World in the Grip of an Idea: 33. Conclusion: Loosening the Grip of the Idea

In this series, Dr. Carson examines the connection between ideology and the revolutions of our time and traces the impact on several major countries and the spread of the ideas and practices around the world.

As this piece is being written there is a hint of spring in the air. The ice has melted away, and the weather has turned mild. A gentle rain has fallen, preparing the earth for a new season. A moment ago, I heard a bird chirping outside. The sap has begun to rise in the trees; the matted down grass blades look here and there as if they might be changing color from brown toward green; flowers not yet ready to bloom are nonetheless pushing gently upward toward the sun. In a few weeks, if I mistake not, tiny green leaves will be thrusting forth from the branches of trees, flowers will be blooming, the people will be emerging joyfully from their winter cocoons. The earth which lately looked so glum will be suddenly supplied, as it were, with new raiment in an ever recurring annual cycle.

Even so, experience teaches that however hopefully we anticipate the coming of spring we should be wary as well. Spring will not be likely to arrive without a great struggle in the atmosphere. The warm winds blowing up from the south collide time and again with the cold winds from the north as winter gives ground grudgingly to spring. From these collisions there are often thunderstorms, heavy rains, floods, high winds, and even tornadoes, the most locally devastating of all natural phenomena. The best things in life are not free; there is always a price to pay. Stormy weather is the price we pay for spring.

But then, on the heels of these things there comes a very special moment—a few hours, a day, or, when we are lucky, several days—for all who will attend it. It is a day when the sun shines brightly, when the last bit of chill has gone from the air, when the wind has finally blown itself out and a near stillness is upon the earth. The fragrance of flowers fills the air, the birds are singing, and animals are at play. It is a time for sitting or lying under a tree, for stopping the never ending struggle, for drowsing if that should occur, or just for peaceful contemplation. At such moments, a man may be as near to peace and a sense of harmony with nature as he gets, a nature against which he has so often struggled. He may feel himself at the threshold of some great truth. Perhaps he is. It is a time for reading and pondering these words of Jesus:

"And why take ye thought for raiment? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin:

"And yet I say unto you, That even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.

"Wherefore, if God so clothe the grass of the field, which to day is, and to morrow is cast into the oven shall he not much more clothe you, 0 ye of little faith?

"Therefore take no thought, saying, What shall we eat? or, What shall we drink? or, Wherewithal shall we be clothed?

"But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you."1

A Lesson in Economics

Some of these passages are surely not to be taken literally. No one is supposed to conclude that because lilies neither toil nor spin that man need not do so either. There are some crucial differences between lilies and man. If man were literally to stop giving thought to what he would eat, drink, and wear tomorrow, the cupboard would almost certainly be bare. Although the ostensible subject of these passages is faith, they also contain a lesson in economics. A part of the message I glean from the quotations can be stated in this way. Do not engage in vain struggles to accomplish what you would do. (The verse which immediately precedes those quoted reads, "Which of you by taking thought can add one cubit unto his stature?") Get yourself in accord with the nature of things. Be right, first, and what is good and desirable will follow from your efforts. But to grasp the full import of this, it is necessary to delve into basic economics.

One difference between the lily and man is that man is totally dependent upon outside sources for his energy supply. The lily is not, of course, completely self-contained and self-sufficient. In order to grow, it requires sunlight, water, and certain minerals. The water and minerals it extracts from the soil, and sunlight does the rest. It makes its own energy—its food supply—by a process of photosynthesis. Another difference between man and plant is that man can think—even to taking thought for the morrow. And perhaps the most critical difference, man is a moral being—with the capacity even for seeking righteousness first. It is these differences in combination that give rise to economy, i.e., man is energy dependent and energy in usable forms is scarce. He uses his intellect to acquire energy efficiently, and morality prescribes what means are rightfully available to him. Man is mobile, too, and the plant is not; this gives more scope to his efforts at economy.

