Liberalism Used to Mean Freedom

By Edmund Opitz

John Sholto Douglas was the 8th Marquess of Queensbury, and a noted sportsman as well. “Marquess of Queensbury” has a familiar ring, because in 1867 the Marquess gave his name to a newly devised set of rules to govern prize fighting, rules which are still in force. Prize fighting before the present era — under the old London Rules — was a combination of wrestling and boxing; it was bare knuckle, and a round was called each time a contestant was knocked or thrown to the ground. Under the new Marquess of Queensbury rules the boxers wore padded gloves, and rounds lasted three minutes with a one minute rest between rounds.

Now, it is obvious that these new rules changed the nature of prize fighting, and these changes had a good deal to do with determining the outcome of any particular contest; the old London rules favored the brawler, whereas the athlete who relied on speed and skill had a better chance under the new arrangement. A few, like John L. Sullivan, could win either way! Until Sullivan met Jim Corbett!

Lovers of the manly art used to debate the respective merits of Jack Dempsey versus Joe Louis; who was the greater fighter? The best one can do with a question of this sort is to consult an expert. The expert in this case was Jack Sharkey of Boston, a man who had faced both Dempsey and Louis in the ring, being beaten each time. A sportswriter buttonholed Sharkey and asked, “How about it, Jack; who’s the better man, Dempsey or Louis?” “It all depends,” Sharkey replied. “If the two men fought in the ring, Louis would win. But if the two men fought in a telephone booth, only Dempsey would walk away.”

The rules of a game define its nature, they lay down the conditions for winning, and they go a long way toward determining the outcome of a contest.

The Rules of Life

Life is not a mere game. Living is a lot more complex than any sport, but life and games are analogous in at least one respect: Neither is possible without an appropriate set of rules to be followed. It’s the rule book which determines the character of a game, and no game is even conceivable without one. To throw out the rule book is to forsake the game. By the same token, if we ignore, or deny, or break, or improperly identify, the ethical ground rules for flourishing human life, then the quality of life — individual and social —will decline.

Hoyle’s Games, the rule book for various pastimes, has not changed radically within memory. Which means that you and your opponent may devote your full attention to enjoying the game; none of your energy need be diverted into wondering what the rules are and how they should be applied or altered. Life is different. In life, the rules are always at issue; never more so than at this particular juncture in human affairs, during the final third of the 20th century. It is in the nature of the human condition as such that each generation must test things for itself; no people can passively accept the rule book handed down by its forebears. “What from your father’s heritage is lent,” wrote Goethe, “Earn it anew to really possess it.”

We’re here to think about our lives in society, about the optimum social conditions for bringing out the best in individual potential, about the rules which define economic competition. Peoples of every age in every culture have engaged in similar pursuits, searching for the rules leading to the good life. The rules have been discovered and they’ve been lost; they have been affirmed and they’ve been denied. Rules for the good life, when found, have been systemized as the traditional moral code, whose prescriptions are remarkably alike no matter where on the globe you take a sampling.

Customs and conventions vary widely; but every moral code affirms that it is wrong to betray your friends, wrong to break your word, wrong to injure your neighbor, and so on. Men and women have lived by this code off and on, violating its precepts from time to time, then climbing back on the wagon. Every culture has founded its legal system on the moral code; ethical injunctions against stealing and murder give rise to laws against theft and homicide; rules for personal living beget the rules for living together in society. Thus, such moral and legal guidelines for human action as: injure no man, respect a man’s property, don’t covet his goods, fulfill your contracts, and the like.

If we look within, we discover that we are motivated into action on two distinct levels; individual and social. There’s no way to reduce the complexities of human behavior to one simple motivating force. There are at least two sets of such forces.

Achieving One’s Purpose

On the first level, each of us has his own life to live, his own ends to achieve. The human being is a goal seeking creature, a purposive being. Personal life has a hierarchy of meanings, and each of us finds significance in his own living to the degree that he succeeds in discovering and realizing some of life’s larger purposes. One such large purpose is to find a sense of achievement in a chosen occupation or profession; if genuine satisfaction is lacking here the deficiency can hardly be made up elsewhere. There’s a profound truth in H. L. Mencken’s observation that the great division among mankind is between those who enjoy their work and those who don’t.

