Where Lies This Fault?

A speculation on the recovery of freedom

Accommodating Caesar

It’s a lopsided contest these days between freedom and authoritarianism, libertarianism and socialism, individualism and collectivism, willing and unwilling exchange, the free market and the planned economy, capitalism and statism, voluntarism and coercion—call these opposites what you will.

Any person who still stands foursquare for freedom cannot help but sense the overwhelming odds against his position.[1]

Americans by the millions are forsaking freedom principles and accommodating themselves to the new order: statism or, if you will, the cult of Caesar.

A corporate official, about to make a point, began “Since adopting our accommodations program. . . .” What an excellent way to phrase his company’s change of policy! It so nicely and inoffensively describes the switch from an out-and-out opposition to Caesar to a demeaning camaraderie. “Our accommodations program” announces a shifting of attention from the market place where business has to be competed for, to the forum where the loot is proffered. Strikingly reminiscent of the “cooperation” accorded a recent German Caesar during his rise to absolute power!

This newly-invented term appears appropriate for tens of thousands of business firms and for countless local, state, and national organizations, that is, for those firms and organizations which readily accommodate themselves to whatever socialism is written into the statute books. Once adopt Medicare, for instance, and it is accepted as Americanism—as much so as the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

So goes the trend! Yet, sound theory and every iota of the evidence attest to the fact that freedom has the case. But this fact is overpowered by another: Caesar has the votes!

How possibly can a way of life so right be unseated by one so demonstrably wrong?

Could this be my fault, or yours and mine, the fault of freedom’s devotees?

Maybe yes and maybe no. Something somewhere is amiss. But there must be a way open to us if we can find it. Obviously, it has not as yet been found. Nor is the discovery likely short of exploring unknown and unsuspected territory or, as they say in the oil business, “wildcatting.” Remember the man who sold his property in order to explore for diamonds in far-off lands? He died in poverty only because he had failed to explore what had been right under his feet; he had sold the world’s richest diamond mine! What follows is definitely “wildcatting,” and anyone who takes stock in the venture does so at his own risk.

But before taking off, let us raise and try to answer a question that is relevant to our venture: Why do we give up our freedom so easily?

Easy Come, Easy Go

The saying, “A fool and his money are soon parted,” can be paraphrased, “Thoughtless people quickly lose their liberty.” It is not difficult to see why.

Most Americans are at a level of affluence unprecedented in all history, for reasons we but dimly perceive, and brought on without any one of us having made more than an infinitesimal contribution to the economic well-being each enjoys. The point is confirmed when one reflects on the part he has had, if any in the car or jet he rides, the clothes he wears, the house he calls home, the food he eats, the electric lights by which he sees, and so on. Literally millions enjoy luxury in return for little more than being born. Easy come indeed!

Compare our situation with that of the Founding Fathers. It was not easy come for them, nor was it easy go. They held fast to their few gains, including their liberty. It was worth your life to tamper with the little they had.

Poverty enslaves. Doing away with poverty is a releasing experience. I am able to do a thousand times as many things as Grandfather. For instance, he could talk to the few he personally met; I may converse with people all over this earth and in a matter of seconds. Opportunities to employ myself abound compared to his; and what I can exchange for the fruits of my labor are beyond his wildest dreams.

The few things Grandfather was free to do had been acquired the hard way. These he guarded zealously. A politician who threatened to take a single liberty risked defeat at the polls.

Most of us, on the other hand, have more alternatives among which we are free to choose than we can ever use. We are surfeited with alternatives, and with little more hand in bringing about these bountiful conferments than were they manna from heaven.

What matters it if I am forced to give up this or that? I will never miss the taking of so little from so much. With thoughtless people it is, indeed, easy come, easy go.

Thoughtful people, on the other hand, though they have a million alternatives from which to choose, and even if all of them have been acquired with no effort on their part, will husband each and every one of them as vigilantly as if each were the sole freedom they possessed. For they know that once the right to ownership is transgressed, that when freedom is “up for grabs,” the flood gates are thereby opened and become increasingly difficult to close.

Affluent persons who are thoughtful will hang on to their freedom as tenaciously as America’s Founding Fathers. Easy come, perhaps; easy go, never!

