All Commentary
Tuesday, July 1, 1975

Why Do They Turn to Socialism?

The reasons people turn to Socialism are legion.

Every person of good will longs for peace on earth; he strives for justice and fair play in human affairs. Proclaiming such goals as these does not distinguish the Socialist from other men; rather, it is his means for attaining these ends that marks him out.

The operational imperatives of a Socialist order demand a coercive arrangement of society, within which the lives of the many are planned and managed by the few who wield political power. Why do many otherwise idealistic and intelligent people find this scheme appealing? This is a recurring question. Everything about freedom seems so natural and so right to those who understand it that they can’t help but wonder why anyone rejects it in favor of Socialism or Communism. But millions do.

The Twentieth century faces Left, and nation after nation succumbs to a “progressive” ideology. Marxism, of the Moscow or the Peking variety, is the official faith of hundreds of millions of people the world over. Countless others may reject Marxism, but they embrace a “liberal” ideology; they advocate national planning, state regulation of key industries, public works, welfarism. Add up these millions and you ask: Who else is there?

Well, there are a few people in today’s world who are firmly grounded in the tradition of Eighteenth-century Whiggism, or Classical Liberalism; who acknowledge the political wisdom of The Federalist; who embrace the free market economic theories of the Manchester and Austrian Schools. There are able scholars in this camp whose writings demolish collectivist theory and marshal solid, carefully reasoned moral and intellectual arguments on behalf of the free economy/free society position.

The soundness of this freedom philosophy is attested even by its opponents, that is to say, by the triviality of Left-wing analysis and criticism of it. The Left rarely attempts to make the case against the philosophy of the free society by meeting its arguments on their own level. We may be sure that if the Left had such a case they’d use it.

The Left opposes the free society position, of course, but seldom by argument, that is, intellectually. Opponents of the free economy position have several typical ways of dealing with it. The first tactic is to ignore it; don’t discuss; pretend it isn’t there. The second line of defense is: If you can’t ignore it, misstate the position; then knock the straw man down. Third, call names. Useful epithets are “reactionary,” “Eighteenth-century idea,” “capitalist,” “outdated.” Fourth, allege hardheartedness toward the plight of “the poor.” This last is almost hilarious.

To the extent that the free economy has been allowed to function in a given nation, in like measure has the free economy elevated more poor people further out of poverty in less time than any other system! What amalgam of ignorance, stupidity, and malice does it take to bring this charge against the free economy that it neglects “the poor”? The record shows that the government handout system, by contrast, not only fails to help “the poor,” it keeps them that way — and demeans them to boot!

Attacks Rooted in Envy

The system of liberty has solid intellectual and moral foundations; why, then, do not more people find the case persuasive? Why do so many people gravitate toward freedom’s opposite, jostling one another as they crowd the road to serfdom? Is there some human trait which, released from moral controls, is readily enlisted under the banners of Socialism? The answer is, Yes; there is such a trait — envy. Envy, and its twin, covetousness, are unlovely facets of human nature, and only moral energy keeps them bottled up. But when envy and covetousness are uncorked they work against freedom and for Socialism.

Ask the man in the street what he understands about Socialism, and he’ll tell you that it’s a scheme for dividing up the wealth; “the equal division of unequal earnings,” as someone put it; soaking the rich to pay “the poor.” Spellbinders of the Left play upon the feelings of envy and covetousness with practiced skill, setting person against person, class against class. These ugly traits of human nature have caused trouble since time immemorial. “Thou shalt not covet,” is one of the Ten Commandments; envy and covetousness are two of the Seven Deadly Sins. Our forebears, aware of the destructive potential of these traits, endeavored to neutralize them by making their control a religious duty.

But if the egalitarian drive is to pick up momentum, it needs the fuel only envy and covetousness can supply. Socialism uses envy and exploits the new morality whose energumens tell people that they should covet their neighbor’s goods. Roll your own Ten Commandments and remember that there are easier ways of getting your hands on a buck than working for it! The society is first divided into the Haves and the Have-nots. Then the Have-nots must be convinced that their lack of the amenities is somehow the fault of the Haves; that the man who earns twenty-five thousand dollars a year is somehow to blame for the fact that another man earns only seventy-five hundred.

With a part of ourselves we’d like to believe this, so it is not surprising that a lot of people are reluctant to utter a mea culpa in the case of their own failures and shortcomings; they find it gratifying to learn that someone who seems more successful than they, is the reason they are not doing better. Such sentiments as these are music to our ears, but they cannot survive even a limited exposure to economic reasoning.

