Painting Government Into a Corner

By Edmund Opitz, author of The Libertarian Theology of Freedom and Religion and Capitalism: Allies, Not Enemies. This essay was originally published in the February 1964 edition of The Freeman.

I am going to discuss individual liberty… eventually; but I’m go­ing to begin at the other end with liberty’s opposite—tyranny. If this roundabout method needs a defense, I’ll refer you to the proce­dure employed down on the farm to get a pig back into his pen. One’s first thought is to aim the pig at the pen door, get hold of him, and pull. The pig resists. So then you get around back and push. Still no go. The expert solves the problem easily; he heads the pig in the direction he wants him to go, then pulls his tail in the op­posite direction. If you want the pig to head northeast, pull his tail toward the southwest!

So I propose that we work our way around to liberty by starting with an all too common affliction of human society—namely, tyranny or unlimited government. “The history of liberty,” as Woodrow Wilson said in New York in 1912, “is the history of the limitations placed upon governmental power.” So, if we start with a picture of unlimited government in our minds, and then—step by step—apply the proper limitations to governmental power, we should end up—if we have done our work right—with a pretty clear idea of what a free society looks like.

Visualize two rectangles. One represents government; the other, society. Now let us superimpose the government rectangle on the society rectangle. To all intents and purposes, we now have but one rectangle: Government has swallowed up society and the two form a single, organic whole. This I shall call the 1984 pattern, tak­ing my cue from the famous novel of that name by the late George Orwell.

The novel is set in England. It is an England where a diabolically clever officialdom has succeeded in reducing the citizenry to a bunch of robots, controlled from the top, twenty-four hours a day. There is no private sector in the society of 1984, no sphere for per­sonal action which belongs to in­dividuals as a matter of right. The society is operated by the govern­ment as if the country were a vast, automated factory. Such is the intention, and such the theory.

Now in actual practice, the the­ory limps a little. There are loop­holes in even the most tightly or­ganized, totalitarian society. The governmental machinery breaks down occasionally; officialdom is inefficient and occasionally cor­rupt. And so it is in 1984. The dictator of this society is called Big Brother. Big Brother’s pic­ture is everywhere, and the eyes of the portrait are designed so that as you look into them they seem to follow you. The universal slogan is: “Big Brother Is Watch­ing You.” His agents mingle with the populace to spy on people, and in every dwelling there is a two-way television set which keeps the home under surveillance.

The novel has a hero named Winston, who works in what is called the Ministry of Truth. Winston’s apartment has the usu­al television set, but by an acci­dent of construction one corner of Winston’s room is out of range of Big Brother’s seeing eye. Win­ston has a tiny sliver of privacy, but only because the Master Plan leaked at this point; the design is total political control of society, and the consequent extinction of personal freedom. Such a society is called totalitarian. The princi­pal feature of such a society is that no limitations are set to the exercise of governmental power over people; the government is coextensive with society. As a re­sult, this is a society without free­dom—regardless of the authority invoked to sanction governmental invasions of the various sectors of life. That authority may pro­ceed from the will of one man, or it may rest on the will of a major­ity. No matter. Controls are con­trols, and unlimited government by definition denies individual lib­erty, whatever the reason or the authority for the controls. Every­body in 1984 loved Big Brother; the regime was a total tyranny because it had the support of the whole people.

Unlimited Power

But that’s fiction, you say, and in real life things are different. Well, there is many a slip between intention and action, or the hu­man race would never have sur­vived; but let’s stick with intentions for a bit. The first of the modern dictators was Lenin, who wrote: “The scientific concept, dictatorship, means neither more nor less than unlimited power, resting directly on force, not lim­ited by anything, not restricted by any laws or any absolute rules. Nothing else but that.” One of the men who learned from Lenin was Mussolini. “The State em­braces everything,” he wrote. “Nothing against the State; noth­ing outside the State; everything for the State.” This is the 1984 design as exemplified in the blood brothers, communism and fascism—for the state to consolidate the society, and for the combination to engulf the individual person. There is an inherent tendency in the state to move in this direction — unless a significant number of men in the society succeed in mo­bilizing the right counterforce.

