philosopher aims at knowledge for the sake of con­trol. The primary target of the controllers is, of course, the eco­nomic order. The free market must go.

When this managerial mental­ity, this take-charge mood, per­vades a society, it will kill the free economy where it finds it, or prevent it from emerging in coun­tries which don’t have it. When the mood is to manage, you’ll have a managed economy, because everyone lacks confidence that the economic machinery will operate—unless it is directed, controlled, and planned. The belief is that some human agency must be in command or nothing will function. Social engineering is the order of the day; society is to be master‑minded by men waving blueprints and armed with powers of en­forcement. Nobody is to be left to his own devices; everybody is to be assigned a task so that so­ciety can be operated with me­chanical precision.

But men are not robots or pup­pets; they have the gift of free will, and most people choose not to be the tools of other men—when they understand the issues. When they find themselves trapped in situations which de­mean their humanity they rebel, and their rebellion takes various forms. The rebellion sometimes moves in the direction of free­dom, but more often the rebellion is just as mindless and bizarre as the things revolted against.

Ideas Come First

I have suggested that a false ideology has been percolating into Western societies for two cen­turies or more. How is it, then, that things appeared to go so well for a while—that is, during much of the nineteenth century—and only in our time has the situation gone to pieces? Well, the impact of ideas is never felt immediately. Imagine, if you will, that history is like a huge pipe­line; like the Big Inch, say, which brings oil from Texas to the east­ern seaboard. If a batch of oil is pumped into the western end ofthis line, and if it travels at twelve miles per hour, it won’t reach New York until about a week later. Ideas work the same way; put them into the pipeline of history and it may be a gen­eration or a century or longer before they surface.

Go back two millennia to the dawn of our era. The Roman Em­pire was authoritarian, and the new ideas about God and man and life promulgated in the Gospels largely disappeared into the pipe­line—so far as their impact on the history of the first several centuries was concerned. The Ro­man Empire went from bad to worse and finally fell, and Europe was in a bad way for hundreds of years. The Middle Ages was a turbulent period whose major religious thrust was a blend of Caesarism and Christi­anity. A new style of personalistic Christianity emerged in the sixteenth and seventeenth cen­turies, the period which also saw the beginnings of Puritanism in England. The political arm of the Puritans was the Whig Party, whose later spokesman was Ed­mund Burke, and which became the Liberal Party in the early nineteenth century. Ideas were coming out of the pipeline, es­pecially in nineteenth century America, where we enjoyed more religious, political, and economic liberty than any people hitherto. We were reaping the harvest of sound ideas put into the pipe­line over the course of many cen­turies—including some brilliant ones added since The Wealth of Nations. We might mention The Federalist Papers, the writings of Burke, Mill, Bastiat, and Spencer, plus the important contributions of the Austrian School from Bohm-Bawerk to Mises which have refined and extended the sci­ence of economics with meticu­lous care, establishing its main points beyond dispute. In short, there are some good ideas in the pipeline in 1970, and if we keep on stuffing more of them into the near end they are bound to emerge in due course.

A Preponderance of Socialist Literature in the Past Century

But such good ideas as went into the pipeline during this peri­od were overcome and nullified by the virulence and sheer bulk of the bad ideas. From the time of Marx to the present day the so­cialists and communists have written a hundred books for every book written by a libertarian or conservative, plus a thousand pamphlets; and whereas the so­cialists and communists offered a contagious vision of a new life for humanity, their opponents countered with the promise of two cars in every garage! It is bad that we have been losing in such a lopsided contest, but it would have been worse if we had won.

There are some good ideas com­ing out of our side of the pipe­line, and they are getting better. But they are not good enough for the task at hand. They have taken on some of the protective colora­tion of the collectivists with re­spect to the ends and aims of human life, objecting merely to collectivist means.

The Jacobins promise to man­ufacture a new society from scratch and, with democratic con­trols on scientific power, bring about a heaven on earth—mean­ing the City of Man in which everyone is well-housed, well-clothed, and well-fed. All too fre­quently, defenders of the free market have responded: The City of Man is our goal, too, but we can show you how to have better housing, superior clothing, and tastier food! The fact is that the struggle goes deeper than eco­nomics; two ways of life are in conflict. You don’t win a battle for the minds of men by promis­ing to fatten their pocketbooks. You might say that if a man’s heart is empty because life has lost its meaning, the full belly argument turns his stomach!

