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Human Nature and the Free Society

By Edmund Opitz.


Is there anything in the basic makeup of the men and women we know, or those we read about in the press, or encounter in the pages of history texts, which encourages us to believe that the free society we strive for is a realistic possibility?

Edward Gibbon, the great historian of Rome’s decline and fall, offered, as his considered judgment, the opinion that “History is little more than a register of the crimes, follies, and misfortunes of mankind.” The bleakness of this assessment is redeemed somewhat by the inclusion of the words “little more.” Human nature does have its dark underside which pulls us down below the norm and produces the crimes, follies, and misfortunes recorded by historians.

But there is more to our story than this; there is also a record of the geniuses in every field—including heroes and saints—who demonstrate the realized potential of our common humanity. And then there are the multitudes who are just plain, ordinary, decent, hardworking folks, uplifted on occasion by the magnetism of those who rise above the average, and sometimes seized by a madness of sorts when the criminal and depraved acquire a kind of glamour.

Every society takes on its unique characteristics from the people who compose it; we are the basic ingredients of our society. The human story is a checkered affair; some ups, many downs. Does a realistic appraisal of our history on this planet provide any warrant for believing that we human beings are capable of approximating a truly free society with its market economy?

I propose to deal with four features of human nature and conduct which give me confidence that in the constitution of ordinary men and women are the characteristics which incline them to strive for a freer life with their fellows. I shall list these four points and then discuss them.

1. There is a strong instinct in all men and women to be free to pursue their personal goals.

2. There is a universal need in each of us to call something our very own; an instinct for property.

3. There is an upward thrust in human nature to live a life that is not simply more comfortable, but better in a moral sense. We really believe in fair play; we respond to the ideals of justice.

4. The market is everywhere; people in every part of the globe have sought to better their economic circumstances by barter and trade. The market is universal; but only occasionally does the market become institutionalized as the market economy.

First Point—Freedom

Every person has a deeply rooted urge to be free to pursue his chosen goals; it is impossible to imagine a person, who is determined to accomplish a certain task, inviting people to hinder or prevent him from getting his job done. Even a dictator as vicious as Stalin, one of whose aims was to extinguish personal freedom in a great nation, demanded complete freedom to pursue his evil goals. Anyone who tried to hinder him was shortly referred to in the past tense.

But despite the universal urge for full personal liberty, most people who have ever lived have been slaves, serfs, bondsmen, thralls, helots, Sudras, retainers, lackeys, vassals, liege men, and the like. Despite the fact that every person wants to be free to live on his own terms, most of the earth’s people have lived wholly or in part on terms laid down by someone else. There are more of them today than ever before. A powerful instinct for individual liberty animates virtually every man and woman, but this universal urge to be free has been fully institutionalized only once in history—in the theory and practice of old-fashioned Whiggery and Classical Liberalism, rising and falling during the period, approximately from the American Revolution to the early twentieth century.

Second Point—Property

The sense of personal identity is aroused in us early in infancy; it suddenly dawns on each of us that “I am me!” The seeds of our lifelong personal uniqueness are planted early. As soon as we learn to think “me” we begin to think its inevitable corollary, “mine.” Every child, early on, comes to regard certain toys as his own. Each of us grows into a property relationship with things in his environment long before he evolves a theory of property, that is, a theory of the correct relationship between ourselves and the things that belong to us. Your property is an extension of your self; no one can live his life to the full unless he owns the things on which his life depends, things which he may use and dispose of in any peaceful way he chooses. Justice demands that every person have a right to acquire property, for every person’s sense of self is powerfully linked to the things he owns.

Because property is right, theft is wrong. The belief that property is fight is so nearly universal that even thieves believe it. The pickpocket who steals your wallet does not intend his action as a symbolic gesture against the idea of private property; he may be a crook, but he’s no socialist! Every crook believes in the sanctity of private property—he doesn’t want people stealing from him! His attitude toward other folks’ property is, shall we say, somewhat liberated. And there’s the rub. “Me” and “mine” is a natural instinct; it’s the “thee” and “thine” that needs to be fortified by moral values, by manners, and by the law. Gradually, as we mature into moral beings, reciprocity—the idea of “do as you would be done by”-generates the belief that mutual respect for individual property rights is the cornerstone of the free society.