Go back again to our two rec­tangles. When government is su­perimposed on society, it means that all the various activities of people are controlled, directed, or commanded; that individual initi­ative is everywhere stifled, thwarted, or conditioned. Let me cite a quotation from Plato on this point, not as necessarily re­flecting the mind of Plato or the actual conditions anywhere in Greece, but as revealing the des­tination of an ageless line of thought: “The principle is this—that no man, and no woman, be ever suffered to live without an officer set over them, and no soul of man to learn the trick of doing one single thing of its own sole motion, in play or in earnest; but, in peace as in war, ever to live with the commander in sight, to follow his leading, and take its motions from him to the least de­tail…. In a word, to teach one’s soul the habit of never so much as thinking to do one single act apart from one’s fellows, of mak­ing life, to the very uttermost, an unbroken consort, society, and community of all with all.”

It Can’t Happen Here?

What was advanced by Plato merely as a speculative idea, something to play with, has been actualized in our day. Listen to the words of one of the foremost experts on the Soviet Union, Ber­tram Wolfe. Speaking of Russia, Wolfe says: “The state continues to direct and control all aspects of life. A single party continues to dominate and rule the state, and to act as the core of all organiza­tions.”

Well, you say, Russia is a long way off, America has a tradition of freedom, and the communists are no longer influential here. Be­sides, Americans are a good-na­tured people, and we wouldn’t do this to each other… would we? There are people who would do this to us, with the noblest of mo­tives. Many instances occur to you, but let me offer just two. The first is from the pen of Senator Clark of Pennsylvania. Applauding the “liberalism” of American colleges, he writes: “Spiritually and eco­nomically youth is conditioned to respond to a liberal program of orderly policing of our society by government.” The second state­ment is from a recent article by the eminent theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr. He is advocating liber­alism of the Americans for Demo­cratic Action type, and says, “… liberalism connotes a desire to use all the instruments and au­thority of the political state for the attainment of (social) justice. This means the welfare state, the politics of the New Deal, and the… Administration’s current in­tegration program….”

The trend is obvious. The coun­try, under prodding such as this, moves toward a centralized soci­ety run from the top down. The national government commands each year an increasing portion of the people’s earnings, and its power grows accordingly; its functions are extended and ac­celerated year by year. In other words, we are witnessing and liv­ing in the midst of the natural drift of a state reverting to type.

And a state reverts to type when­ever counter forces are lacking. I propose in this paper to describe these counter forces in the hope of reactivating them.

History does not move in a straight line—there are ups and downs; there are periods of en­lightenment, and ages that are dark. Liberty, too, comes and goes. It is lost and then found again. People experience the tyranny of a despotic ruler, endure it just so long, and then something inside them revolts. They frame a phi­losophy which provides the ra­tionale for establishing sectors of individual immunity against gov­ernmental power, and they fight in various ways to achieve their goals. This is the pattern for the recurring struggle of men to be free in society, and it hinges on the success with which the func­tions of government are limited to curbing aggression and main­taining the peace of society. If men are to attain freedom in so­ciety, they cannot do so on any old terms, but only on the terms laid down by liberty itself.

Seven Major Concerns of Man

As we look back over human history, we note several major concerns which in every age have engaged the minds and hearts of men. These divide society into seven sectors. One of the great human enterprises is Economics. Man has to eat. He has to protect himself from the inclemencies of the weather; and he covers his body for warmth and adornment. It is by economic activity that men satisfy their bodily needs for food, clothing, and shelter. Work is involved here, and man has a natural inclination to avoid work. That is why he invents la­bor-saving devices. One of the first labor-saving devices, as some cynic pointed out, was robbery. Now, a person produces for his own use and enjoyment and nat­urally he resents the thief; so, to curb thievery the police power comes into being. This is the seed­bed of government, and whether we like it or not, politics has al­ways been one of the major pre­occupations of mankind.

Then there is Education. The adults of every society seek to in­troduce the young to the intellec­tual heritage of their culture and to imitate them into the world of the grown-ups. Schooling is part of education, and so is science.

The fourth sector is Art—the world of painting, sculpture, ar­chitecture, and literature. Art is a perennial concern of man and should occupy a realm of its own in society. So should Ethics. Men evaluate their own conduct and the conduct of others in terms of good and bad, right and wrong.

These are moral judgments, and they stake out the ethical realm in human affairs. People strive to be better; they seek the good life—the kind of living appro­priate to our nature.