Advantages of Trade

We can learn from economics, if we will, that the free economy is not like a zero-sum game where one man’s gain inevitably means another man’s loss. In a poker game, as one man’s stack of chips grows higher and higher there is a corresponding shrinkage of the other players’ stacks. In the market economy, by contrast, there is a progressive increase in the number of chips (so to speak) available to every player; and every man earns precisely what consumers think his services are worth.

Now, in his secret thoughts, Everyman knows he is worth a great deal more than consumers think he’s worth! It is only experience and self-discipline that allows the reality sense in most people to be brought into play and prevail in the end. But economic understanding, and reasonable considerations such as these, must be squelched in order to inflame more acutely the envy of the Have-nots.

But envy is only the first half of the story; the inflamed envy of the Have-nots must be orchestrated into harmony with the aroused guilt of the Haves. Now, a person whose wealth has been obtained by force and fraud should feel guilty; if there is no guilt feeling associated with advantages gained at another’s expense there is evidence of a moral blind spot.

Parenthetically, there are scores of millions in this category — gaining advantages at someone else’s expense —every person on the welfare state’s subsidy list! And paradoxically, most of these would be thought of as being in the Have-not category, and would so place themselves, and they would attach great virtue to the particular means by which they obtain an income!

Consumers Make the Awards

Every one of us in a free society is rewarded by his peers according to the value willing buyers attach to the goods and services he offers for exchange. This marketplace assessment is made by consumers who are ignorant, venal, biased, stupid; in short, by people very much like you and me! This does seem to be a clumsy way of deciding how much or how little of this world’s goods shall be put at this or that man’s disposal. Isn’t there an alternative?

Yes, there’s an alternative, and it occurred to people more than two millennia ago. We’ll invite the wise and the good to come down from Olympus to sit as a council among men, and we’ll appear before them one by one, to be judged on personal merit and rewarded accordingly. Then we’ll be assured that those who make a million really deserve it, and those who are paupers belong at that level; and we’ll all be contented and happy.

What lunacy! The genuinely wise and good would not accept such a role, and I quote the words of the highest authority declining it: “Who made me a judge over you?” Anyone who applied for such a role would cast grave doubt on his wisdom and goodness by the mere fact of applying!

The marketplace decision that this man shall earn twenty-five thousand, this one ten, and so on, is not, of course, marked by supernal wisdom; no one claims this. But it is infinitely better than Socialism’s alternative, which is to recast consumers into voters, who will elect a body of politicians, who will appoint bureaucrats to divvy up the wealth by governmental legerdemain.

This mad scheme backs away from the imperfect and crashes into the impossible! There are no perfect arrangements in human affairs, but the fairest distribution of material rewards attainable by imperfect men is to let a man’s customers decide how much he should earn; this method will distribute economic goods unequally, but nevertheless equitably.

Parenthetically, it should be understood that the market does not measure the true worth of a man or a woman. If it did, we would have to rate all who make a lot of money as superior beings — rock music stars, producers of porno films, publishers of dirty books, television commentators, authors of bestsellers — and they’re not superior. To the contrary! But such people constitute only a tiny sector of the free economy, and they are a very small price to pay for the blessings of liberty we enjoy.

A Guilt Complex

In a free society, those who earn more than the national average are entitled to enjoy their possessions, for they’ve gained them in a system of voluntary exchange, the well-being they enjoy is matched by the well-being they have bestowed upon other people! There are no valid reasons for anyone to be plagued by feelings of guilt on this score. There is genuine reciprocity in the free society, but its opponents are blind to the market’s built-in mutuality.

The Left, therefore, will make a determined effort to instill a guilty conscience in everyone who lives above the poverty level. They use Karl Marx’s exploitation theory which alleges that the man who works for wages produces, over and above his wage, a “surplus value” which is garnished by his employer. To be employed is to be exploited, and the whole capitalist class should feel guilty for denying the working class its due!

This naive notion was demolished by Böhm-Bawerk even while Marx lived, and it is not now defended even by Communist theoreticians. But the “surplus value” idea accords with feelings of envy and guilt, so it is still useful as propaganda.