Household and Market

Economy assumes two forms, and two only. There is, first, the economy of the household. It may also be thought of as the economy of the family, but the term will not serve in all cases. Not everyone lives in a family, but everyone has a household, even a tramp who has only a can of beans and a makeshift shelter. The other is the market economy. It can also be thought of as a money economy, but the term is not quite so inclusive, for it is possible to have a market without money. It would be more precise to call it an exchange economy, but that does not distinguish it so well from the household economy in which there may be some elements of exchange. There are those who speak of an interventionist economy, but so far as intervention holds sway it is not an economy. The same goes for a "planned" economy.

There are some similarities between the household and market economies. Exchanges may occur in both, though exchange is essential to the market and usually incidental to the household. Division of labor usually occurs in a household of two or more people, and always in the market, or, more precisely, it brings the market into being. Each has a rightful claim to the title of economy, for each deals with the allocation of scarce resources.

But the differences are much more pronounced than the similarities. A key difference is that the household is primary, basic, and fundamental; while the market is secondary and derivative. The household is a center of value; the market is only a utility. The household is a miniature community; the market is a mechanism. Labor is an asset in the household; it is a cost in the market. There are no prices in the household ordinarily; whereas, the prime activity of the market is the determination of prices. The household is local and limited: its locale circumscribes what can be efficiently produced; it is limited to the wants and productive capacities of its members. Potentially, the market is world-wide and encompasses the wants and productive capacities of all the people in the world.

In actuality, we usually encounter the household intertwined with the market economy. This can lead to the conclusion that there is nothing more to household economy than what is presently described as consumer education, i.e., that it consists of the most effective means for utilizing the market. On this view, the household tends to become an extension of the market. This reverses the normal relationship, making the market basic and the household contingent. This might be of no great consequence in a free market, but when intervention has proceeded to great lengths such a dependence on the market lays the household open to political control.

The modus vivendi of the market is advantage or gain. Men enter the market in quest for something different from or better than what they have. They seek their own advantage by trade. Each person trading in the market must be assumed to be pursuing his self-interest, else there is and can be no market. In order to see this it is necessary only to imagine two people trying to make an exchange with each other in which neither wants what the other has. If an exchange took place, it could only be by gift. That would be the practical result, too, of each seeking only the well-being of the other. In the final analysis, it could only be an exchange for the sake of exchange.

An Assault on the Market

The idea that has the world in its grip is an assault on the market. This is so, most basically, because it is an attempt to remove the individual pursuit of self-interest from social relations. If this could be done, there would be no market. But there would also be no economy which could be regulated, controlled, or managed. No means would exist for coordinating or concerting all human effort for the supposed common good. In fact, socialism cannot dispense with the market entirely, any more than it can dispense with the motive of self-interest. It can, as already noted, level its attack at the independence of the individual. This it does. In doing this, the market, or a truncated version of it, is a prominent and essential means. Organization and numbers, as already discussed, are the means by which it does so.

Gradualists use the market much more broadly than do communists. By taking away much of private property, communists remove one of the basic conditions of trade. At the same time, however, they establish a near absolute dependence upon some sort of market for people to get a livelihood. Thus, while the market has only an attenuated existence in communist countries, what there is of it, free or not, is much more important than in gradualist countries.

Intervention to Grasp Power

Be that as it may, the crucial theorem for an understanding of the impact of socialism is this: The more firmly the grip of the idea is fastened on a people the less the advantage to the individual of exchanging in the market. To put it another way, the more government intervenes in, controls, and occupies the market, the less the chance of gain for the individual in the market. That is not to say that there are not gains to be made in the hampered market, but they are gains increasingly to those in a position to manipulate and use government to effect their gains. That is not an arena for individuals acting alone; it is an arena for groups, for collectives, for organizations, and for conglomerates—those who can mass numbers and organizations so as to grasp the handles of power. Such activity is a way of life in every "advanced" country in the world today. In well-run communist countries, the rulers often perceive advantage in favoring groups, but the flow of power tends to be one directional—from the rulers to the ruled.

We live in a world in which conditions are rigged against the individual. The market is increasingly rigged against him; the penalties that attend its use increase, and the costs of trading there become prohibitive. Government is rigged against him; it attends almost exclusively to collectives and organizations and concerns itself only with matters where large numbers are involved. (The courts are a partial exception to this, but predicting court decisions has become an increasingly parlous game).