Let us now take stock of who it is that bears the responsibility for remedying this plight. For it ought to be obvious that the solution of this problem—a reversal of the swing—rests on the few who have not as yet lost their potentialities to make the case for freedom. The reason for there being only a few is that countless millions are already disqualified. Viewing the scene from my seat in the bleachers, our adult population falls into four categories, three of which are disqualified and one of which is not, that is, not yet.

These Have Given Up The Ghost

There are tens of thousands who have reluctantly awarded the palm to socialism, among whom are the most competent—potentially! But they have made themselves impotent and useless by succumbing to alarm, anger, and a sense of hopelessness or futility. It’s all over for the free society! These are permanently disqualified unless they can succeed in the difficult task of actually changing themselves.

These Are The No-thinks

The vast majority of Americans are unable or unwilling to think for themselves as related to political economy. They may be intellectual giants in other areas but not in this. This assertion requires some explanation.

Thinking for one’s self—thought—is the quality that distinguishes being human from being animal. Ortega calls our attention to a little known fact, “. . . thought is not a gift to man but a laborious, precarious and volatile acquisition.” And to help with the distinction between animal and man, he adds, “While the tiger cannot cease being a tiger—cannot be detigered—man lives in the perpetual risk of being dehumanized.” In brief, thought is more easily lost than acquired. Affluence, security from struggle, ease, and countless other dangers lurk on every hand to wreak their havoc on the thought processes, on our dehumanization.[2]

How is a person to tell whether or not he is in this no-think category? If he is unable to think for himself in matters of political economy, he may never know. Those who cannot think for themselves are unlikely to find out that they cannot think for themselves; they will drift with the tide.

How, then, are the nonthinkers in political economy to be identified? With an exception to be noted later, observe those who in you-and-me situations act uprightly, responsibly, honestly but who, when acting in a committee or organization, will unhesitatingly feather their own nests at the expense of others.[3] No person can be said to act rationally who switches from the ways of virtue to the ways of vice the moment numbers are introduced. A person who would never take his neighbor’s property in a personal action, if able to think for himself, will never condone or vote for the taking of that property in a collective action. We must therefore conclude that the rectitude of these people when acting personally, is no more rational than when acting collectively. Their rectitude in you-and-me situations, as their turpitude in collective situations, is not rationally induced; both are imitative. The actions of these millions in matters of political economy are imitative; at best these millions are followers. Anyone not subscribing to this observation is well advised to read no further, for my thesis is founded on this as a fact.

These Are The Over-thinks

This category is composed of a relative few, but of enormous influence. They not only think for themselves but, if I may coin a term, they over-think. These individuals, compared to the rest of us, are intellectual giants—and they know it. As a consequence, many of them suffer delusions of grandeur; they step beyond the role intended for human beings and, with unfaltering confidence, invade God’s realm. They would cast us in their relatively large but really infinitesimally small images.

These are the social planners, the self-appointed designers of humanity. The late C. S. Lewis, writing of these self-anointed gods, did not think of them as bad men but, rather, as not men at all, that is, in the old sense. “They are, if you like, men who have sacrificed their own share in traditional humanity in order to devote themselves to the task of deciding what ‘Humanity’ shall henceforth mean.” In any event, these “giants,” once they assume the creator role, come forth with utterances, decrees, designs that are pure nonsense.[4]

These Are The Remnant

The few who remain, after the disqualified have been subtracted, can, in political economy, think for themselves to some extent; they have not invaded God’s realm; and they have not given up the ghost. The recovery of freedom has no other allies than these; thus there is no alternative but for them to bear the whole responsibility.

Recruit Possibilities

That the numbers of these few can be added to, that recruits from the presently disqualified categories can be found, is enough of a possibility to deserve examination. For the more who are trying, the greater is the probability of unearthing a higher competency for freedom. Indeed, it is not at all unlikely that the greatest genius of all may be among the presently disqualified categories.

There are reasons to believe that the most likely prospects are among those who have given up the ghost, who have, by reason of being able to see deeply into what’s happening, slumped into a futility coma. Many of these individuals can think brilliantly for themselves and thus, I suspect, they could, if they tried, reason themselves out of their depression. The formula for so doing appears to be simple:

1. There have been darker ages than this. Ortega, forty-five years ago, wrote, “. . . the fact is that the present and the future have often looked quite as difficult and forbidding as they do today, if not more so.” And, for the philosophically inclined, there is comfort in the fact that human progress resembles the wave sequence we observe throughout nature: evolution-devolution, evolution-devolution, with evolution inching ahead over the millennia.