Moral effort takes us into the domain of Religion. Almost every person has, at some time or other, sat back and wondered what it’s all about. Does the universe, that scheme of things of which we are a part, have any meaning, any purpose? What is the significance, the aim and object of human life? What am I here for? Nobody above the moron level can avoid asking questions of this sort, which is what William James had in mind when he observed that “mankind is incurably religious.” Undeni­ably, every society has exhibited some interest in this dimension of our lives, however varied the rituals and the theology which express this interest.

The seventh sector of human life is reserved for the free play of Voluntary Groups. Obviously, there is some overlapping here with the previously mentioned en­terprises. A factory is a volun­tary association; so is a church, in our society. And there are other voluntary groups designed to further the ends of education, ethics, and art. Nevertheless, we need this category in order to include the groups men form for sport, recreation, and just plain fun. These are the seven major areas of social life.

Assume that we start with a society whose government is un­limited, politics being deep into every human concern. Our task is to stake out the major human enterprises I have listed, to guar­antee the integrity and relative autonomy of each by showing that—except for government, the realm of law—politics is foreign to it. When we have done this, the police power—or government—is painted into a corner where it be­longs, exercising its rightful func­tion of curbing destructive and criminal behavior and providing for the defense of the society against domestic and foreign enemies. When government is thus limited, the creative and productive actions of men are un­hampered. Given this situation in a society, men would be free—as they are free today in one major realm, that of religion.

Separation of Church and State

There is one important princi­ple on which most Americans are agreed—the principle of the sep­aration of Church and State. We take this principle of separation for granted, hardly realizing how unique it is in history and how strange it still sounds to non-American ears. England, and most countries of Europe, have national churches. A number of the American colonies had tax supported churches lasting, in my own state of Massachusetts, until 1833. Religious dissenters fared ill in many of the early colonies, but by 1779 the state of Virginia passed a Bill for Establishing Re­ligious Freedom which was penned by the hand of Thomas Jefferson. “Well aware that Al­mighty God bath created the mind free,” Jefferson begins, and then goes on to say “that to com­pel a man to furnish contribu­tions of money for the propaga­tion of opinions which he disbe­lieves, is sinful and tyrannical.” Nor was any man to suffer civil disabilities because of his reli­gious beliefs. He was to be free in this area to believe or not, to align himself with a church or not. In any case, his rights as a citizen were not impaired. The law would touch him only when a crime had been committed, and then—before the bar of justice—the believer and the nonbeliever would be on equal terms. The First Amendment to the Consti­tution merely guaranteed that Congress would not overturn the religious arrangements the states had worked out for themselves.

The principle of separating Church and State is frequently confused with something that sounds a little like it but is, in fact, altogether different—the separation of religion from so­ciety, the elimination of a spir­itual dimension from social mat­ters. Jefferson who, in the Dec­laration of Independence, wrote that men derive their rights from the Creator, and who elsewhere wrote, “The God who gave us life gave us liberty at the same time,” did not favor a nonreligious, secu­lar society. He opposed a reli­gious establishment and did favor government neutrality toward the churches. Why? In order that re­ligion itself could play its proper role in the affairs of men. What is this role?

The Old Testament View

Compare our situation with that of the ancient world. Man, Aristotle said, is a political ani­mal. Aristotle was not merely call­ing attention to the obvious fact that men live in social organiza­tions as their natural habitat; by calling man a political animal Aristotle was saying that man is the kind of a creature who may find complete fulfillment within the Greek city-state. The Greek polis was Church and State in one; its politics, one might say, was salvational. Our idea of rele­gating the state to the modest role of an umpire, keeping the peace by merely enforcing the agreed upon rules, would have been largely incomprehensible to men of the ancient world. The head of the ancient state was also its religious leader; Julius Cae­sar, you recall, was also Pontifex Maximus, the chief priest. The individual, in this kind of a set­up, was really locked into society—body and soul. Then, along came a new religion which transformed the ancient world by teaching that only part of man is social, that man’s essence belongs to God.