The individual appears to be on the horns of a grotesque dilemma. Either he must operate individually in a market rigged against him or he must become a part of some collective and yield up management of many of his affairs to the group. To put it perhaps too dramatically, it looks as if the individual must hang alone or be hanged with the collective. That is not a socialist slogan; it is the future toward which socialism leads.

Is there a way out? Let us look again to the lilies of the field. There are three lessons, at least, to be learned from the lily, or almost any other plant, for that matter. They can be concisely stated this way:

1.  Mind your own business.

2.  Provide for your own sustenance.

3.  Fulfill yourself.

We know already, of course, that in applying these lessons we must keep in mind that man differs from a field plant in that he is mobile, rational, and moral. The lessons are valid, but it does take imagination to apply them.

One’s Own Business

Much of the toiling and spinning that is going on in the world today is worse than wasted effort; it is obstructive and counter-productive. The attempt to concert all effort—to manage economies, to fit everyone into the effort as a cog in a machine, to project the future from the past—runs aground on human nature and arouses resistance rather than productive effort. The attempt to transform man into an ant can no more succeed than would an effort to make a lily into an oak. The biological case against this possibility was well expressed a while back by Aldous Huxley:

In the course of evolution nature has gone to endless trouble to see that every individual is unlike every other individual. We reproduce our kind by bringing the father’s genes into contact with the mother’s. These hereditary factors maybe combined in an almost infinite number of ways. Physically and mentally, each one of us is unique. Any culture which, in the interests of efficiency or in the name of some political or religious dogma, seeks to standardize the human individual commits an outrage against man’s biological nature.2

The deeper case for the individual provided by Christianity has already been discussed.

Plants are especially adept at minding their own business. They put down their roots wherever the seed has fallen and reach outward to such supplies as they can use. No lily ever poked its petals out and launched any such plaint as the following: "Would you look at this situation! There is too much vegetation hereabout and too little water and minerals to go around. Look at that huge maple over there. It’s going to drain all the water and minerals from the soil. All the lilies need to get together and see that each plant gets no more than its equal share. Moreover, we have got to do something about the uncontrolled reproduction of crabgrass." It is not that the lilies, considered as a class, may not have such problems; it is rather that it is no part of their business to deal with them. Each lily deals with its own particular difficulties of getting enough water, minerals, and sunlight.

Loosening the grip of the idea which has us in its hold requires an emulation of the lily. The idea extends its sway by bidding us conceive of the whole world as our business. A recent civics textbook (usually taught in junior high school) describes a portion of the world-wide problems which confront us this way:

In 1976 U.N. Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim said: "The problems which face mankind are common to all nations and all areas. It is not possible to resolve them any more by purely national, or even regional, responses. Slowly we have realized that we are physically and economically interdependent on this planet."

What are the world wide problems which all nations face? Among them, most scholars agree, are:

·   poverty and hunger

·   over-population;

·   the using up of limited natural resources. . . .3

Pitfalls of Vanity, Immorality, and Tyranny

There is Divine warrant for believing that these problems are none of my business, that I should give no thought to them, and am to continue on my way without regard to the morrow. Why? Because, in the first place, it is vain to think on such things. It is vanity for me, one who knows not the ends to which a single child is born, to speculate about such matters as over-population. More, think as I will, I can discern no way generally to reduce poverty and hunger without using up limited natural resources.

In the second place, thinking on such things leads to the contemplation of actions I believe to be wrong. Should the world’s goods be redistributed by force? But that would be theft, and Thou Shalt not Steal. The authors of the above text suggest the direction such thought takes:

If people live longer, the population will get even larger—unless fewer people are born. Should we try to cut the birth rate and work to enable people to live longer? Should we set an age limit beyond which we would not help people to live?4

In the third place, tyranny is the logical conclusion to which such thinking leads. Aldous Huxley described it as the Will to Order in the social realm and described its process this way:

