To Save the World

By Edmund Opitz, originally published in the April 1984 edition of The Freeman.

Status quo is a Latin phrase meaning, in a modern translation, “the mess we are in.” A great number of our contemporaries must understand it so, because never have so many persons and organizations come forward with such a variety of schemes for reforming other people and saving the world. This is the age of the Man with the Plan. The reformer, with his blueprints for social uplift, is in his heyday. I suppose that I too would be classified by some as a reformer, for I travel around the country making speeches and taking part in seminars. And the gist of what I have to say is that, indeed, things are in bad shape, but that they might be improved if we approached economic and political issues with more sense and in a different spirit. If the distinguishing mark of a reformer is his yen to save the world, then I am not a reformer. But I live close enough to the tribe so that many of them send me their literature.

Across my desk come the outpourings of many earnest souls, offering salvation to the world if only the world will embrace their particular panacea. The panaceas peddled by these folk come in all sizes and styles, ranging from world government to a low cholesterol diet. In between are the socialists, the land reformers, the money reformers, the prohibitionists, the vegetarians, and those who believe that the world is in the strangling clutch of a far-flung conspiracy of sinister men who operate anonymously behind the scenes. As I read this material I am thankful that the world has so far refused to let itself be saved on the terms each and every one of these reformers lay down. These people differ wildly among themselves as to the details and precise nature of the remedy, but they are in basic agreement as to the general pattern reform should take. Reform—as they understand it—consists of A and B putting their heads together and deciding what C should be forced to do for D. William Graham Sumner of Yale, said something like this about a century ago.

Sumner was describing and deploring a tendency he perceived in the governmental policies of his day to expand the network of governmental interventions and regulations over society in the interests—allegedly—of upgrading the general welfare. This could not be done, he argued, except to the detriment of the productive part of the nation whose interests were to be sacrificed for the assumed benefit of selected individuals and groups. The A and B who put their heads together symbolized government, the public power. D symbolized those who got government handouts and subsidies of various kinds. C symbolized the great body of the nation, the men and women engaged in productive work, whose taxes supported not only the government but the vast and growing number of people, rich and poor alike, who fattened at the public trough. Sumner called C “the forgotten man” because he was the victim sacrificed whenever the public power was misused to confer private advantage. It is intriguing to note that when the New Deal resurrected Sumner’s phrase the meaning was inverted. D, the new class with access to public funds, was now “the forgotten man.”

“The New Freedom”

The thing which Sumner saw taking root a hundred years ago has come to full flowering in the totalitarian states of this century. But the seeds of today’s Democratic Despotism were planted as far back as the 18th century when certain Continental philosophers decided that man had now come of age and could take charge of his own affairs. When you translate this idea from the French it reads: We enlightened few to whom the new truth has been revealed, will take charge of all the rest of you. The kings have been deposed and we represent The People. Combine majoritarian political processes with the powers conferred by science to control both nature and man, they said, and we will hatch a perfected humanity and manufacture a kingdom of heaven on earth. The age-old utopian dream will be a reality; it will be called “The New Freedom”!

Bring this ideology down to the middle of the 19th century and we come to the man from whom so many 20th-century problems stem—Karl Marx. The determining factor for mankind, Marx wrote, is “the mode of production in material life.” A man’s very consciousness is determined by his social existence. “Men’s ideas,” he added, “are the most direct emanation of their material state.” The logic of this is fantastic, for according to Marx’s own statement, he himself is a mere mouthpiece for the material productive forces of 1859; Marx’s mouth may frame the words, but his mind does not generate the ideas. The ideas come from “the mode of production in material life.”

Salvation by Politics

Marx does not stop here; he goes on to fashion an idol. Declaring himself an atheist, he excoriates those who do not “recognize as the highest divinity the human self-consciousness itself.” This new mortal god has only one obligation to the world: Save it! Aristotle’s god, the Prime Mover, derived esthetic enjoyment from contemplating the world He had made; and many philosophers, and ordinary folk as well, have enjoyed the starry heavens and the glories of nature. But if Marx were to have his way, these kinds of pleasures would be prohibited. “The philoso phers have only interpreted the world in various ways,” he wrote: “the point, however, is to change it.” (1845) A contemporary of ours, the late Bertram Wolfe, writing critically of Marxism, gives us this interpretation: “History was to be given a new meaning, a new goal, and a new end in Time . . . . At last man would become as God, master of his own destiny, maker of his own future, conscious architect of his own world.” Salvation by politics!

Utopians, dreaming of an earthly paradise, have drawn up their blueprints of a heaven on earth, but in practice, every attempt to realize a perfect society has resulted in an intolerable society. Newfangled heavens on earth—as exemplified by the totalitarian nations—resemble nothing so much as visions of the old-fashioned hell. Nations began to walk the road to serfdom and the new slavery was inevitable. Meanwhile, another set of ideas was germinating.