Two ways of life are locked in combat, so let’s engage in some self-examination and self-criti­cism in order to raise our sights and change the terms in which the contest is viewed. Shifting gears, we begin with a solemn observation by the eighteenth cen­tury philosopher, George Berke­ley, after whom a certain uni­versity city on the coast was named:

He who hath not much meditated upon God, the human mind, and the supreme good, may possibly make a thriving earthworm, but will most indubitably make a sorry patriot and a sorry statesman.

Raising Our Sights

What do these three ideas—God, mind, and the supreme good—have to do with the free econ­omy? I think I can demonstrate that they have a lot to do with it, and that unless they are taken into account, economic liberty is a vain hope.

The idea of God has to do with the ends or goals for which hu­man life should be lived. The old catechism said that the chief end of man is to know God and enjoy him forever. But most economists have told us that economics is a value-free science, that it is neu­tral as to ends. Let men dedicate their lives to any end that catches their fancy; to the economist it’s a matter of indifference. This is a typical line taken by economists, and it contains potential disaster for the free economy. Suppose the chosen end is power. Many men dedicate their lives to the con­centration of political power in society, and then scheme to get that power into the hands of themselves and their party. Every minor success by the power-hungry nullifies the free economy at some point. It is suicidal for the economist to declare that his discipline is indifferent as to what ends in life men pursue.

Or take wealth. Suppose a sig­nificant number of men agree that the pursuit of wealth is the chief end of man. Making money in the free economy is laudable enough, being a token that you are pro­viding people with things they want. But if money-making is ac­cepted as a man’s chief end then any means are justified if they further this end. The free econ­omy is more productive than any other—on the whole; but you cannot promise any given individ­ual that he’ll better his own cir­cumstances in the free market. Many people can do better for themselves if they operate a rack­et. Congresswoman Edith Green of Oregon has made a calculation which shows that a welfare moth­er with four children could in one year net $11,698 of relief funds; double the number of children and the ante is upped to $21,093. But this is peanuts compared to the subsidies some slick operators can get by political finagling. Propo­nents of the free economy will continue to lose unless human life is geared to the goals proper for man, and this makes the God con­cept a live issue.

Goals Proper to Man

Well, it may be asked, what are the goals proper for man? It is obvious that there is no pat, copy­book answer to a question of this magnitude; what is important is that this question continues to be asked and that it can be wrestled with unceasingly. Albert Jay Nock addresses himself to the problem when he speaks of “man’s five fundamental social instincts.” He charges that only the instinct of expansion and accumulation, that is, for power and wealth, has had free play during the past century and more, while “the instincts of intellect and knowledge, of re­ligion and morals, of beauty and poetry, of social life and manners, were disallowed and perverted.”

There are many facets to human nature and we cannot afford to neglect any. The English philoso­pher, C. E. M. Joad, writes as follows.

For a guide to the demands of our nature we should refer to the pur­suits of our fathers. For what man­kind has done uninterruptedly for thousands of years we may be as­sured that there is a natural itch in the blood. In all ancestral and cus­tomary pursuits, then, we should in­dulge, but in none of them overmuch. We should pray a little, fight a little, play a little, dig a little in the ground, and go on the sea in ships; we should make love, speak to our fellows in public, and expand in the company of our friends in private. Above all we should recognize that we have an instinctive desire for oc­casional solitude, and a need for country sights and sounds.

The Nature of the Mind

Berkeley’s second point has to do with the nature of the human mind. Is the mind a mere offshoot of the brain or a tool of survival or an instrument of adaptation to society? In which case we are born, marry, work, die, and that’s the end of us. Or is the manifesta­tion of mind in each of us more than a mere adjunct to the brain and nervous system; is it some­thing that endures when its phys­ical partner perishes; is it an im­mortal essence? This is an issue which philosophers have debated for centuries, but I raise it here only because of its bearing on the free economy.

Shakespeare wrote of “this blessed plot, this realm, this Eng­land.” That was nearly four cen­turies ago; a dozen generations have lived and died since those lines were penned, but hundreds of years ago men were proudly conscious of living in a nation with a long history. And today they boast that “there’ll always be an England.” The nation endures; individuals perish. The nation ex­isted before any of us were born, and it will continue in existence after everyone here is dead. You hop aboard this ongoing reality, last out your three-score-years and ten, and that’s the end of you. Suppose this version of the way things are is widely accepted, and suppose you find yourself out of step with the nation’s consensus—as many of us would be at odds with today’s establishment. If you—a fleeting fragment of an an­cient and enduring nation—chal­lenge the nation’s consensus you would not only be pitting your puny self against your contem­poraries but tackling past cen­turies and future generations as well. The encounter would be somewhat lopsided!