This idea is part of our heri­tage from the Old Testament, with its stress on God’s tran­scendence. The common opinion in the ancient world was that a god was useful to have around to sanction social practices, to guar­antee prosperity, and to insure victory in war. If a tribe lost a battle, this would be accepted as signifying the superiority of the god or gods of the victors; if a crop failed, the particular god who fouled up that situation was sacked. Some such idea of God is still widely held by our contem­poraries. The Victorian novelist, Samuel Butler, satirized this no­tion when he said: “To love God is to have good health, good looks, good luck, and a fair balance of cash in the bank.” But the ancient Israelites, although they lapsed now and again, discarded the no­tion of a god kept on tap to bestow prosperity and victory. They believed in a God of right­eousness and truth, and they saw the workings of God even in their own poverty and defeat. They for­bade all graven images, as well as any attempt to represent God in concept or word. The holy name was never pronounced or spelled. God was wholly other; he trans­cended human affairs, and yet—as the Creator and Sustainer of life—he was involved in them.

This idea became part of Chris­tian doctrine and it made a big difference to the politics of the West; it undercut the totalitarian idea which ruled the ancient world. Here is the way a British political scientist, J. B. Morrall, states the new political develop­ment which occurred after the fall of Rome: “The State as we should understand it today did not exist in the barbarian dark ages. Chris­tianity alone was left with the task of providing the West with a social unity across its new bar­barian frontiers. It did so by ap­pealing not to a primarily politi­cal sense of obligation, but to a basis of divinely inspired and commonly shared spiritual fellow­ship. Medieval Europe offers for the first time in history the some­what paradoxical spectacle of a society trying to organize itself politically on the basis of a spir­itual framework (which gives to political life merely a relative value). By so doing western European thought about politics was propelled along lines which were to be sharply different from those of any other human so­ciety.”

A Neglected Premise

Political theory in our tradi­tion is based on the assumption that men must be free in society because each person has a destiny beyond society which he can work out only under conditions of lib­erty. In other words, the inner and spiritual liberty of man im­plies the outer and social freedom needed for its completion. Loyal to these premises, the peoples of the West began their long and painful ascent toward the ideal of political liberty. By the time the West had attained a large meas­ure of liberty—in the eighteenth century—the premises had been forgotten. They are neglected to­day, but at least we do accept the principle that government should keep out of ecclesiastical affairs. Religion is to be free from politi­cal interference, just as we hope the other areas of life shall some day be free.

The spiritual underpinnings of our institutions have suffered ero­sion, and we careen toward the pre-Christian idea of the state as the universal caretaker promising to feed, clothe, house, train, and guide its minions. By its very label, the welfare state advertises its self-assumed benevolence; and by the same token it cloaks the power inherent in all political ac­tion. So successful is the disguise that it has even generated a spe­cious religious support.

To sum up: Man is not a politi­cal animal, in Judeo-Christian thought. He necessarily lives in societies and his societies require government. But the government must be limited to keeping the peace and administering justice, in order that individuals may have sufficient latitude to fulfill the law of their being, here and hereafter.

Ethical Values

This brings us to the domain of ethics. Every high religion is con­cerned with righteousness and the practice of virtue. As our reli­gious values have eroded, there has been a decline of standards in ethics and a worsening of con­duct. The figures on crime tell part of the story. Between 1958 and 1962 our population increased by 7 per cent, but crime increased by 27 per cent. Bank robberies have tripled in six years; em­bezzlement has doubled since 1956; there is an automobile stolen every 90 seconds. We in America steal more cars each year than there are cars manu­factured in Russia! Other forms of violence are on the increase. Harder to measure are losses in integrity, the casual going back on one’s word, the lack of moral indignation. And, of course, the trend is rationalized. Ethical rela­tivism is a widely held, but largely unexamined, theory. People of different cultures, we are told, have come to differing conclusions as to what is good and what bad; and this, we are told, means rela­tivism in morals—no right or wrong as such. People of differ­ent cultures have likewise come to differing conclusions as to what is true and what false. If the ethical relativists were consistent, they would have to say that this proves all truth is relative. Very few do.

Some people embrace ethical relativism on humane grounds, because—they say—people who think X is better than Y will try to force X onto other people. This is bad logic and bad history. There have been annoying re­formers who have sought to legis­late morals, a misguided effort. But the great crusades, persecu­tions, and massacres of history have not been efforts to improve wayward conduct; they have been attempts to correct error, false be­lief. If one adopts relativism on humane grounds, he should be con­sistent and deny any distinction between truth and error, on the grounds that people who believe they have The Truth might perse­cute on its behalf, as communists persecute ideological deviates.