2. Our moment in history may not be as dark as it seems. Amidst all the destructive forces there are even more powerful, commonplace, unnoticed, constructive forces at work. Were this not true, we would have been done in ere this.

3. Assess our moment qualitatively, not quantitatively. Remember that this is an idea contest, not a numbers problem. The socialists have spent themselves ideologically, although not politically. Their basic ideas have been intellectually demolished;[5] the case for freedom, on the other hand, viewed long range, is in its infancy.

4. Man’s destiny is that of becoming, achieved by overcoming. Look upon the destructive forces as obstacles to be overcome and, thus, as opportunities for personal growth, that is, as springboards to one’s becoming.

5. The individual is not responsible for human evolution but only for his own growth in awareness, perception, consciousness. Look well to this and the human situation is correspondingly improved.

Arousing one’s self from the futility coma can only be rationally achieved. Those who can accomplish this have what it takes to assist with freedom’s recovery; they qualify.

But what about the individuals in the second category, the many millions who do not think for themselves in political economy, the imitators? It is obvious that they are not necessarily committed to a life of imitation. Many of them have never explored their aptitudes and, thus, know nothing of their potentialities. In this instance, the rescuing force is probably nothing short of a highly exemplary and thus attracting behavior on the part of others, so strong that it induces a spirit of inquiry, the search for truth. This force can lead some of these individuals to self-discovery.

As to those in the third category, the over-thinks or superintellects, they are on their own. Lesser intellects cannot rescue them. Plato, as he grew older, made the grade; he worked against his earlier philosopher-king idea. Other instances of self-rescue have been noted. We may at least hope for others. They are so very important when they do show up.

In addition to speculating on the possibilities of recruits from among those in the three presently disqualified categories, we should take note of how, on the surface, the no-thinks resemble the over-thinks. The former, as noted before, are imitative. Mises says of them, “. . . [they] do not conceive any ideas, sound or unsound. They only choose between the ideologies developed by the intellectual leaders of mankind. But their choice is final and determines the course of events. If they prefer bad doctrines, nothing can prevent disaster.”[6] Merely bear in mind that the actions of these people, as relating to political economy, are not rational but imitative.

This leads us to the crucial point: Today a substantial majority of these millions are imitating the over-thinks, not those in the Remnant category. Obviously, it is not always easy to tell the imitators from the imitated; they cannot be distinguished by looks or by what they say or how they vote. Nor does it matter much. What really should concern us is why the imitators are imitating those of authoritarian persuasions rather than the devotees of freedom.

The Fault Is Mine!

Yes, this fault is mine! But, perhaps, this is for you to confess as well as me.

Let us repeat the hard question: Why is the predominant imitation what it is? Why so far from what libertarians would like it to be? It is simply because we, you and I, do not know how to make the case for freedom in an adequately enlightened manner to induce imitation. Success, if ever achieved, will be easy to recognize: The imitators and the imitated will again speak alike and vote alike but the imitated will be the devotees of freedom.

Some self-diagnosis is in order.

My claim that the present socialistic predominance is no more than a consequence of our own inadequacies is too incredible for ready acceptance, particularly by the philosophers of freedom, those who have spent a lifetime in pursuit of freedom’s imperatives, promises, truth. But I submit that the very best—the ones out front—have no more than scratched the surface in either understanding or exposition. This radical conclusion derives from the fact of freedom’s nonmagnetism as we present the case. But freedom is not wanting; we are; or, more precisely, I am.

Very well. If we are inadequate in understanding and exposition, what accounts for the deficiency?

The enormous discrepancy between our self-assessed competence and what in fact is a glaring incompetence on our part has its origin in a faulty comparison. The tendency of anyone slightly out front in his understanding of the freedom philosophy is to grade himself by observed inferiority. If I am ahead of those in my little acquaintance orbit, how natural it is to conclude, “What a bright boy am I!” This faulty method of self-assessment makes one look pretty good; it confers on one a sense of excellence. But clearly, this type of evaluation is precisely the enemy of excellence. It brings improvement to a halt the moment one steps ahead of those who haven’t done any homework. Once one stands at the head of a class of imitators he seems to think he has it made. Potentialities are never realized in this manner. Contemplate how little was demanded of a person to be out front in a dark age. Or to be out front as an exponent of freedom when freedom is on the wane!