Here the theoretical reduction of unmanageable multiplicity to comprehensible unity becomes the practical reduction of human diversity to subhuman uniformity, of freedom to servitude. In politics the equivalent of a fully developed scientific theory or philosophical system is a totalitarian dictatorship. In economics, the equivalent of a beautifully composed work of art is the smoothly running factory in which the workers are perfectly adjusted to the machines. The Will to Order can make tyrants out of those who merely aspire to clear up a mess. The beauty of tidiness is used as a justification for despotism.5

It would never occur to me to go about telling my neighbors how many children they should have. Nor would I think of advising my neighbors to cease all efforts at keeping the elderly among them alive. Were I to do so, I should most likely be told to mind my own business. And rightly so. Yet, once one’s mind is bent by the idea that has the world in its grip, many people experience no difficulty in accepting the use of force to compel what they would hardly think of making efforts to get done voluntarily at the local and concrete level. Minding one’s own business is the essential first step in loosening the grip of the idea.

Coercively Involved

But what is one’s own business? A Secretary General of the United Nations has said, in effect, that my business is entangled with everyone else’s business. The peoples on this planet "are physically and economically interdependent," he has said. Let us spell out a little of what may be meant by this. If my money is being taken to pay the hospital fee for an infant being born, how many children that family has does become my business. If my gasoline supply is determined by the actions of OPEC nations, I am in some measure dependent on them. It is at least possible that what they do becomes my business: If I buy hospitalization insurance, or automobile insurance, or any sort of insurance, my rates may be determined by the behavior and carelessness of others.

To untangle this web, we need some distinctions. The distinction between a market economy and an interventionist economy needs to be made. The rule in the market economy is quid pro quo. There is a saying regarding legal settlements that goes like this: "Leave nothing on the table." It means that nothing should be left to be resolved later, that all accounts should be settled. The meaning of quid pro quo is that all parties to a transaction have fulfilled their commitments and that measure for measure has been given. Neither owes anything further to the other. Such transactions take place all the time. I drive up to a service station and order five dollars worth of gasoline. The attendant pumps two gallons, or however much it takes to equal five dollars at his prices, I pay five dollars, and that is that. A quid pro quo has been given, and nothing has been left on the table.

Activity in the market does not, of itself, entail either dependence or interdependence. The free market in a money economy is really a mechanism for making exchanges by people who retain their independence one of another. Even in contracts where some dependence is established, that dependence is temporary and limited. "Leaving nothing on the table" does not mean that there may not be obligations to be satisfied in the future. The phrase is used in real estate transactions in which there may be warranties running for several years and payments to be made for as much as thirty or more years. It means, rather, that all these obligations are specified, agreed to, and thereby limited.

"Left on the Table"

Government intervention intrudes force into the market. To the extent that force plays a role quid pro quo is not the rule. Indeed, the idea that has the world in its grip aims to remove quid pro quo from social relations, for quid pro quo depends on the working of individual self-interest just as does the market itself. In consequence, transactions in the market do tend to establish the kind of dependence that is unlimited and may well be described as interdependence. When force is used in the market "something is always left on the table." What is "left on the table" is, at the least, whatever was extracted by force. Dependence is established, because the transaction is never completed.

Let us take a simple example. Let us return to the service station and the transaction involving purchase and delivery of five dollars worth of gasoline. Something was "left on the table." The price included a state and Federal gasoline tax. I did not get my full quid, though he may have got his quo. In fact, I did not get five dollars worth of gasoline; I only got $4.40, say. The service station operator and I are not quit of each other. How he runs his business has become in some measure my business. It has become my concern, though I may not be aware of it, that he pay the taxes collected into the proper government collection agencies. Beyond that, it becomes my concern that the money is properly spent on goods or services which is in accord with the law.

Of course, much more than sixty cents was "left on the table." However much more I had to pay than I would have had to pay without the collusion of the OPEC cartel was left on the table. All the tribute paid to tax collectors, union wages, and so forth during the whole of the process of getting gasoline to and from the pump was left on the table. A whole set of dependencies and interdependencies were entailed in the transaction, many of which are very much my business.