But there is another interpre­tation of the way things are, and according to this wiser reading of the human situation, kingdoms rise and fall, nations come and go, civilizations finally crumble, but the person is forever. When there are firm convictions along these lines the individual has an enor­mous leverage against any ma­jority, any society, any nation.

The nature of the human mind is a vital political question.

Human Motivation

Berkeley’s third idea has to do with human motivation. What is man’s supreme good? The tradi­tional answer was: To please God. Since the eighteenth century the answer has been: The supreme good is to please yourself. The thing gets pretty fatuous in the ideology of some would-be de­fenders of capitalism who try to tell us that the aim of life is to please customers! What were our ancestors driving at when they spoke about pleasing God? Let me try to frame an answer in con­temporary terms.

I have pointed out that each of us, in his prenatal stage, knew how to manufacture a baby. Quite a stunt! But the full stature of humanity is an achievement, not an endowment; all that being born confers upon us by way of natu­ral endowment is the plastic and sensitive raw material needed for evolving a human being. Finish­ing the job is up to us, and it will take us a lifetime to do it—if we do it at all! Before birth we had the advantage of working by in­stinct: the formula was inside us. But after birth we have to look for a recipe outside, that is to say, we must look for a set of rules which are written into the nature of things. These rules for com­pleting our growth are what our forebears spoke of as God’s laws or Commandments. By discover­ing and obeying these commands, each of us furthers his own pur­poses and completes his own na­ture.

The Road to Chaos

When men cease to believe in an objective set of rules, then each person tries to make up his own rules as he goes along; he tries to please himself by “doing his own thing.” But this is like trying to play baseball when each player decides for himself how many strikes are out, or whether to run bases clockwise, or whatever. “Do­ing your own thing” doesn’t work out, for, if no external standards are acknowledged, the weak doing their thing are at the mercy of the strong doing theirs; the hon­est entrepreneurs doing their thing are at the mercy of political finaglers doing theirs; those who want to be let alone are harassed by those whose thing is meddling. Throw away the rulebook and chaos ensues. Putting the rules for living in the order of their prior­ity is a live issue for the freedom philosophy. We have neglected this philosophical framework; and collectivist ideology, taking advan­tage of our neglect, has crowded into the vacancy.

Nature on Side of Freedom

It is encouraging to know that the nature of things is ultimately on our side. The aberrations we face are against the grain of things and will fall of their own weight—if we don’t misguidedly prop them up. Does the opposition seem strong? Well, said Disraeli, “the dominant philosophy in any age is always the one which is on the way out.” Collectivism in our time has changed into nihilism, and nihilism is as far as you can go into a dead end. From there, the way back is the way ahead.

The collectivism which has come to full flower in the totalitarian nations, which is growing in all countries, including our own, is a plague that reminds one of the witchcraft mania of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. How was that disagreeable episode transcended? Not by antiwitch­craft crusades nor by social pres­sures on behalf of civil rights for witches; witchcraft crawled back into the woodwork when it was confronted by a quite different tactic. Aldous Huxley, discussing the period, says “the theologians and inquisitors… by treating witchcraft as the most heinous of crimes, actually spread the beliefs and fostered the practices which they were trying so hard to re­press. By the beginning of the eighteenth century witchcraft had ceased to be a serious social prob­lem. It died out, among other reasons, because almost nobody now bothered to repress it. For the less it was persecuted the less it was propagandized.” A new un­derstanding of the nature of the cosmos, a new world view, began to gain acceptance in the eight­eenth century, and witchcraft, finding no foothold in it, withered on the vine.

Great Changes Come Slowly

History has a number of great turning points. We may not be able to agree on matters of his­torical causation, but all students are unanimous on one point: these great changes were in the works a long time before their effects were manifested on the surface.

In Victor Hugo’s great novel Les Miserables there is a dra­matic account of the Battle of Waterloo, after which Hugo re­flects on the cosmic dimensions of that battle. “Why Napoleon’s Waterloo?” he asks, “Was it pos­sible that Napoleon should gain this battle?” We answer No. Why? Because of Wellington? Because of Blucher? No; because of God! Bonaparte victor at Waterloo—that was no longer according to the laws of the nineteenth cen­tury. Another series of events was preparing wherein Napoleon had no further place… Napoleon had been denounced in the infinite and his downfall was resolved. He bothered God. Waterloo is not a battle; it is the universe changing front.”