The above summarizes our Remnant as I see it. Understanding freedom slightly better than others understand it makes us think we are proficient. But if they do not understand freedom at all, our being better is hardly a mark of excellence. The good image we have of ourselves is grossly exaggerated and false.

The first step in remedying our fault is to be done with this method of self-rating; it is fraudulent, stultifying, and antagonistic to growth. Does it not follow from this type of self-evaluation that no one could ever rise beyond what he is except as others improve? And were others to use this system not one of them could possibly improve. A human standstill!

The next step is to do a “180,” as the captain says; we look to the opposite direction; instead of these personal comparisons we must compare ourselves with that which remains to be known Looking from the known to the unknown is a real jolter. As the noted French scientist, Lecomte du Noüy points out, man’s image of his universe rests on reactions determined in him by less than one-trillionth of the vibrations which surround him—that less than one vibration in a trillion leaves any trace on his consciousness.[7]

Freedom Cannot Be Rationally Defined

Look to the unknown! This brings us to what we do not know about freedom, and it is strikingly analogous to what we do not know about life. We cannot rationally define freedom any more than we can explain electricity, for instance. Yes, we can understand and expound on some of electricity’s effects, but the force itself is a mystery. If we could rationally define it, electricity would no longer be a mystery.

While I have never thought of our dilemma in this light before, freedom is a mystery because it is of the spirit. And we can say it is of the spirit because it rests on faith. To recognize the truth of this, merely reflect on why it is that you are free to pursue so many of your own aims, why it is you can devote yourself so exclusively to the realization of those talents uniquely your own. Admittedly, you are remarkably free in this manner. Why? Why is a painter, for instance, free to think only of his art? Why is he not completely consumed—and thus not free to paint—by thinking about the wheat that has to be planted now in order that he may have bread next year, and about the thousand and one other activities essential to his living? On what does his freedom rest? It rests on the faith that you and I and others will, in our countless diverse ways, simultaneously attend to all of these matters for him.[8] We do not, when a society is not constrained, give the details of our provisioning a second thought. If the painter did not have faith that these others would, in pursuing their own interest, serve his needs, he would paint no more. It is clear we live by faith, faith being a spiritual quality, and our freedom springs from this. Thus, we must conclude that freedom is as much a mystery as is electricity or life itself.

I am now, in this meandering monograph, getting to the nub of our problem: Over and over again we attempt the impossible; we try rationally to define freedom and, by so doing, weaken rather than strengthen the case for freedom. We cannot explain the miraculous, the inexplicable.

Suppose that the desirability of life were at issue—some for, others against. Now imagine that those of us on the pro side were to devote ourselves to explaining creation and life. Would not our explanations be rather shallow? Could not the opposition find endless faults, hole after hole in the argument if creation and life had no better defense than any explanation we would make? In such a circumstance, others could reasonably conclude that life and creation have no case at all!

Freedom, as creation, life, and electricity, is in this same inexplicable category. We who pose our explanations as the case for freedom—who posit what we do not know as knowing—give the impression that freedom does not have a valid case.

Take just one seemingly little, simple, mundane yet miraculous example. Peering at the horizon through the window of a jet, I reflected on what it was I was peering through. Easy enough to settle for Plexiglas and let it go at that.[9] But what an oversimplification! Why, not a man on the face of the earth knows how to make this window, and no man can be found who has had more than an infinitesimal part in its making. No one can explain this item—a veritable miracle—any more than anyone can rationally define creation, life, electricity, a tree.

What, really, was I peering through? A miracle is one answer. Another would be inexplicable freedom in one of its manifestations! Or I could say I was peering through trillions upon trillions of discoveries, ideas, inventions in complex, inexplicable interchange since the dawn of thought. Had these creativities not been free to flow or had there been no faith in the efficacious manner men will perform when free, the Plexiglas is unthinkable. That through which I peered was the universal energy—creation—freely flowing through the minds of men over untold centuries. This particular miracle—this coalescence of tiny insights and enlightenments into a phenomenal wisdom—strangely manifests itself not only as something transparent but, as steel, so unbelievably tough that it withstands a highly pressurized cabin.