Before going further with this analysis, it is in order to return to the second lesson to be learned from the lily—To provide for your own sustenance. The lily is equipped to make its own food literally by photosynthesis. Man is, as already noted, energy dependent. Even so, man is normally equipped with the means for establishing his independence. His mobility enables him to range in quest of sources of energy and to make exchanges with others. His rationality enables him to accumulate capital and use tools to provide for himself and his own. His morality enables him to cooperate with others, to distinguish between what is his and what belongs to others, and enjoins him to works of charity in aid of those unable to provide for themselves. That he be responsible for himself and fulfill his obligations is a necessary condition of his independence as a man.

Man’s independence is contingent upon his household economy. It can be stated simply this way: Man can be independent to the extent that and so long as his household consumes no more than he has produced. Participation in the market does not fundamentally alter this axiom. The market enables individuals to specialize by providing the means for exchanging what surplus they may have for that of others. Nor do debts which may be contracted in the market alter the axiom; they can only defer for a time the balancing of accounts. Debts do tend, however, to reduce the independence of the individual if they are not counterbalanced with more or less liquid assets.

An individual may enhance his independence in the free market. By contrast, when government intervenes to regulate, control, and use the market for its ends, the individual can lose his independence in the market. As already indicated, government intervention intertwines everyone’s business with everybody else’s. Transactions tend to lose their limited character and to draw those who engage in them into a continuum of effects that extend on and on. Rather than augmenting his independence in the market, the individual is drawn into a web of dependence and interdependence. In these circumstances, the more the individual depends upon the market the less his control over his affairs.

Controlling the Individual

There is another facet to government activity in the market. Governments use the market primarily as their means of controlling and using the individual. They collect most of their taxes there. (In the United States, the income tax is collected, where possible, by the employer, and that is in the market too.) They depend upon the market for prices on the basis of which taxes are levied. Beyond that, in gradualist countries, most controls are exercised through the medium of the market.

At the present time there are two ways to loosen the grip of the state on the individual. One is by the concerted action of peoples to place constitutional restraints and limits on governments. My belief is that this will only be likely to occur when the idea that now has the world in its grip has lost its hold. That does not have to occur on a worldwide scale, of course, and if it happens it will most likely do so country by country. I know of no country in the world where such an event appears imminent. But when the time is right, those with a will to do so can discover readily the principles on which government should be limited.

But people will be ready for limited government and a free market only when they are ready to assume responsibility for themselves and their own. Silk purses cannot be made from pig’s ears, and freedom cannot be imposed upon a people. Only a people who believe that man is a value will have freedom. Only those who have a high estimate of man and his potentialities can conceive of it as desirable for him to be free.

The greater our dependence upon others, the further are we removed from freedom. People do not revolt and establish freedom when oppression surpasses tolerable limits. They limit governments only when oppression becomes something they are unwilling to tolerate. Oppression is not a preparation for freedom but rather for greater oppression. The way for freedom is prepared by the successful practice of individual responsibility. The man who assumes responsibility for himself and his own is on his way to freedom, regardless of what others may be.

Penalties on Market Activity

The other way to loosen the grip of the state, establish individual independence and responsibility, does not require concerted actions of people. Where there is private property, it can be done by individuals and families. The way is to rely less and less on the market and more and more on the household. The household economy is the basic—even the "real"—economy; the market is only an extension of it. It is becoming increasingly expensive to use the market to supply the wants of the household. Social Security taxes, income taxes, sales taxes, import duties, excises, utility companies with monopoly privileges, international cartels, extortions by organized labor, and so on almost endlessly place heavy penalties on market activity. The division of labor loses much of its advantage as the cost of transport mounts. Moreover, the more the market is regulated the less able it is to serve the wants of the individual.

What I am suggesting is already occurring as a trend in the United States. More and more people are learning to do-it-themselves, to maintain and repair their automobiles, to do their plumbing and electrical work, to grow some portion of their food, to make their clothes, to cut hair, and to do a thousand and one other useful things. The more they do for themselves the less they are taxed in providing for their wants. The more closely they come to a household economy the less is the control of others over them.