Given a century and more of Marxist propaganda and it is not surprising that there are a lot of guilt-ridden millionaires and sons of millionaires, as well as many captains of industry and top executives whose hearts bleed for “the poor.” Envious Have-nots and guilty Haves: fertile breeding ground for Socialistic propaganda!

It is not only among individuals that wealth differentials are exploited; there are Have and Have-not nations. The Have-not nations are those to whom Americans have given upwards of two hundred billion dollars worth of goods since the end of World War II. But despite this incredible bounty (for which the nations of the world rise up and call us blessed!) we still have too much, in the eyes of our critics. The words vary but the music is always the same: Americans who represent only 7 percent of the world’s population consume 20 percent of the world’s food, drive 75 percent of the world’s automobiles, have 75 percent of the world’s television sets, and so on and on and on.

Now, I’m an amateur critic of the quality of life lived in America, and for those who insist on having my opinion I’d say that Americans do eat too much, and they stuff themselves with food of the wrong kind. It would be good for them to leave the car in the garage occasionally and walk or ride a bicycle. Furthermore, no mixture of ease, comfort, speed, and gadgetry will add up to the good life — as most persons would agree.

But all this is by the way; the matter at issue here is not the desirability of a more Spartan or Stoic style of life — which, incidentally, is not practiced by the rich of Asia, Africa, Europe, or you name it. It’s just that more people in these fifty states are enabled to enjoy more material wealth than all but a handful of people elsewhere, and so we are conspicuous enough to provoke the carefully nurtured envy of the rest of the world.

Should Americans deliberately lower their living standards? Well, perhaps there are good reasons for a return to plain living, hard work, and the Puritan ethic — but deferring to local liberals and critics from the Have-not nations is not one of them!

Productivity the Key

Americans do consume more on the average than the people of other nations. It might be interesting to ask why. The answer is clear: Americans consume more because Americans produce more. If the people of India want to consume more, they’ll have to learn to become more productive. And America is bursting with people who would be delighted to tell them how to increase their productivity. You merely have to accumulate capital at a faster rate than population growth so that each worker will have more and more machinery, tools, and equipment.

Productive efficiency, in other words, requires institutional incentives for capital accumulation — such as widespread belief in the sacredness of private property; an ethic which exalts honesty, thrift, and hard work; the idea of inherent rights, and so on. A nation that builds on a foundation like this is bound to prosper, as America has.

Suppose the American government continues to yield to the pressure of envy stemming from the Have-not nations and increases the tax bite on American citizens so that they will consume less. Suppose, in other words, that a larger and larger percentage of the goods produced here annually is siphoned off and shipped abroad.

What will happen to production here when our people are prevented from enjoying its fruits? You know what will happen to it; production will decline, inevitably. Why does a man produce? He produces in order to consume; consumption is the end in view of all productive activities. If everything a man produces is taken from him he’ll stop working; and if fifty percent is taken from him he’ll slow down.

The upshot is that the worst help we can give to the Have-not nations is to inflict policies upon Americans which will inevitably make us dollars poorer without making the Have-not nations a penny richer.

This envy/guilt syndrome provides an interesting glimpse into the Socialist mentality, which has little concern with production, with the way material goods come into existence. Socialists are preoccupied with the political redistribution of the already existing stock. There is, in fact, only one way to make economic goods appear, and that is to apply human energy, augmented by tools and machinery, to raw material. Human labor applied to natural resources is the only way to produce food, clothing, shelter, and the amenities; but the Left has no interest in this process, let alone in increasing its efficiency.

Tax and Subsidize

The attention of the Left is focused on taxing producers and subsidizing consumers. Assuming that production occurs by magic, automatically, Socialism has no program except to seize property from the Haves and distribute it to the Have-nots. The guaranteed end result of this to enforce domestic poverty and spread hunger around the globe. But a certain glamour attaches to any Robin Hood operation which promises to take from the rich and give to the poor — and some of this glamour lingers even after it has become plain that Robin the Hood is actually robbing both rich and poor for the benefit of Robin!

As a result of economic progress, a society moves up from a situation where just about everybody is poor to one characterized by general prosperity, shared by all but a few. That is to say, there will be pockets of poverty in any prosperous society, and the contrast between rich and poor makes the residual poverty painfully obvious to all compassionate people. Indignation suggests a remedy which appears obvious to those who respond emotionally, without thinking. If some are better off than others, why, pass a law to deprive the former of a portion of their property and dole it out to those in need! Not an efficient procedure, by the way; it costs the government several dollars to give one dollar to “the poor.”