Now, in addition to this major thrust in individual life most people have some hobby which stimulates a sense of accomplishment — like tennis, or bridge, or music, or woodworking. And then there are the lesser goals, of the New Year’s resolution variety; like learning a new skill, acquiring a second language, losing five pounds by Labor Day, and so on.

It is obvious that some societies give you more scope and elbow room for the realization of your assorted goals than do other societies; you have a better chance to express the various facets of your nature in New York than in Moscow. The freer the society the more opportunity for individual self-expression; by definition this is the case. Your freedom increases as more and more of your life is self-directed rather than other-directed. If your life is at the disposal of other people you are not free — even if these other people are organized as government and even if you voted for them; you are not free if they are managing or directing your affairs!

It is a deeply rooted set of motivations which impels each one of us to take charge of his own life, the better to realize our personal goals. The relevant considerations here, at this level, have to do with human nature and destiny, that is, with psychology and philosophy. People who do not know what to do with their lives should seek out a spiritual advisor; or a psychiatrist, if they are ill.

Most people are moderately successful at this business of living their lives, and those who reflect on the matter realize that they cannot live their personal lives in isolation. We cannot function fully as persons unless we interact with some society. Even Robinson Crusoe had the language and culture of England with him on his island, plus some tools and a Bible. And here we come to a second set of motivations, a spin-off from the first. Your primary incentive is to achieve your personal goals, but a related incentive is work for those social conditions which maximize the opportunities for you —and everyone else — to achieve personal goals. The relevant considerations at this level are in the domain of political and economic philosophy.

You have certain basic instincts, and these primordial drives will see to it that you live your own life; but the assumption of personal responsibility for strengthening and enlarging the structures of freedom in our society is a voluntary action undertaken by a comparative few. Those who do act at this level are prompted by a sense of moral obligation. But moral obligation is weak in our society, so there are lots of dropouts at this level; there are people who demand all the advantages a free society has to offer, but who make no contribution to freedom in return. When Ortega y Gasset wrote his book, The Revolt of the Masses, in 1932, he put these dropouts in the category of mass man.

Ortega’s Mass Man

Ortega used the term “mass man,” or “the masses” in a very special sense; he did not mean the poor, the illiterate, the uneducated, those who work with their hands. I suspect Ortega would say that there are more mass men per square inch on the faculties of our great universities than exist in any typical farming community of Middle America. Mass man is the rootless intellectual, detached from his community and out of step with his country’s history. Such a man is unable to trace the connection between effort and reward in society, and, convinced of his own superiority he’s bitter because lesser folk refuse to give him his due.

Mass men “are only concerned with their own well-being,” Ortega writes, “and at the same time they remain alien to the cause of that well-being. As they do not see, behind the benefits of civilization, marvels of invention and construction which can only be maintained by great effort and foresight, they imagine that their role is limited to demanding these benefits peremptorily as if they were natural rights.” Mass man, “finding himself in a world so excellent, technically and socially, believes that it has been produced by nature, and never thinks of the personal efforts of highly endowed individuals which the creation of this new world presupposed.” (Revolt, pp. 65 and 63)

A culture — as the name tells us — is something cultivated; it is inspired by human imagination and vision, it demands hard work and sacrifice to bring it into being and to sustain it. No society or civilization “just is” — as nature “just is.” Societies come and go; civilizations rise and fall. Arnold Toynbee counts some 21 powerful empires which once held sway over portions of the earth and millions of people but which are no more. It is obvious, therefore, that barbarism, or a dull and vegetative existence, is the rule of mankind; whereas civilization — a society where there is maximum opportunity for achieving the human potential — is the exception.

The good society, where people enjoy liberty and order and are stimulated to pursue their personal goals, doesn’t just happen —it is a contingent thing, that is, it depends on preceding events or situations. Good health is likewise a contingent thing; you cannot enjoy optimum physical well-being on just any old terms. Assuming normal heredity, good health is contingent upon proper diet, rest and exercise — and the good luck to avoid accidents and noxious foreign bodies. Are there analogous rules for a good society, that is, conditions which must be met if we are to retain present liberties, and use them to expand the areas of life where people ought to be freer than now to pursue their peaceful goals?