The Rule of Law

Human beings have long aspired to be free. But it was only two centuries ago that this aspiration took concrete form in the philosophy of political liberty under the Rule of Law, with its economic corollary, the free market. America announced its ideal of political liberty to the world in The Declaration of Independence. The year was 1776. The Declaration states that men and women are given certain rights and immunities by their Creator, among them the right of every person to live his life peacefully, plus the right to freely exercise the energy that being alive confers—our rights to life and liberty. When a person is free to exercise his energies—which is to say, when he is free to work—he produces goods and services, and these rightfully belong to him. A person’s right to property follows logically from his rights to life and liberty, and private property is the cornerstone of a society of free people.

The economic complement to the political structure envisioned in the Declaration is Adam Smith’s monumental work, The Wealth of Nations. Smith demonstrated once and for all that the business, industry and trade of a nation does not need to be planned and managed by the political authority. Jefferson paraphrased Smith’s idea when he wrote: “If the government should tell us when to sow and when to reap we should all lack bread.” The uniquely American political philosophy of the Declaration said, in effect, that government should not run people’s lives; government’s proper role is similar to that of an umpire. The umpire on a baseball diamond does not operate the game, manipulating the players as if they were pieces on a chess board. The umpire’s job is to be an impartial arbiter of the rules upon which baseball functions, interpreting and enforcing them as needed.

And so it is with the government of a free society. The people manage their own affairs according to the set of rules for living together in society, and the full time job of government is to ensure that the rules are obeyed. This is called the Rule of Law, referred to by Smith as the “liberal plan of liberty, equality, and justice.” Smith showed that a society with equal justice under the law provides optimum liberty for the citizens, and that these same citizens in their capacity as consumers direct and regulate economic production by purchasing this and not pur chasing that. Entrepreneurs analyze this data and produce whatever goods they think the customers will buy. This is capitalism, economic freedom in the marketplace, and it is the other side of the coin of political liberty. Neither can survive without the other.

Regulated by Consumers

Adam Smith did not advance the idea of an unregulated economy; no one believes in an unregulated economy. Capitalism is an economy regulated by the customers; it is consumer sovereignty exercised within the guidelines laid down by the moral law. A free society presupposes that each person is responsible for the way he lives his life; it presupposes that most people most of the time will not murder or assault or steal; most of the time they will tell the truth, fulfill their contracts, and treat their fellows decently. No kind of a society is possible among creatures who habitually violate these moral laws, and a free society presupposes high grade human material. If you have good people—defining “goodness” to include a modicum of intelligence—a good society follows. If men and women pursue the excellence appropriate to our species, choosing such exemplars as Jefferson’s “aristocracy of virtue and talent,” they will have a good society to match.

The original proponents of political liberty and a free economy called themselves Whigs in the 18th century-men like Jefferson and Madison in this country, Edmund Burke and Adam Smith in England. Their followers began to call themselves Liberals when England’s Whig Party changed its name to The Liberal Party in 1832. But the meaning of the word “liberal” began to change even before the turn of the century, and it now means centralized government and a good deal of economic planning—just the opposite of the thrust of early Whiggism and Classical Liberalism. We who believe in the free society cannot now call ourselves Liberals, although early liberalism is in our heritage, so I have taken to calling myself a Whig, after F. A. Hayek who once said, “Call me an old-fashioned Whig, with emphasis on the old-fashioned.”

Freedom of the Press

Whiggery fought some important battles in its time and gained some well-earned victories for several specific freedoms we tend to take for granted. For example, it brought the press out from under the political umbrella, freeing it from interference by a government censor empowered to tell editors and writers what to print and what to spike. There’s a lot of hogwash written about “freedom of the press” these days, but that’s another story!

A corollary of the free press is freedom of speech. This means that people are free to speak their minds and criticize the authorities without risking jail; free speech is an essential element of any society where people elect public officials. The departure of the kings introduced the electoral process as a means of choosing personnel for public office. And when citizens must select public officials by balloting, it is necessary that the issues be ventilated by written and oral debate—which must be free.

The third major freedom worked out by the Whigs was religious liberty. A free society has no official, established church supported out of the tax fund. Churches are supported by voluntary contributions, and there are no laws to punish heresy. The nearest thing to an established church in America is the public school system; but despite that, and despite the enormous quantities of tax money now being siphoned into colleges and universities, we still give a lot of lip service to the idea of academic freedom.

Academic freedom is a good idea, although the ways we now translate that idea into action are open to serious question. Freedom of the press is also a good idea, even though some journalists understand it to mean unlimited license to distort reporting into conformity with their ideological biases. “Separation of church and state” has become my least favorite American shibboleth, but I am nevertheless a devout believer in religious liberty. However critical I am of much that now goes on in these sectors of our life I know that condi tions are much worse when the government operates the schools, the churches and the press—which is the theory and the practice of collectivist nations.