Reflect on life again; we observe life all about us. But we see life mostly in its myriad embodiments: a blade of grass, a tree, a dog, and, in its highest form, a man. However, we do not see or understand even the chlorophyll in the blade of grass, let alone the 5,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 atoms and all the radiant energies that go to compose the single human being. These unaccountable make-ups of life are, except superficially, lost track of; they are in solution, so to speak, and are thus beyond more than casual analysis.

Mostly, we do not try to explain life or electricity, nor do we find explanation necessary in order to be in favor of them. Instead, we accept these as the miracles given, and intelligent study is confined to how not to offend or injure these forces.[10] We forego explanation and seek understanding as to how more fully to accommodate ourselves to the blessings they hold in prospect for us. For we concede, more or less instinctively, that we are not the creators of life or electricity but, properly, the protectors and custodians of these creations.

Freedom presents us with a comparable phenomenon, a desideratum that defies precise definition. Indeed, it is a phase of creation, for freedom is the first and absolutely essential means of creation at the human level. Here, as in life, it is mostly the embodiments we observe: a car, a sheet of Plexiglas, a book, a play, a painting, a poem, and inheritances in countless forms. But the components—the ideas, the faith of millions, the creativities, and so on—are in solution, and precisely what they are and how they interact one on the others is beyond our ken; they are outside our power to identify, analyze, and define, except superficially.

I repeat, we are no more able to explicitly and rationally define freedom than life or electricity. But unless we are short on insight, we should be as much in favor of freedom as we are of life. And such insight would be aided were we to stand as much in awe of freedom as we do of life.

When, instead of studying how not to offend or do injury to freedom, we attempt to explain this miraculous quality, we give a false impression of freedom. Others, viewing our “explanations” of the inexplicable, are often led to believe that freedom is of the flesh, whereas freedom is of the spirit. We need no better proof of our general ineptitude than the marked variances of our “explanations.”

The Role of Awe[11]

As stated above, the devotees of freedom—the Remnant-regardless of how advanced, have no more than scratched the surface in making the case for freedom. My reason for this claim is that I am unaware of anyone who has explored how to make the case for freedom minus an explanation of what freedom is, freedom being a phase of creation that defies rational definition.

How is the case for the inexplicable to be made? I do not know nor do I know of anybody who does know. I am only making the tentative suggestion that this is an appropriate area for exploration. We should know by this time that we have not been on the right track and that, as suggested earlier, some “wildcatting” is in order. And I acknowledge that that’s what this is.

I am personally convinced that we were given the cue long, long ago, a cue that has been but little heeded and rarely understood. However, a serious explorer, one bent on “wildcatting,” will accept any lead as a working hypothesis. Here is the cue that anyone who is an explorer at heart might well examine: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” As I view it, “fear” is not meant to convey being afraid of, but rather standing in awe of. Translated into our frame of reference, it reads, “Standing in awe of creation is the beginning of wisdom.” This has a logical and consistent extension: Standing in awe of freedom, the means of creation at the human level, is the beginning of wisdom.

Awe is a rare knowledge; it is an awareness of not knowing. It is only when one is aware that he does not know that knowing can begin. The self-evident fact that know-it-all-ness is the end of wisdom suggests that a state of awe—an acknowledgment of not knowing—is the condition for wisdom’s beginning.

Socrates sheds light on what appears to be a truth: “That man thinks he knows everything, whereas he knows nothing; I, on the other hand, know nothing but I know that I know nothing.” Because of his awareness of not knowing we call Socrates a wise man.

To further dramatize and thus simplify the point that the more we know the more we know we do not know, merely visualize a blackboard with infinite dimensions—the unknown.[12] With white chalk construct a small circle to symbolize your light—knowing—of say ten years ago. Next, make a very large circle to symbolize your present light or knowing. And last, observe how much more darkness you are presently exposed to than formerly. A recognition of not knowing—awe—appears to go hand in hand with increased knowing, or wisdom.

I am suggesting that when we, the Remnant, stand in awe of freedom, as we should of anything that classifies as the miraculous, that we have evolved to the only level from which the required learning is possible. And what is the required learning? How to make the case for freedom, the inexplicable!