The Good Society

Many of our contemporaries believe that there is a simple answer to this question. You want the society to move in the direction of greater freedom? Extend the franchise, lower the voting age, get people interested in the electoral process; and then make sure they cast their ballots. This is the meaning of democracy, and democracy means freedom. A truly democratic society, they would continue, is one where the government is totally responsive to the popular will. Government, in this view, belongs to The People, and The People is entitled to get from the government whatever a majority of them demand from it. If there are troubles in society these days — which nobody denies — the cause is not democracy, it is too little democracy; government is not responsive enough to The People. Therefore, such persons conclude, the cure for the ills of democracy is more democracy! I’ll insert here a sage comment of Hegel: “The People is that part of the nation which knows what it wants!”

Now, it is not difficult to see how this 20th century democratic dogma came to have the hold it has on people of our time. Go back a few hundred years. In the early 1600’s, James the First of England proclaimed that he ruled by divine right. There was mounting rebellion against this idea, and by 1689 Parliament had gained ascendancy; it issued a Declaration of Rights and offered the crown of England to William and Mary. From that time on, the kings of England were no longer its rulers. By the 20th century, kingship had been phased out in nearly every country, to be replaced by presidents and parliaments. Power seemed to be exercised more and more by The People, and so this political movement which toppled the kings has been described as the march of democracy.

Take careful note of the fact that the democratic movement—in both theory and practice — has to do with the sanctions undergirding political action, with the authority back of whatever government does. Rulers of an earlier period when asked to justify a particular course of political action might say that they were exercising God’s will, or that the moral law mandated their actions, or the law of the land, or custom. The justification, or the excuse, for any governmental action under a democratic regime, is that The People demand it — the rulers are merely carrying out the popular will. The People are sovereign under a democracy; that’s where the buck stops. God or The Law would be acknowledged as sovereign under the early theory.

The Nature of Government

Now governmental action is what it is, no matter what sanction might be offered to justify what it does. The nature of government remains the same even though its sponsorship be changed. Government always acts with power; in the last resort government uses force to back up its decrees. Government is unique among all the organizations and institutions of a society; the government of a society is its police power, and the nature of government remains the same, regardless of the auspices under which a government acts.

Americans are justly proud of our nation, but this pride sometimes blinds us to reality. How often have you heard someone declare, “In America, ‘We’ are the government.” This assertion is demonstrably untrue; “We” are the society, all 210 million of us; but society and government are not at all the same entity. Society is all-of-us, whereas government is only some-of-us. The some-of-us who comprise government would begin with the President, Vice-President, and Cabinet; it would include Congress and the bureaucracy; it would descend through governors, mayors and lesser officials, down to sheriffs and the cop on the beat.

Now, what is the distinguishing characteristic of the people in the categories I have just enumerated, the people who comprise government? Are they more wicked than other men? Well, to hear some people talk one would think so —people whose idea of political science is to faithfully collect instances of venality and stupidity in public office. These have their counterpart among the liberals, whose idea of high level economic discussion is to tell tales about venal and stupid businessmen. There are many able and high minded men in public life, just as there are good people in business. The distribution of good and bad is pretty much the same in every walk of life. There may be room for debate here, but little is gained by sitting in moral judgment on whole classes of people.

A Monopoly of Force

Government is unique among the institutions of society, in that society has bestowed upon this one agency a legal monopoly of the weaponry, from clubs to H bombs. Governments do use persuasion, and they do rely on authority, legitimacy and tradition — but so do other institutions like the Church and the School. But only one agency has the power to tax, the authority to operate the system of courts and jails, and a warrant for mobilizing the machinery for making war; that is government, the power structure.

Machiavelli used to say that only the usurper can understand the realities of power. The eldest son on whom the king’s mantle falls peacefully thinks of his power in terms of pomp and display; but power to the usurper means plotting, intrigue, bribery, poison and the dagger.

The point to be stressed is that the essential nature of government — its license to resort to force at some point — is not changed by merely altering the warrant under which it acts. Divine right or popular sovereignty — it makes no difference to this point. Government is as government does.

The march of democracy which we have been discussing was paralleled by the freedom movement in England and America during the same period. The idea of individual liberty was given a tremendous boost by the Reformation and the Renaissance. The earliest manifestation of this new-found liberty was in the area of religion, issuing in the conviction that a person should be allowed to worship God in his own way. This religious ferment in England gave us Puritanism, and early in the 17th century Puritanism projected a political movement whose members were contemptuously called Whiggamores — a word roughly equivalent to “cattle thieves.” The king’s men were called Tories —”highway robbers.” The Whigs worked for individual liberty and progress; the Tories defended the old orders of the king, the landed aristocracy, and the established church.