Let People Alone

In Whig theory, government should let people alone; government should not dragoon people into carrying out some vast national purpose; it should not override their personal plans in favor of some grandiose national plan. So long as John Doe is minding his own business, pursuing whatever peaceful goals he has in mind for himself, government should let him alone. But whenever John Doe’s life, liberty or property is violated by any person, government should be alert to detect the crime and punish the perpetrator. The use of lawful force against criminals to protect the peaceful and productive members of society is the earmark of good law. “The end of government is justice,” wrote Madison, “and justice is the end of civil society.” Establish rules of the game designed to secure fair play for everyone, while providing maximum liberty for each man and woman to pursue personal goals. Get government out of its activist role. Limit the law to enforcing the rules against those who violate them—and the free society is the result.

Letting things alone is not the same as doing nothing; letting things alone is an acquired skill. The journal with which I am associated is called The Freeman. Between 1920 and 1924, the editor of The Freeman was a unique personality named Albert Jay Nock. Associated with Nock was a group of young writers such as Suzanne LaFollette, Van Wyck Brooks, and Lewis Mumford. Some-one—reflecting on those four years—remarked to Nock, “Albert, you’ve done wonderful things for these young people.”

“Nonsense,” said Nock, “all I’ve done was to let them alone.”

“True,” replied his friend, “but it would have been different if someone else had been letting them alone.”

Wise and Salutary Neglect

Rightfully letting things alone, in statecraft, is Edmund Burke’s policy of”a wise and salutary neglect.” But let me turn to medicine for a good analogy of the nature of government action proper to the free society. Certain medical theorists of about a century ago—especially in Germany—examined the human organism and found it a crude contrivance of pipes, tubes, levers and dead weight. This botched mechanism could be kept going only if someone constantly patched and repaired it. Writing of this antiquated medical theory, an historian says: “This held that the body was a faulty machine and Nature a blind worker. The student made an inventory of the body’s contents and found, as he expected, some out of place, some wearing out, some clumsy makeshifts . . . some mischievous survivals left over.” Medical practice, based on this theory, was to interfere with the body’s working by probing, operating, removing and altering. The practice sometimes proved disastrous to the patient!

Medical theory has changed. Modern theory, according to the same historian, regards the body as “a single unit, health a general condition natural to the organism . . . and the best diet and regime, to live naturally.” This theory regards the body as a self-regulating, and for the most part, a self-curative organism. It need not be interfered with except to repair or remove any obstruction that prevents the free flow of the healing power of nature. This is an ancient idea, as witness the Latin phrase vis medicatrix naturae. Medical or surgical ministrations do not create health; the body does that of itself, if let alone.

The new outlook in medicine is summed up by the title of the famous book by Harvard professor Walter B. Cannon: The Wisdom of the Body. I believe it was Dr. Cannon who introduced the concept of “homeostasis,” the idea that the human body maintains all the balances necessary to preserve health—unless something interferes. In which case, call the doctor!

Health and Freedom

There is a striking parallel between present day theories of health and the ideal of freedom in human affairs. The believer in freedom is one who has come to realize that society is a delicately articulated thing, each part depending on every other. Hence, arbitrary interference with anyone’s peaceable willed action not only diminishes the freedom of the person restrained but affects all other persons in society. The attempt to masterplan society upsets the balance which every part of society naturally has with every other part, because every unit of society is an autonomous, initiating, reasoning, responsible human being.

Nearly everyone favors freedom in the abstract. Most intellectuals champion freedom of speech, academic freedom, freedom of the press, and freedom of worship; they distrust economic freedom. Those who would deny freedom in the marketplace assume that, in the absence of political controls over production, economic life would be chaotic. The assumption, in other words, is that manufacturers would not produce the goods consumers want unless government stepped in and told them what to make, and in what sizes, styles, and colors. The assumption is absurd; and so is the belief that the free economy rewards some at the expense of others. Everyone in the free economy is rewarded by his peers according to their evaluation of the worth of his goods and/or services to them.

The Problem Is Scarcity

Why is there economics? What is the problem that calls forth this discipline? The problem, in one word, is “scarcity.” Virtually everything men and women want, need, or desire is in short supply. On the human side of the economic equation is a creature of insatiable needs and desires. On the other side of this equation is the world of raw materials and energy, which are scarce relative to human demands for them. Unlimited wants on one side of the equation, but only limited means for satisfying them on the other. The equation will never come out right. Human wants always outrun the means for satisfying them. Economics, in the nature of the case, is “an anti- utopian, anti-ideological, disillusioning science,” as the late Wilhelm Roepke used to point out.