The philosophy of the free so­ciety needs firm ethical support, and it is not getting it. As ethical standards decline, some people seek to correct the situation by passing laws to control behavior. Government is, in fact, a system of controls; but we ought to con­sider carefully the kinds of acts we decide to control by law. Crimes should be punished; on that point we all agree. But peo­ple cannot be made good by law; they can only be made less free, and that is bad. Anglican Bishop William Connor Magee made a fa­mous speech in the House of Lords in 1868 opposing a law which would have prohibited al­coholic beverages: “I’d rather the English should be free than that England should be compulsorily sober,” he said. Now it is only fair to assume that this church­man favored sobriety; but if he were forced to choose between so­briety and freedom, he would choose freedom as the higher good. The dictum, “You cannot legislate morals,” is sound doc­trine. But paradoxically, in a pe­riod when moral sentiments are weak, we have moved into the welfare state, which is a gigantic effort to legislate morals on a na­tional scale. When men go peace­fully about their creative and productive tasks, minding their own business, government should mind its business and let them alone. It cannot make them good, and it should not try. It can, how­ever, curb destructive and crimi­nal actions, and doing so is its proper job.

Importance of Education

It is one function of the edu­cator to be the gadfly of the state, but he cannot be a gadfly if he is on the state’s payroll. When the state begins its bid for total power, it must at some stage seize control of the country’s educa­tional system; it must establish a Ministry of Truth, as in 1984. Every culture devises ways of easing its young people into adult­hood, by imparting to them the heritage of that culture so that the patterns and values cher­ished by the citizenry may endure. But when there is a breakdown in the culture, there is a contest to determine what values and what information will be imparted to the young, and by whom. This gives the state an opening wedge for starting a vast conditioning process by which the young will be adjusted to their place in so­ciety and be kept ignorant of the fact that there is any higher order of majesty than that of state. We have made some headway in this direction, but those who would take us down this road know that the time is not yet ripe to advocate controlled education—as they openly advocate a con­trolled economy—and so, although they want government schools and urge federal aid to education, they assure us that this will not mean federal control. Despite their as­surances, subsidy must lead to control, and control means nation­alized education—a contradiction in terms.

Freedom in the Arts

Now we come to the realm of art. The writers, composers, and painters of Russia do not create for an independent public; they work for the commissars. They do not seek primarily to embody such values as truth and beauty in literature and music; their work is designed to further the pro­letariat revolution. An official statement reads: “The aim of Soviet art today must be to form the consciousness of the people.” American artists are in a tizzy these days on the question of the role of government in the arts. Some opera singers and actors have come out in favor of federal subsidy for the arts, and there is now a Federal Advisory Art Coun­cil. But many American painters, sculptors, and writers are vigor­ously opposed to government in­terference and the Council of American Artist Societies is on record in favor of freedom in the arts. We don’t want an official art any more than we want an official religion. The real artist is necessarily a free spirit; it is only the routine writers and deco­rators who would go on the public payroll. So in the interests of art itself, we must keep politics and government out of this realm.

Art associations are just one type of innumerable voluntary as­sociations in our society. Political clubs and discussion groups are other types. Then there are ath­letic clubs, camera clubs, fan clubs, and a whole host of groups drawn together because the mem­bers share a common interest. The totalitarian state must seek to destroy all lesser loyalties within it, just as it seeks to destroy re­ligious loyalties above it; but in a free society, voluntary associations of all sorts flourish.

Economic Freedom

Finally, we come to the econ­omic sector of our society, the realm of business, industry, and trade. This is the place where nearly everyone devoutly pro­claims his dedication to free en­terprise and the free market while simultaneously calling for more controls and regulations. This is a critical area of our life, because it is presently the prime target of those who prefer collectivism to a free society. Freedom cannot be won or retained on economic grounds alone, but it can be and is being lost on the economic battlefront.