Early Step to Freedom

One of the great writers and thinkers in the Puritan and Whig tradition was John Milton, who wrote his celebrated plea for the abolition of Parliamentary censorship of printed material in 1644, Areopagitica. Many skirmishes had to be fought before Freedom of the Press was finally accepted as one of the earmarks of a free society. Free Speech is a corollary of press freedom, and I need do no more than remind you of the statement attributed to Voltaire: “I disagree with everything you say, but I will defend with my life your right to say it.”

Adam Smith extended freedom to the economic order, with The Wealth of Nations, published in 1776 and warmly received in the thirteen colonies. Our population numbered about 3 million at this time; roughly one third of these were Loyalists, that is, Tory in outlook, and besides, there was a war on. Despite these circumstances 2500 sets of The Wealth of Nations were sold in the colonies within five years of its publication. The colonists had been practicing economic liberty for a long time, simply because their governments were too busy with other things to interfere — or too inefficient. Adam Smith simply provided a rational and a philosophical justification for what the colonists were already doing. These people knew in their bones, as Jefferson put it, that “If government should tell us when to sow and when to reap, we’d all want for bread.”

Ten amendments to the Constitution were adopted in 1791. Article the First reads: “Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” America has never had a heresy law, and the First Amendment promises that we will not have a national church — the implication being that a man’s deepest convictions are too important a matter to be entrusted to politicians. The separation of Church and State enunciated in the First Amendment was a momentous first step in world history. That step is implicit in Christianity and has been foreshadowed as far back as 494 in a letter of Pope Gelasius to the Byzantine Emperior Anastasius, in which the sacred and the secular were sharply delineated, but circumstances decreed that the final implementation should wait till the 18th century.

I have called your attention to two paralled movements; the march of Democracy which deposed the kings and gave “power to the people,” and the movement to expand individual liberty which gave us freedom of religion, freedom of economic enterprise, freedom of the press, and free speech. This second movement was rooted in the religious reforms of Queen Elizabeth’s day and led to political reforms designed to expand individual liberty. This was the major thrust of Whiggery.

The men we refer to as the Founding Fathers would have called themselves Whigs. Edmund Burke was the chief spokesman for a group in Parliament known as The Rockingham Whigs. In 1832 the Whig Party changed its name to one which more aptly described its emphasis on liberty. It became the Liberal Party, standing for free trade, religious liberty, the abolition of slavery, extension of the franchise, and other reforms. This development of ideas on liberty from Queen Elizabeth to Queen Victoria might properly be called the movement of Liberalism — Classical Liberalism.

Classical Liberalism

Democracy and Liberalism have had a parallel history of development since the 17th Century, and some thinkers have ably championed both — one as means, the other as end. They are sufficiently close historically so that it is easy to confuse the two; but they are sufficiently different so that such confusion breeds dangerous consequences. Liberalism and Democracy are related as end and means. The end is a free society where people have the opportunity for the fullest expression of their lives. This is Liberalism. A suitable mechanics for the attainment of this end is to abandon the heredity principle which gave us kings and allow the multitudes to vote for officeholders. This is Democracy, a means, whose end is the free society of Liberalism, Classical Liberalism.

We need to remind ourselves that there are two major political questions, not just one. Everyone who thinks about the philosophy of government must first thrash out the question: “What shall be the extent of rule?” That’s the old way of putting it; we’d phrase the question somewhat differently today. We’d ask: “What is the role of a government in our society?” or “What activities belong in the public sector?” or “In the light of government’s nature, what is its competence? What tasks should we assign to it?” Men who wrestled with these questions, or questions like them, gave us the philosophy of Classical Liberalism, which — I scarcely need remind you — is the exact opposite of what today parades as liberalism.

We are familiar today with the division of society into a public sector and a private sector. The former might be called the political or coercive sector, and the latter, the voluntary or free choice sector. To the public or political sector we assign those things which we believe cannot operate without coercion, things which need to be managed, controlled, regulated, quarterbacked, commanded. To this sector our ancestors consigned religion, publishing, public discourse, and economic action. But the ideas of Liberalism, gaining a hold on public opinion, released these four major human activities from bondage to the state.