For a thing to qualify as an economic good, two requirements must be met: the item must be needed or wanted, and secondly, it must be in short supply. Air, despite the fact that it is necessary to our lives, is not an economic good, for it is not in short supply; under normal condi tions there is enough air for everyone with lots left over. But conditioned air is an economic good, even though it is not necessary for life but only ministers to our comfort. Conditioned air is scarce, there is not as much of it as people want, merely for the taking; so people have to give up something in exchange in order to get it. Aside from fresh air, virtually everything we want or need is an economic good; there is not enough of anything for everyone to have all he wants merely for the taking. Some frustration is therefore inevitable; frustration is built into the human situation and we have to learn to live with it. All that economics can promise is a means for making the best of an awkward situation.

Economics, then, is the discipline which deals with goods in short supply—just about everything we want—and the problem it faces is how to allocate scarce goods so as to best satisfy the most urgent human wants, in the order of their urgency. The free market approach to this problem is to rely on the individual free choice of consumers, as manifested in their buying habits. The buying habits of people form a pattern which tells entrepreneurs what to produce, and in what quantities, sizes, and so on. This is the tactic of liberty as applied to the workaday world; this is the market economy, or the price system, and if government merely protects people in their productive activities, and in their buying and selling—protects them by curbing predation and fraud the economic activities of man are self-starting, and self-regulating.

Market Performance

The free market is the only device available for allocating scarce resources equitably. The market’s performance is so efficient and so intelligent that it has excited the admiration of those who have studied and understood its workings. Virtually every one of the charges that has ever been directed against the free economy proves, upon examination, to be aimed at a problem caused by some misguided political interference with the free economy.

No one likes the term Socialized Medicine but there are many people—including some doctors—who support things like Medicare. The professed aim of Medicare is to increase the availability of medical and surgical services by political interventions and subsidies. Now medical and surgical services are in short supply, relative to the demand for them. This is to say that medical and surgical services are economic goods, and—like all economic goods—they are scarce relative to demand. Therefore, a way must be found to ration them.

The free market is the only efficient and fair way to allocate scarce goods, and it follows that only the free market can be relied upon to furnish the greatest quantity of high grade medical and surgical services at the lowest possible price, to a citizenry which has a great variety of other needs and desires to satisfy as well. Every political alternative to the market means a wastage of economic goods and resources; it means less for all. This law applies to medical and surgical services. Socialized Medicine must inevitably lead to a misallocation of available medical resources, with fewer available benefits for those who need them.

The Better Alternative

There are no perfect solutions in human affairs; there are only better or worse alternatives. The private practice of medicine does not promise perfection, any more than the private practice of education, or the private practice of religion, or the private practice of anything you’d care to mention. But private practice surely beats the alternative, which is to have the politicians and bureaucrats run the show. In that direction lies disaster!

Nineteenth-century collectivist theories resulted in twentieth-century totalitarian politics, with its record of slaughter, conquest, poverty, fear, terror, regimentation, and the Gulag. Ideas have consequences; the consequence of bad ideas is monstrous evil on a vast scale. But ideas are changing. Former left wing intellectuals are now neo-conservatives. Some even admit to being conservatives—a conservative being defined by Mike Novak as a liberal who has been mugged by reality! I’m not going to assert that we’ve turned the corner, but we have made progress and the corner is within sight.

Universal Order

This is a universe we live in, not a multiverse or a chaos. Old Mother Nature has a passion for order; she will tolerate disorder up to a point—then watch out! For thousands of years we have known what we ought to do in the moral and spiritual dimensions of our lives, but we find it difficult to perform as we should at this level. Man likes to think that he can “get away” with things, and so he ignores or defies that Purpose which manifests itself in and through the universe. The universe tolerates wayward man up to a point, but if man does not learn his lessons from his own waywardness he will be taught the hard way. “Things won’t be mismanaged long,” said Emerson. Nature will not allow it.

Victor Hugo in his great novel Les Miserables put the matter more dramatically. You recall his long description of the Battle of Waterloo and the defeat of the French. And then these words at the end of chapter 53: “Why Napoleon’s Waterloo?” Hugo asks. “Was it possible that Napoleon should gain this battle? We answer No. Why? Because of Wellington? Because of Blucher? No; because of God! Bonaparte victor at Waterloo—that was no longer according to the law of the 19th century. Another series of events was preparing wherein Napoleon had no further place . . . Napoleon had been denounced in the infinite and his downfall was resolved. He bothered God. Waterloo is not a battle; it is the universe changing front.”

And so I say, Let’s not try to save the world! Saving the world is God’s job; our job—yours and mine—is to live in the world up to the level of our best insights. That might make the world worth saving!

Read more from the Edmund Opitz Archive.

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