Imagine a system of medicine where doctors blamed sickness on the healthy and sought to cure illness by making the well sick! This is madness, and if this tactic were used in medicine, few patients would survive. Economic distress likewise; poverty cannot be relieved unless we know its cause, and this means that we must also learn the cause of prosperity, for poverty can be overcome by productivity and in no other way.

Prosperity in a nation is generated by efficiency in production, and productive efficiency demands such things as a climate of freedom, security for property, the accumulation of capital, progressive technology, good work habits, skillful management, and the like. It follows that any impairment of the functioning of any or all of the factors that cause prosperity makes people poorer.

Here are some examples of political interventions which hamper productivity: confiscatory taxation which diminishes the supply of capital; minimum wage laws which disemploy large numbers of people; monopoly unionism which institutionalizes unemployment by exacting an above-the-market wage and imposing a rigid wage structure; price and wage controls; inflation.

Such political interventions as these do no one any good, and they do some people immense harm. Those most severely affected are the very ones whose plight arouses our sympathy and causes some short-sighted citizens to demand drastic government action to correct disparities in income! The only sound strategy is to apply the formula for prosperity across the boards; and this means that we must find some way of stopping government from hurting people by unwise legislation. Unshackle production, turn the market loose, and everyone will share — more or less — in the ever-increasing prosperity.

Of course, it is not enough for a nation to be merely prosperous; riches don’t bring happiness. A happy person is one who has something to live for, whose way of life challenges him to draw upon his powers and exert his full potential. Material well-being — food to nourish you, clothing to keep you warm, shelter against the elements — is one element in the good life. But in our time this one element looms so large in the eyes of many that evidence of economic distress anywhere is all the excuse they need to demand a program that will wreck the system which produced our prosperity! It is as if a doctor had treated a completely paralyzed patient with some miracle drug which restored function to arms and legs but left the former patient with one stiff knee and was then accused of malpractice and blamed for the man’s game leg!

Justice and Charity

Justice first; no legislation designed to give some an economic advantage at the expense of others, no arbitrary controls which prevent people from being as productive as they choose to be. Then, after justice, charity — which is simply an acknowledgment that some handicapped people can’t cope. The scope of private philanthropy is still enormous, even after a generation of government welfare schemes. The springs of compassion have not run dry, and it is obvious that they run more freely in the voluntary sector of society than in the coercive governmental sector.

The coercive sector hits John Doe with heavy taxation during his productive years and uses his money to finance programs he’s against. Doe is tens of thousands of dollars poorer as a result. During the same period, the Social Security tax deprives this man of thousands more. And all the while government is inflating the currency which increases the price of everything John Doe buys. When retirement comes, the government leaves John Doe with a lot less money than he actually earned during his productive period, and it cheapens the value of every dollar it gives him during his latter years. This is how government takes care of the poor!

There is no doubt in my mind that envy, covetousness, and guilt —plus plain stupidity and ignorance — are of Socialism’s essence. Socialism would stall at ground level if it could not inflame these feelings and shortcomings. But there are other causes contributory to the advance of Socialism in our time. There’s idolatrous religion. We live in a period when the traditional religious faiths no longer exert the hold they once had over the minds of millions of people. The predominant worldview is earthbound, with little or no place for the dimension of transcendence, or the sacred. Unable or unwilling, therefore, to make a religion of Religion, many Twentieth-century people make a religion of politics or economics.

A Religious Impulse

The term religion has reference, on the one hand, to an intensity of belief and devotion; and, on the other hand, it has to do with the object which inspires this intense belief and devotion. Lacking a transcendent object, God, because of the prevailing earthbound worldview, intense belief and devotion will affix itself to some object whose nature does not merit worship, such as the State, or Revolution. Thus Socialism or Communism becomes an ersatz religion for millions of people in our time.

The case of H. G. Wells is instructive. Wells was an early Fabian, and, until the disillusionment of his late years, worked tirelessly for the advancement of Socialism. “Socialism,” he wrote, “is to me a very great thing indeed, the form and substance of my ideal life, and the only religion I possess. I am, by a sort of predestination, a Socialist.”

Similar sentiments have been voiced by a multitude of the intellectual, literary, scientific, and political leaders of our time. Perversely, the low ebb of spiritual religion in our time has affected the churches, making it possible for men whose real religion is reform or revolution to capture large segments of the church for Socialism — by controlling various sounding boards, such as editorial offices, teaching and preaching posts, social action committees, and interchurch councils.