If it be supposed that you or I or some brighter person must discover how to make the case for freedom—the miraculous, the nonunderstandable, the inexplicable—then the supposition is in error. No discrete individual shall any more perform this feat than any single person discovered how to transmit the human voice around the earth at the speed of light. The knowledge, when and if it exists, will be a synthesized knowledge,[13] the kind that accounts for the Plexiglas. It will be a coalescence of countless thoughts, ideas, creativities. The best we can ever hope for is that each of us will now and then make tiny contributions which will finalize in an over-all luminosity, the wisdom that originates in ever so many far-from-all-wise minds, such as yours and mine.

When and if the case for freedom is made, the making itself will be but another of freedom’s infinite manifestations—the making as much a coalescence of ideas as the harnessing of electricity, our restaurants in the sky, or Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.

My fault—and this may be an appropriate confession for others, also—has been a blindness to my own lack of understanding and exposition. This failure to put myself in proper perspective has been induced by comparing my understanding of freedom to those who have little if any understanding of freedom.

But when I do a “180,” that is, when I compare myself with what I do not know, I discover that I know no more about freedom than I do about life, about radiant energy, or about the atom. What I do not know, I cannot explain or define.

To know a fault is the first step to its remedy. To stand in awe of freedom, as of life, is the second step, and the beginning of wisdom or, in this context, the beginning of finding out how to make the case for that which cannot be explained. Should enough of us set foot on the right path, we establish the possibility of making the greatest discovery of these times.

And then, the free market, private ownership, willing exchange way of life—Caesar falling, freedom ascending! That’s as much of an imitation as any worthy member of the Remnant should ever hope for.


[1] I conceive of freedom falling into two broad categories, the psychological and the sociological. The former, perhaps the more important of the two, has to do with man freeing himself from his own superstitions, fears, imperfections, ignorance. The latter has to do with the tensions and inequities resulting from man imposing his will by force on others. It is only the sociological aspect of freedom that I consider in this speculative essay.

[2] See the chapter, “The Self and the Other,” in The Dehumanization of Art by Ortega y Gasset. (In paperback, Doubleday & Co., Carden City, N. Y.).

[3] I am omitting in this analysis any reference to house thieves and others who will personally swindle. Their numbers are small and the damage they inflict is insignificant when compared to that of these “good people.”

[4] See “Plato, Your Philosopher King Has Been Found,” The Freeman, September, 1967.

[5] Time and again it has been demonstrated that their central thesis, “from each according to ability, to each according to need,” is unworkable. Socialistic organization can give away but it cannot produce the give-aways. Mises has shown that economic calculation is impossible in the socialized society. Minimum wage laws, price fixing and other controls against willing exchange, compensatory spending, indeed, all ideas in their arsenal of coercive practices have been exploded.

[6] Ludwig von Mises, Human Action (Chicago: Henry Regnery Co., revised edition, 1966), p. 864.

[7] See Human Destiny by Lecomte du Noüy (Mentor, 1963).

[8] For an excellent commentary on this point, see The Will to Believe by William James (Dover, 1956), p. 24.

[9] Actually, there are three sheets. The inner is Plexiglas, and the outer sheets are “stretched acrylic plastic,” the really tough stuff.

[10] Study and reflection make us conscious of the atomistic know-hows and understandings that flow from millions of individual minds and, in coalescing, form into a fantastic over-all wisdom. It is this that warrants and receives our faith, the faith that frees each of us to exploit our unique potentialities. But study and reflection also reveal the tragic consequences of permitting any one little mind to substitute its minuscule knowledge for the over-all wisdom. This would be matched in absurdity were a blade of grass to substitute itself for the beauty of the whole lawn!

[11] I use awe to connote solemn wonder, a veneration of the miraculous: creation, life, the atom, electricity, freedom.

[12] See page 31.

[13] By “synthesized knowledge” I refer exclusively to the freely combining kind as distinguished from the philosopher-king brand. The former falls in the same pattern of phenomena as molecules freely combining to form a tree; the latter is as absurd as some know-it-all trying to make a tree. The miraculous aspect of freedom can be pinpointed in this free synthesis of knowledge; we can take note of it, harness it, take advantage of it; its workings are beyond human comprehension.

Further Reading