Economic activity is funda­mental to human existence. A Robinson Crusoe could get along without politicking, but if he did not work, he would die of hunger and exposure. Out of economic ac­tivity emerge the concepts of rights to property and claims to service around which many politi­cal battles are fought. Economics, on the surface, deals with prices, production, and the operations of the market as determined by our buying habits. Fundamentally, however, economics is concerned with the conservation and stew­ardship of the earth’s scarce goods: human energy, time, ma­terial resources, and natural forces. These goods-in-short-sup­ply are our birthright as creatures of this planet.

The strict limitation of govern­ment provides for an area of free­dom in society within which men take care of their material needs by a system of bargaining, con­tract, and free exchange. “The market” is simply a label for the system which uses free choice in buying and selling as a means of making economic decisions; it is the tactic of liberty applied to the workaday world. Within the network of market arrangements each man is rewarded according to the value his fellows place upon his offerings of goods and ser­vices. This reward is his “wage.” Human nature being what it is, every man will tend to feel that his own wage is too low, whereas other folks’ prices are too high. Most people develop a reality sense on this point; others never do.

Every collectivist ideology—from the welfare state idea to totalitarian communism—is strung on a framework of eco­nomic error. People are prisoners of their beliefs, and so long as they cherish a wrong understand­ing of economics, they will be ap­pealed to by one form of collec­tivism or another. But when peo­ple embrace sound economics, col­lectivism will cease to be the men­ace it is today.

Parts of the Whole

Freedom is all of a piece, and economic freedom—within the proper moral and legal framework—is fundamental to the free so­ciety. Do we believe in religious liberty? Then unless there is pri­vate ownership of houses of wor­ship, and private means for paying salaries, printing books, and holding meetings, religion cannot be free. Do we believe in a free press? But if newsprint is a gov­ernment monopoly and all printing presses are government owned, how can newspapers be free? It is possible to have a Daily Worker in a capitalist country, but a Daily Capitalist in a communist country is inconceivable. Do we endorse academic freedom? But if government owns the schools and appoints the teachers, then free­dom vanishes.

The restoration of freedom is a difficult job. It’s one that will re­quire every bit of ingenuity and determination we possess. More­over, we ourselves are right in the middle of the picture. We cannot work from outside society, pre­tending that we are like gods fash­ioning a culture piece by piece; we are within society, and any improvements we might make have to be an inside job. Our situation reminds one of the story about a town council in Ireland. The town needed a new jail, so the council passed a four-point resolution: (1) The town will build a new jail to replace the old one; (2) To save labor costs the work will be performed by prison­ers; (3) To save material costs, the new jail will be built with bricks and boards obtained by tearing down the old jail; (4) The prisoners will live in the old jail until the new jail is completed!

Welfare Statists and Their Delusion

Not many Americans favor a dictatorship, but many Americans do favor the adoption of practices which will eventually lead to au­thoritarian rule. They believe in the welfare state, at the core of which lies a delusion. The welfare state is founded on the delusion that government—the power structure in society—after using its power to divest citizens of a portion of their earnings via tax­ation, will dispense the riches thus accumulated at the bidding of the powerless. It cannot be; power will respond to power. The poor and weak in our society employ no lobbyists, and the welfare state spends its billions at the behest of its upper bracket favorites.

Many of those who advocate the welfare state believe that society must be run by experts—given the current state of technology and the critical times we are in. But how do we know who is an expert, and who is not? At this point many intellectuals cast mod­esty aside and admit that they have themselves in mind. This simplifies matters for the rest of us, until we note that these ex­perts disagree among themselves as to who is really an expert and who is not. But one thing these experts favor, and that is the trend which is making our na­tional government ever richer and ever more powerful. They ap­plaud this, because they visualize themselves at the helm using the money and power accumulated in Washington to carry out vast pro­grams of their own devising. But if history teaches anything about politics, it is this: The intellec­tuals and the idealists may dream up blueprints for a heaven on earth, but political power is never wielded by intellectuals and ideal­ists—or not for long.

The welfare state operates on an evil principle: somebody’s pro­gram at everybody’s expense. The intellectuals want a powerful gov­ernment so that they can carry out their program, but this hope of theirs is doomed to continuous frustration—someone else always beats them to the punch. It will take a while before the intellec­tuals catch on to the futility of building for someone else’s take­over, and by that time we’ll prob­ably have gotten ourselves squared away in the fields of economics, religion, ethics, art, and educa­tion. When this is accomplished, we’ll have painted government in­to a corner, and men will be free.