And just as the religious impulse has been bent to the uses of Socialism, so has the artistic impulse. The artist cannot “let nature take its course;” he must impose significant form upon it, bringing his kind of order out of what appears to him to be chaos. Twist the artistic vision around to society, and lo! the planned economy!

The untutored mind does not sense the magnificent and intricate order in a free society, which is the result of human action but not the consequence of human design. Merely enforce a few simple rules against theft, fraud, and murder, enforce contracts, redress injury — and, within these few rules, people acting freely and productively will project an order so complicated that it defies human understanding. Could we fully understand it, economic calculation apart from a market would be feasible — which it is not.

The artist in us dislikes loose ends, insists on tidying things up, is caught up in a vision it feels bound to realize. Fine, on canvas! But if you insist on a certain pre-planned order and pattern as an end result in your society — the nation as a work of art — it is obvious that this overall goal cannot be achieved if everyone in the society is free to pursue his own peaceful goals. There is no way to achieve a unitary National Goal except by nullifying individual goals.

Diversity Encouraged

The free society not only tolerates individual differences, it encourages diversity on the ground that each person has his unique contribution to make to the total richness. This position runs counter to the pressure for uniformity in this age of mass man. The advocate of the free society, therefore, runs the risk of rubbing people the wrong way; often he has to make his case against the grain of human nature which hates dissent. In order that a society may be free, a great many people must exhibit a much higher level of tolerance for individual eccentricity than has hitherto prevailed.

The believer in freedom, then, is like a salesman trying to persuade people to buy a product, by telling them that, chances are, there are things about it they won’t much like after they get it! That’s a hard sell! Freedom means putting up with a lot of things you don’t like and living with a lot of people you can barely stand.

Freedom of speech and press, of religion and economics, means that other people will say, print, believe, and produce things which we might find distasteful. Freedom doesn’t come cheap; it costs, and those unable or unwilling to pay the price will never achieve freedom, nor will they retain the freedom they now enjoy.

The late Dean Inge used to say that labels are libels! How shall we label the social system of America, England, and some European nations in the period between the Civil War and the New Deal? It was an age marked by a great expansion of science and technology, so we might speak of the Age of Science. A fine historian characterized the period as the Age of Materialism.

Democracy took over as the kings departed, and that label is popular. The mode of production during this century was “capitalist,” the label given currency by Marx. It suited the Communists to use one label, “Capitalism,” for the social system they wanted to destroy, rather than, say, “Democracy.”

A Deadly Label

Now, a modern western nation is an exceedingly complex affair, and it takes patient analysis to understand any single phenomenon of the many it exhibits. A social evil demands attention, and it takes knowledge and skill to trace out its root causes. Much simpler to blame everything that goes wrong on Capitalism! Why poverty? Capitalism! Why the Great War? Capitalism! Why the Great Depression? Capitalism! Why unhappiness? Capitalism!

Nothing was better calculated to deaden the analytical and critical faculties of several generations of intellectuals than this Marxist strategy; it worked; “social scientists” were conditioned to salivate on demand over the prospect that they had been chosen to lead humanity into the promised land.

Some able men are attracted to Socialism because it pretends to be scientific and progressive; and they regard themselves as scientific and progressive. But it is obvious that the mass of ordinary people are quite otherwise; they are stubborn and backward, and consequently, they make a mess of things. They refuse to accept the best scientific information available to them, preferring instead to be sloppy and unscientific. Witness their lifestyle, their eating habits, the way they rear children, their resistance to new trends in schooling, the foolish way they spend their money, their superstitions!

The indictment against the man in the street is a lengthy one, and the conclusion is that ignorant people such as this cannot be trusted to run their own lives. Any volunteers for the job of running people’s lives for them? Of course! Lots of highbrows believe themselves competent to operate a progressive society along scientific lines, all for the people’s own good, of course.

Who Shall Live Your Life?

Now, it may be true that a lot of people exercise but little wisdom in running their own lives, but it is a non-sequitur to deduce from this that A’s situation will be improved if B runs A’s life for him against A’s will! We know that this cannot work because it violates the basic law of life, a law as fundamental in human affairs as the law of gravity in Newtonian physics: Each person is in control of his own life, and if he doesn’t take charge of himself no one can assume this responsibility for him.