There is a second political question, of much less consequence than the first. It has to do with choice of personnel: how do you select people for public office? This is the question to which democratic theorists addressed themselves, and the answer that Democracy gives to this question of choosing people for political position is: Vote! Democratic theorists, having examined the arguments for monarchy, for aristocracy, and for drawing lots, come out in favor of balloting. Lay down a few requirements for the privilege of holding public office, and for the privilege of voting, then — on a given day and place —let the qualified voters mark their X or pull the lever, and the person who gets the highest number of votes gets the job.

If these words were used in their proper and original sense, I would call myself a Liberal Democrat. I am a Liberal in wanting government to act only as such action expands the domain of liberty for all persons alike; and I am a Democrat in wanting the franchise wisely extended — provided that the vote is simply to choose this person or that to occupy public office in a properly limited government.

Some of our forebears in the 18th century entertained what they called the “stake-in-government” theory. This was the notion that voting should be limited to property holders; otherwise, those without property would use their power at the polls to loot the treasury of money that had first been taxed away from those who earned it. These fears were groundless at the time; in the first place, because almost everyone in the new nation was a property holder and, in the second place, the public treasury did not have enough in it to make looting worth while.

But the very existence of this theory indicates that some people of the period rejected the idea that government should be an agency for the transfer of funds from one set of pockets to another. This was a rejection of the principle of “redistributionism,” on which all modern governments operate. Repudiation of the idea, that the state exists to advantage some at the expense of others, is the major thrust of Classical Liberalism. “Justice is the end of government,” wrote James Madison in the 51st Federalist Paper. “It is the end of civil society.”

The unforgivable sin — so far as Classical Liberal theory is concerned — is the use of public power for private ends. Present-day liberalism, by contrast, invariably boils down to: Somebody’s program at everyone’s expense. These two aphorisms are more than mere slogans, and in order to bring out their meaning let’s take an imaginary trip to Berlin.

Forms of Collectivism

The year is 1927. You are strolling around the streets on a pleasant evening in May. You spy a small group of people gathered around a soapboxer wearing a red shirt. You listen awhile, but your German is not quite good enough to pick up the details of the excited harangue. So when the speaker has finished and the crowd has dispersed, you buttonhole the man and ask him what he’s up to. “I’m a member of the Communist Party,” he tells you, “and as soon as we obtain power, this is the program we are going to impose on Germany.” And he proceeds to spell out for you the social pattern he wants to enforce.

You continue your stroll and encounter a similar group of people listening to a spell-binder in a brown shirt. After the speech is over you ask this man to identify himself and he tells you he is a spokesman for the German National Socialist Workers’ Party —Nazi for short. He outlines the program his party will impose on Germany once they come to power, and you note that the Nazi program is almost indistinguishable from the Communist program; both eliminate individual liberty, both centralize power in the hands of a monolithic party, both oppose the market economy, both politicalize education, and both seek to eliminate or domesticate religion. The fact that Communists and Nazis fought each other in the streets does not mean that they opposed each other philosophically. In the Wars of Religion, Christians fought Christians, although the matters on which they agreed seem to us today, looking back, far more extensive than the points on which they differed.


You continue your stroll and finally come across a speaker dressed rather quaintly and addressing his tiny audience in measured, academic tones. When the man finishes his discourse you fall into conversation with him and learn that he and several friends in Berlin have a study group which reads and discusses the works of Adam Smith, Edmund Burke, and — to your utter amazement — The Federalist Papers! You are so fascinated that you can hardly wait to hear this man’s program for Germany. “We have no program for the nation,” he tells you. “It is our belief that people, either individually, or working through voluntary associations, can plan their actions better than these can be planned for them by the centralized power structure. Like your Mr. Madison, in the 39th Federalist Paper, we rest all our political experiments on the capacity of mankind for self-government.”

Classical Liberalism is unlike any other political theory. Every other political philosophy contemplates a National Plan, a program to put people through their paces. Your choice at the polls, then, is between this set of people with their XYZ Plan for the nation; versus that set of people with their ABC Plan for the nation. What choice does this offer for the ordinary citizen who’s injuring no one, who just wants to live his own life in peace with his neighbors, and who does not want to plan other people’s lives? The answer is: No choice at all!

I have described the movement of Liberalism from the 17th to the 19th centuries as an effort to expand the boundaries of individual liberty. How? By curbing the power of governments to diminish the efficacy of personal choice in the major areas of life. “The history of liberty,” said Woodrow Wilson in 1912, “is the history of the limitations placed upon governmental power.”