A novelist may be allowed his liberties, but Hugo’s main point is clear; every event on the sur­face of history has been manu­factured at a deeper level by hu­man initiative and intelligence co­operating with cosmic energies.

Whenever people of our general persuasion get together to assess the world scene the discussion sounds like an inquest; things are not going our way; the freedom philosophy is in disrepute, and things have fallen apart faster in recent years than any of us would have dared predict. Judge the events of our time from the news­paper or journalistic level and the mood is despair. But we know on second thought that many good and important things are happen­ing at deeper levels. Probe below the surface and there are signs of hope. There are good things in the pipeline, and also good people.

It is difficult to assess the sig­nificance of contemporary events, although wisdom after the event is easy. Hindsight tells us that the voyage of The Mayflower three and a half centuries ago was one of the most important voyages in history, but few peo­ple of the time were even aware of it. It was just another trip for the seamen involved, writes Wil­liam Baker, the naval architect who designed the present May­flower after much research. Even the name, Mayflower, was a com­mon one for merchant vessels in the seventeenth century, and the boats hired by the Pilgrims “were merely common traders.” Baker researched the Port of London records and traced the voyages of “The Mayflower, Christopher Jones, Master,” from August, 1609, to October, 1621. There are no entries for the year 1620. The Port of London official deemed this voyage to the New World not even worth recording! Nor is the name of their ship recorded by the men of the Plymouth Colony until 1623. The celebrated Bradford manuscript, written by the man who governed Plymouth Planta­tion during most of its first thirty-six years, was missing for gen­erations and not published in full until 1856. Several centuries went by before the Pilgrims assumed their rightful place in American history.

A Vast New Outpouring of the Literature of Freedom

The events that disturb us today have been long in preparation; and the events that will correct these disturbances are in the making right now. They are, for example, in the books now being written and read. There are now about one hundred titles listed in the FEE book catalogue. Apart from the handful of classics, every book in this list has been written since the end of World War II! Almost as many more books by brilliant lib­ertarian and conservative think­ers have appeared during this same quarter century which are not included in the catalogue, and the writers of our side continue to provide a steady stream of ma­terial presenting the case for the free society.

People on our side didn’t write these kinds of books during the 1850-1950 period; their creativity went into other channels. They were doing the work of the world while the socialists were writing the books. Our people were exem­plifying the accomplishments of a society which at least gave lip service to the ideals of freedom, while the socialists were writing millions of words to extol the planned life and forming all kinds of organizations to bring about a collectivist order. Our forebears probably believed that the free way of life is its own rationale, but it is not so. Good deeds are not enough, we must supply a reason why. And that is just what is hap­pening today, as libertarian and conservative literature pours off the presses.

The Inherent Stability of the Masses

There’s something else below the surface of today’s events, ready to be engaged in our cause, and that is the solid core of de­cency and common sense in the mass of men, covered over now and again, confused, but waiting to be enlisted. One often hears the despairing question, How can we win the masses back from liberalism? That’s not our prob­lem; the masses have never been converted to liberalism! To be­come a real liberal you have to go to graduate school! The average man, the man in the street, is not our problem. He may be mean, shiftless, ignorant, and a wife-beater when drunk, but he is not a collectivist and he is here by the millions, waiting to pin his emotions alongside the flag and cheer for the home team. Cardinal Newman was right: “There is al­ways in the multitude an ac­knowledgment of truths which they themselves do not practice.”

When our side gets good enough, the multitudes will swarm in our direction.

We have a real mess on our hands, but no one can say it is not richly deserved. For the past couple of centuries we have bull headedly made a wrong choice at every opportunity. We have dis­carded the tried and true and let ourselves be seduced by the myths of an immanent utopia. We have embraced phony values and fol­lowed phony leaders. And in con­sequence of our folly things are in a bad way, but not as bad as they might be. Things aren’t as bad as they would be if Reality were neutral. It is our great good fortune that the nature of things is on our side, on the side of free­dom, that is; and it’s the collec­tivists’ tough luck that their pro­gram goes against the grain. There are forces in us and in the universe which make for growth and cohesion; unobstructed they make for liberty. Let’s join ‘em!



No Productionism, No Consumerism

Consumerism is based upon productionism; before there can be consumers there must first be producers. There’s no better way to serve consumers than to reward and encourage producers.

Regulations intended to restrain disservices become in them­selves the worst kind of disservice when they restrict the pro­ducers’ freedoms to serve consumers and the consumers’ freedom to be served by the producers.

Taxes, more than anything else, keep consumers from ever get­ting their money’s worth.


  • 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.