Life is a chancy thing, and, of course, we all make mistakes. But the mistakes we make while running our own affairs will teach us something, and we’re on earth to learn. As St. Augustine put it, “We are here schooled for life eternal.” Unless we are allowed to make our own mistakes, to pick ourselves up after every failure, and stand taller with every success, the learning process is stymied.

The great issue here is between those who regard human beings as mere things to be manipulated into some social pattern, versus those who believe that persons need liberty because without it they cannot work out their proper destiny, which requires this life and the life to come for fulfillment.

The attention so far in this paper has been directed at “them,” people of the Left, Liberals, Socialists. What about “us;” free-enterprisers, capitalists, businessmen? Do people get turned on to Socialism because of us? I’m afraid they do.

Now, no one can really blame an ordinary businessman for not understanding the theory of the free economy and for his inability to articulate its concepts clearly. The blame, if any is to be laid, attaches to intellectuals who dig no deeper than this for their understanding of the free economy. Admittedly, however, it does not make our chore any easier when business organizations seek government favors for their members or rush forward to praise wage and price controls.

But the real problem is elsewhere. A sharp distinction must be made between the economic theory of the free market and the ideologies erected around market theory by its self-proclaimed defenders. How many potential supporters of the free economy have been turned off by hearing certain ideologues of capitalism loudly proclaim that you have to be an atheist before you can become a genuine capitalist! Or you have to be a rationalist. Or a utilitarian. Or an anarchist.

Furthermore, it is difficult for an outsider to judge the arguments for the free market on their economic merits if he has to wade through dubious notions of history, art, literature, psychology, ethics, and religion to get to them! High-level arguments in economic theory coupled with low-level arguments in the ideological framework are not very damaging to Socialism, but they can make a shambles of Capitalism! It is only within the right philosophical structure that the market becomes the market economy, and that structure needs shoring up.

Economic action is necessary to survival, but by itself, it cannot generate the free economy. The food, clothing, and shelter without which no people can exist are produced by human exertion on natural resources, and there is no other way. The division of labor is as old as mankind; people have always traded and bartered. These interlocking events constitute the market, and the market is ubiquitous.

But the ever-present market does not become the market economy by spontaneous generation; non-market factors must be present to act as catalytic agents. Create a political structure around belief in the inviolability of the individual person and you have a context of liberty and justice for all in which property is respected and free choice maximized. The market, then, is institutionalized as the free economy. Neglect this necessary political framework — the one we inherited from the Eighteenth century — and as it decays it will take the free economy down with it.

Our Fear of Freedom

There is something in human nature itself which makes us ambivalent toward freedom. Human beings would never strive for a free society unless the urge to be free was a drive deeply rooted in human nature; and we wouldn’t have to strive for freedom — nor periodically lapse into despotism — were there not a paradoxical strain in our make-up which fears freedom. Let me try to elucidate.

Each of us has his own life to live, his own ends to achieve. We are purposive beings, so we project a series of goals which constitute our lifelong pursuits, and we set up various targets for occasional endeavors. It is a self-evident truth that each of us wants maximum freedom to live the life that is ours and to pursue the goals we have chosen for ourselves.

It is inconceivable that anyone in his right mind would deliberately invite other people to impair his freedom of action, for no one can set goals for himself and simultaneously ask other people to prevent him from reaching them! If, in some bizarre situation, a person does ask another to restrain him, then his real goal is to be restrained — no matter what he says his goal is.

The evilest tyrant imaginable, whose goal is to extinguish human liberty, does not want impediments placed between himself and his goal; he wants to be free to wield power unconditionally. Everyone, in short, desires his own freedom; but not everyone is seriously concerned that all other persons have as much freedom of action as he has. Very few people, as a matter of fact, favor equal freedom — a social condition of maximum freedom of action for everyone.

And there’s the rub! Freedom for yourself is a biological urge; the will for equal freedom for everyone stems from a more complex facet of our nature.

Man Must Think and Choose

No person can help wanting freedom for himself. This is part of our fight for survival, the struggle to continue in existence. Man shares this with every other living thing. But every living organism — except man — has a built-in servomechanism which preserves the nature and guarantees the continuing identity of the organism in question, whether tree, tiger, oyster, or whatever.