Now, when you address yourself to the question of the proper role of a government within a society you are dealing with an issue loaded with intellectual and moral content. “What is the competence of government?” and “What circumstances in society render it necessary to bring legal coercion to bear?” are questions you have to wrestle with, argue about, debate, write books on. They are of the same nature as disputed and difficult questions in history, psychology, archeology, or any other discipline. Most certainly, they are questions of a different nature than “Do you prefer ice cream to apple pie?”

The Limits for Voting

In simple matters of personal preference the opinion poll is a means of getting statistics. Some people find such figures valuable, and so we keep poll takers in business. Professional samplers of public opinion keep a running profile of changing voter preference for the presidential race of 1976. The balloting which will take place next year is the same kind of a thing as a Gallup poll; it will be a measure of popular preference for Mr. Ford over Mr. Jackson —or whoever. Voting is little more than a popularity contest, and the most popular man is not necessarily the best man, nor is the most popular idea the soundest idea. Balloting, then, is a means for dealing with the second, and much less important of the two political questions: “Who shall hold public office?”

It is obvious, now, that balloting is not a way to get at the fundamental question of the proper function of government in a society. We have to think hard about this one, which means we have to assemble evidence; weigh, sift, and criticize it; compare notes with colleagues, and so on. Which means that this is an educational endeavor; a matter for the classroom, the library, the study, the podium, the pulpit, the forum, the press. Mr. Gallup has no place here; to count noses at this point is a cop out. Furthermore, it is obvious that we cannot possibly arrive at sound conclusions about the role a government should play in a society unless we base our political speculations upon a solid understanding of our own nature, and the place of man in the total scheme of things.

If man is “little more than a chance deposit on the surface of the world, carelessly thrown up between two ice ages by the same forces that rust iron and ripen corn,” as the famous historian Carl Becker put it, then it’s a matter of almost total indifference what kind of social and political arrangements we have — so long as we are comfortable and well fed, and no one steals our security blanket. But if we truly assess the greatness of the human spirit — as witnessed by man’s aspirations and his achievements in religion, art, philosophy, music, literature, law, as well as in the building of great civilizations — then we know that our three-score-years-and-ten are a moment in eternity, whose opportunities are offered us once and never repeated. So what we do with our earthly pilgrimage is a thing of utmost importance; and one thing we must do in life is work on the institutions of our society so as to widen the scope for individual persons to fulfill their potential.

Body and Mind

Human nature has several facets; every one of us is compounded of at least three elements. Biological factors are evident in our make-up; we are mammals and we are bipeds. This aspect of our nature is so obvious that some have been led to believe, erroneously, that this is all we are. The visible part of us is material, the physical body, which is stamped with our uniqueness. No one can grow fingerprints like yours. Body type — whether tall and slim or short and wide — has something to do with the shaping of our total personality and our greater susceptibility to certain diseases; but this is not what makes us distinctively human, Our anatomy by itself does not produce our language, and without a language we’d have no words to express our thoughts and our thoughts would be exceedingly primitive.

Language and thought are the marks of the second component in our nature, the mind. The body can be trained but only the mind can be educated. Mind and body interact, but their relations are so subtle as to puzzle the greatest of philosophers. Your mind, too, is uniquely your own. Mind and body together form your “psychosome,” and when the two are out of phase you have a psychosomatic illness.

Cultural Components

Now, in addition to your mind and body combination, there is a third essential ingredient that goes into making up the Self you are. Your psychosome receives an infusion of cultural components. If your particular psychosome had been born in Calcutta, say, or Peking, you would be a different person than the Self you actually are, despite the fact that your psychosome would be identical in each case. Your genes are undeniably important in the shaping of your nature; they make you a clever animal with enormous latent learning ability. But in addition to your genetic endowment you have a cultural heredity; there’s a little bit of some society in every Self. And the society which is in each one of us is compounded of the language, the traditions, the customs, conventions and laws of the West — not of the Orient, or Africa, or Oceana. To acknowledge that we are nurtured in the world vision of the West is not to pass an adverse judgment on other cultures; it’s simply to say that theirs is not ours. Incidentally, only those who are securely rooted in their own heritage can sense the true inwardness of other cultures.

In short, you would not be you if your Self were the product of another culture. Subtract the products of this culture from your make-up and you would be a clever anthropoid — nothing more. This is point one.