The potentially valuable impact of this turn toward a household economy is the impact it can have on loosening the grip of the idea, too. The idea that has the world in its grasp is a grandiose idea. It is one that casts thought in the framework of groups, classes, races, nations, and the world. Those who think in terms of the household economy have already to some extent loosened the grip of the idea. They are thinking in terms of producing their own goods with the least expenditure of the means of production. That is what economy is about. When the market is an adjunct to their economy, they will no doubt use it.

Fulfill Yourself

The final lesson from the lily is this: Fulfill yourself. We know what that means for a lily. It means to develop a sturdy stem which can support its flowering and production of seeds. But under the sway of the idea that has the world in its grip we are losing our grasp of what it means for a man to fulfill himself We have well-nigh perfected the science of making machines, but we are on the way to losing the art of developing men. This is so because we are under the sway of an idea which childrenizes the race. It views man as a reflex of class, race, nation, and the people. Its thrust is to devise a scheme which will provide for them as if they were infants and control them as if they were irresponsible children. Beyond that, it is to concert their efforts to provide for the needs of everyone. It is a plan of human sacrifice. It makes of individual man only a means.

Man fulfills himself by becoming an adult, by developing his faculties, by exercising his skills, by becoming responsible for himself and his own, by making choices, and by realizing his potential. Man does not naturally fulfill himself as does the lily of the field. He must be nurtured as an infant, trained as a child, educated as an adolescent, and held responsible for his acts as he grows toward maturity. The surrounding society may aid and sustain him throughout life. Government has for its task to protect his life and property.

It is not in derogation of society, of organizations, or of whatever other groups there may be that it is observed that they are all adjuncts to the individual; they are servants not masters. Man too is a servant at his best, but he is at his best only when he is serving at his own good will and in ways that he decides.

The Road to Tyranny

It is idle, vain, and potent with destruction for men to take thought for the morrow of the human race. It is from such thought that ideologies are constructed. Such schemes are but plans for subordinating and subduing other men to the will of those who conceive them. Coordinating economies is an activity beyond the capacity of any man, and a task for which there is no warrant or commission. Control over others is a thing to be shunned, not sought. The good parent finds joy in seeing his child taking over the management of his own affairs. The successful parent is humbled by the accomplishments of his offspring, for he sees in them much that could not have come from him. The effective teacher is one whose students surpass his limited conceptions. Any plan that entails the use of others without their individual consent is a presumption. He who puts such a plan into effect is a tyrant.

The idea that has the world in its grip is a promise of eternal springtime. It is a vision of arriving at that special moment of spring and remaining there forever. It is delusion.

The idea brings destruction in its wake, not the euphoria of springtime. It brings discord, hatred, war, terror, and the massed force of the state. That is its record. The only element of springtime in the applied idea is, figuratively, storms, tornadoes, floods, and violent winds. Amidst these, it offers not shelter but insoluble problems of ever greater dimension.

When storm clouds descend, the traveler upon the road longs for the security of home. It is a sound instinct. Confronted with elements beyond his power to control, he longs for a man-sized place which he can order and manage. Home has ever been the sign and symbol of that place of refuge. To return to it is a return to basics, a return to fundamentals, a return to what life is about. The storm recedes in importance as the returned traveler enters the familiar household.

Such joys of springtime as man can have come from minding his own business, providing for himself and his own, and fulfilling himself.

But what will become of us if we make these things our primary concern? How will we get all the goods that we need or want? Will we not be drowned in a mass of humanity resulting from over-population? How will the hungry be fed? Will we not use up our limited resources? "0 ye of little faith." "Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin: And yet I say unto you, That even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these."

It is for man to put his own house in order, not to order the world. "But seek ye first the kingdom of God and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you."

Let it be so.

This concludes the series. An Arlington House version of World in the Grip of an Idea is in the works, and will be duly announced in The Freeman and in Notes from FEE just as soon as publication date and price are known.



‘Matthew 6:28-31, 33.

2Aldous Huxley, Brave New World Revisited (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1958), p. 26.

*Steven Jantzen, Carolyn Jackson, Diana Reische, and Phillip Parker, Politics and People (New York: Scholastic Book Service, 1977), p. 159.

*Ibid., p. 172.

5Huxley, op. cit., p. 28.