The truly human person, however, is a different kind of creature; we cannot complete our nature — realize our potential to the full — without deliberately willing to do so. Our inner freedom is so flexible that each person has a lot of latitude in choosing what he will make of his life. Your final destiny depends on the wisdom of your daily resolves. Each of these daily and hourly decisions we make breeds consequences — for which we must assume responsibility, and with which we have to live. This is intrinsic to the human situation.

Things would be much simpler if we could just sit back and let Nature take its course with us, as Nature does take its course with animals. It’ll never happen! Nor can we be wound up like robots to function as we should, as T. H. Huxley once wished. Belying his name as “Darwin’s bulldog,” the famous scientist said, “If some great power would agree to make me always think what is true and do what is right, on condition of being wound up every morning before I got out of bed, I should instantly close with the offer.” Don’t wait, the offer will never be made!

We are neither robots nor animals. We are persons, gifted with an inner freedom, which puts us under the necessity of choosing where we face the constant risk of making wrong choices. We are responsible beings, and the burden weighs heavy on us. This is the freedom we dread — our unique freedom which forces us to strive constantly if we would attain our humanity.

It is in this fear of freedom that Socialism takes root. Socialism offers the siren promise that we need not be individually responsible, either for ourselves or for anyone else. “They” will be responsible for us, and at the same time relieve us of any obligation toward others; the burden of being human will be lifted from our shoulders.

Human nature, then, exhibits these two facets; the biological urge to be free, and the all-too-human wish to shirk responsibility. The biological drive to be free manifests itself in some types as a grab for power, a lust to dominate others. This is a constant threat latent in human nature, which is why every period in history has to contend with tyrants and dictators.

That history is not one unbroken record of tyranny, that freedom ebbs and flows, is due to the fact that this authoritarian thrust in human nature may be re-channeled. Such re-channeling is our first line of defense against tyranny, and it consists of moral and religious restraints on the will to power which the authoritarian accepts as binding upon himself. The energies of the might-have-been tyrant are redirected in constructive ways.

There is a second line of defense against tyranny. This barrier is located in the hearts and minds of the to-be-tyrannized-over; it is a deeply felt conviction which affirms, in the familiar words of the Eighteenth century: “Resistance to tyrants is obedience to God.”

Our ancestors believed that life and liberty were inseparably joined; both were gifts of God. And because no one could fully serve his Maker unless he was free, freedom was just as precious as life itself. No person who acquiesced in tyranny could fulfill his life’s purpose.

In a nation where both lines of defense are in working order, there is maximum liberty for all persons. On the one hand, inner restraints quench the thirst for power; and on the other, a people, who know that the purpose of life cannot be realized unless they are free, will be alert to detect the slightest threat to their liberties. But when the would-be tyrant recognizes no inner curbs on power, and when the populace invites him to rule over them because they shirk the responsibility and burdens of being human, then the dictatorship is total.

To be a person means accepting full responsibility for our acts of choice and our conduct. But the prevailing earthbound ideology instructs us that we don’t really possess free will and, because we are the mere end products of our natural and social environment, we are not responsible for ourselves. Accept this blighting ideology and the will to freedom withers; you have optimum conditions for tyranny.

The same materialistic ideology which convinces the multitudes that they are not responsible convinces authoritarians that there are no inner restraints on power. Dictatorship gets the message: All systems go! The tidal movement of Socialism in the Twentieth century is no mystery.

You’d like to roll back this tide? It’s very simple! The social order outside of us is a reflection of the mental and moral situation inside of us. If there is social disorder, we may infer that there is disorder within, in our hearts and minds. The great Spanish philosopher, Ortega y Gasset, puts it this way: “Any explanation of the visible changes appearing on the surface of history which does not go deep down until it touches the mysterious and latent changes produced in the depths of the human soul is superficial.”¹ Each person, therefore, must first work on himself before his improved understanding can radiate to those in his orbit.

If only we could straighten out our own thinking we might order our lives aright, and if a significant number of people did this, then the society — which, after all, is but a reflection of ourselves — would begin to square itself away. This is a slow way to go, but it is the only way.

If we have looked back over history to learn the lessons taught by the rise and fall of nations, we know that societies never die of old age but only of auto-intoxication. We learn that civilizations have been, and can be, rejuvenated — from within! What other peoples have done in times past we can do today and tomorrow — provided we have the will to do it. We have all the ingredients for the restoration of our society; only the will is lacking — and only individual decision can make that up!

1What Is Philosophy?, p. 31. 

  • 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.