Every living organism proclaims by its continuing existence that life is to be preferred over death. Schopenhauer professed to believe otherwise; he declared for pessimism and preached that life is not worth living — until he died of natural causes at 72! Some do give up on life, too many; others cling to a wretched existence. A few discover real zest and joy in living. But anything this side of the despairing gesture of suicide constitutes an affirmation that it is better to be alive than dead. Point two.

Point three merely voices the obvious; the only life you have to live is the one you are living now in this place — this town, this state, this nation — at this time in history. Your citizenship is a thing of great value which people of other nations are willing to pay a high price to obtain. Living here you receive a greater economic reward for less effort than your counterpart in other parts of the globe; your rights are less in jeopardy than his, you have more latitude than he in pursuing your personal goals, you are freer in your hourly and daily rounds.

The human aim is not simply to live, it is to live well. The Self you want to preserve is ineluctably linked to the culture which went into its formation — our culture. Transplant your Self to an alien culture, and while it might survive it surely would not flourish. Stimulating interaction with your native habitat — with twentieth century America — provides optimal conditions for a flourishing life for yourself. Self-preservation — the first law — implies, therefore, an alert concern for the health of the values embodied in our culture. To the extent that a person respects the life that is in him, to that extent will he seek to preserve and strengthen the social matrix in which he was cast. If the nation as a whole appears to be beyond redemption or turns hostile, then the people who cherish sound values will produce a subculture within it; they’ll become a Remnant. The Amish are an example of such a culture within a culture, and so are the Mormons.

Respect for one’s Self and its values develops solicitude for the institutions which support them, and generates a willingness to defend those institutions. Self-rejection, on the other hand, alienates a person from his native culture and leads to antagonism toward the society which produced that Self. Disorder within is projected as strife without.

Two Aspects of Culture

There are two things to be said about a culture. In the first place, a culture is something cultivated; it’s not nature, but it might be called our second nature, for what we absorb from our social environment transforms a clever animal into a human being. We are humanized by what we learn in the educational process — by what we get from our parents, from our peers, from books, and from the prevailing intellectual climate by a sort of osmosis. In the second place, our culture is a transmission belt linking the generations, connecting those long dead with those not yet born. We acquired our values from our ancestors and, in a sense, made them our own; and we will pass these values along to our children, and they, in turn, to their descendents.

There are individuals and organizations in our midst whose announced aim is to destroy our society. They profess to hate the values of Western civilization, so they want to burn it down, blow it up — or talk it to death! Now, there is a large measure of self-hatred in these people who turn against civilized values; their dislike of themselves is externalized as a lust to tear down the culture which has shaped — or misshaped — them into what they are. Instead of destroying that which they hate — themselves — directly, by suicide, they seek to subvert the society responsible for making them misfits.

But if we accept ourselves, with all our shortcomings, as the Selves we really are — body and mind plus cultural components — then we have an obligation to defend body and mind and also the society whose values are selectively in our very being, with every resource of reason, persuasion, example and — in desperate last resort situations — by force.

Western civilization is grounded in the elements of civilization itself, to which it adds things unique to the West. The fundamental social value in Western civilization is individual liberty. The human person is looked upon as God’s creature who must be free if he is to fulfill his duty toward his Maker. This is the theological conviction which, on the political plane, spills out into the free economy and limited government. When the law preserves freedom of personal action, within the rules for maximizing liberty and opportunity for everyone, then government — so conceived — is the necessary prop to the free society.

I began this paper with some references to prize fighting, often referred to as “the manly art of self-defense.” Now, we do not expect teachers of boxing, or judo, or karate to use language with due regard to semantic accuracy. When they say “self-defense” they really mean “body defense.” They do not teach you how to defend your mind from invasion by logical fallacies, nor are they concerned with the protection of the cultural elements in our make-up. Self-defense, literally, must operate at these three levels: body, mind, and culture.

We expect more precision in the use of language from social scientists and philosophers, but we seldom get it. For the past century and a half political theorists have talked about man’s right of self-defense when they meant no more than a presumed right to protect his material body and his property— his property being merely an extension of his body. It is altogether right that a person defend his body from injury and his property from invasion, but a careful use of language demands that we label this “body-defense” and “defense of property”; it is grossly inaccurate to speak of defending one-third of our Self as “self-defense.” We admit as much in the word “bodyguard.”

The Bodyguard’s Role

You hire some burly and aggressive young man to see to it that unwelcome hands are kept off your carcass; he also sees to it that no one steals your car or breaks into your house. He guards your body and its material extension as property, but what about the other two parts of your Self — your mind and the cultural components in your make-up? It is not a function of your bodyguard to fortify your mind against falsehoods and specious reasoning, nor do we expect a bodyguard to buttress the values which undergird the free society. Concern for things of the mind and for cultural values are not part of his job as a bodyguard. But a genuine understanding of the Self leads to a realization that the defense of the Self demands more than any mere bodyguard can supply. It demands a proper concern for the requirements of liberty and justice in society.

The bodyguard offers his protective service on the market; he has a price tag. The market is perfectly competent to handle anything to which a price tag may appropriately be affixed. A synonym for “the market economy” is, in fact, “the price system.” The price system covers that sector of life where things are offered for exchange and sale, where a quid pro quo is expected; 69¢ for a loaf of bread, a hundred dollars for a suit, ten thousand dollars for a year’s work, and so on.

The price system or the market economy is the only sensible way to handle matters in the sector of life where things and services are offered in exchange; this is the realm of economic calculation, where things can be reduced to monetary units. But there is a realm beyond the realm of monetary computation, where things do not have a price tag. Justice belongs to this realm, and so do such moral goods as liberty, honor, love and friendship.

If justice is for sale it is not justice; as we acknowledge in such old gags as “Hizzoner is the best judge money can buy.” Honor is beyond price; if you can buy it it’s not honor. “What shall a man give in exchange for his soul?” Or freedom. Can you put a price tag on it? Could you take the 1975 national budget and use it to buy us a free society? Could we use our gold and buy packages of freedom in carload lots until the free economy is established? Take love. If it’s for sale it’s not love. You may be able to earn love, but you cannot buy it. A man who throws money around may acquire a group of so-called friends, but no one believes this to be the way to achieve real friendship.

Beyond Monetary Computation

There is a realm of life beyond the realm of monetary computation, where we find such goods as justice, liberty, honor, love and friendship. Two of these several goods are of immediate concern to political philosophy: justice and liberty. Justice is giving every man his due; justice provides “a free field and no favor.” Justice is equal treatment before the law; one law for all men alike because all are one in their essential human nature. A just society is one which offers maximum liberty for all persons. Justice cannot be measured in monetary terms, and the same is true of liberty; no price tag may appropriately be affixed to either justice or liberty. This takes them out of the economic realm, for the market is incompetent to handle those things which cannot be priced.

It is obvious that honor, love and friendship are likewise without price — which takes them out of the economic realm. But neither can they be enforced — which takes them out of the political realm. But justice can be enforced. It is right that an act of violence against person or property be repelled or redressed forcibly. The rules which maximize individual liberty in society are occasionally infracted, and these aggressive or criminal actions must be counteracted by force, in last-resort situations.

This legal employment of force to rectify violence is the task of justice, and the only agency competent in the circumstances is government — for two primary reasons. I’ve already touched upon one, the fact that justice has no price tag, which takes it out beyond the market place. In the second place, the market is wholly peaceful; there is no force involved in producing economic goods, nor is there force in the network of voluntary exchanges which follows. Obviously, then, a wholly peaceful institution is incompetent to allocate acts of force. Only the political agency is competent to perform this necessary function in society, and when government performs competently within the limits imposed by the nature of its tasks, then individual liberty is maximized.

Liberalism Means Freedom

Liberalism used to mean freedom. Classical liberalism performed mightily and achieved major breakthroughs in the area of worship, free speech, freedom of the press, and freedom of economic enterprise. Then despotism returned and liberalism betrayed itself. We have been losing our liberties under the delusion that the democratic and majoritarian political process would automatically secure them! Several generations were misled into believing that once The People were in power, society would be free. The result is twentieth century totalitarianism masquerading as The People’s Republic of this or that Communist nation, where power is wielded arbitrarily and with utter ruthlessness.

We now know that people do propel themselves along the road to serfdom by majority vote, and we see that those who have voted themselves into slavery are just as much slaves as those who have been put in bondage by a conqueror. Power is power, whether sanctioned by divine right or authorized by the popular will. Power is not liberty; liberty operates in another dimension and has other requirements. As soon as a significant number of people become aware of these requirements, Liberalism will again mean freedom.


Originally published in The Freeman, December 1975.

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