Since the dawn of history, getting hold of other people’s property by war, plunder, piracy, pillage, and looting has been a way of life for a large segment of mankind. “Robbery is perhaps the oldest of labor saving devices,” wrote Lewis Mumford fifty years ago, “and war vies with magic in its efforts to get something for nothing.” And Ludwig von Mises points out that “All ownership derives from occupation and violence.” (Socialism, p. 32. See also Human Action, p. 679.) English civilization emerged in the aftermath of the Norman Conquest; most modern nations have followed a similar pattern, including our own. A people or a tribe acquires its territory by successfully doing battle. It is only the slow progress of civilization and the development of the idea of The Rule of Law that generates the belief that every person’s property should be regarded as inviolate by every other person.

A corollary of this is the belief that the primary task of a just legal system is to secure every person’s right to that which is his own. We do this by stressing the sanctity of private property and, when moral deterrents to theft are not enough, we seek to discourage thievery by invoking a swift and sure justice designed to increase the risks of robbery and diminish any conceivable benefits.

Third Point—Justice

The practice of pillage is ancient, but so is mankind’s concern for justice. Some fifteen hundred years before Christ, a legislator of ancient Israel wrote: “You shall not pervert justice, either by favoring the poor or by subservience to the great. You shall judge your fellow countrymen with strict justice” (Lev. 19:15). Pericles, the Athenian statesman of the fifth century B.C., said in his great funeral oration, “If we look to the laws, they afford equal justice to all in their private differences.” And Cicero, one of the last of the old Romans, in the century before our era: “Of all these things respecting which learned men dispute there is none more important than clearly to understand that we are born for justice, and that right is founded not in opinion but in nature.”

Long before some unknown genius framed a theory of justice, men and women knew when they had been wronged, betrayed, let down, dealt with unfairly. The capacity to make moral judgments is built into human nature itself; and human nature is constituted as it is because our nature is derived from the ways things are in the universe.

We are “in play” with the universe as we try to keep in time with its music. We have, for example, categories of round and square because these shapes and others are found in the nature existing outside us. The concepts of long and short would be meaningless to us were length not one characteristic of the way-things-are. We have a sense of beauty because we have seen lovely things and listened to melodious sounds. And by the same token, the distinction that mankind universally makes between right and wrong or good and evil presupposes a moral dimension in this universe from which our personal categories derive.

As far back as we can trace man’s story we find him drawing ethical distinctions, employing the categories of right and wrong. Jeane Kirkpatrick speaks of “. . . the irreducible human concern with morality.” Obviously, we would not expect universal agreement as to which actions should be classified as right and which wrong; but the classification would stand—nearly everyone has agreed that some things are right and others are wrong. It is a long trail that leads from these primitive beginnings to the insights of the moral geniuses of the race—the Hebrew Prophets, Jesus, Confucius, St. Francis—and to the refinements of moral theory of the great philosophers of ethics—Aristotle, Marcus Aurelius, Aquinas, Spinoza, Adam Smith, to name a few.

At this point some timid folk may fear that we are treading on dangerous ground here. Start with the philosophical distinction between right and wrong, they point out, and the next step is to divide people into the multitudes who are wrong, and the few of us who are right. A third step seems to follow: We who are right are commissioned to correct the evil ways of the rest of you. Hence, crusaders against the infidel, suppression, prohibitions, and the like. A spoilsport like Carrie Nation goes around with her hatchet busting up saloons! Innocent pleasures and festive occasions come under attack. Reaction against such real or imagined sequences of events contributes to the widespread ethical relativism of our time. Right and wrong, we now hear it said, is a matter of taste, a matter of feeling; everyone is entitled to decide for himself what is right or wrong for him. In today’s vernacular, we are told: “Do your own thing.”

But when you discard ethical yardsticks, the weak doing their thing are at the mercy of the strong doing theirs, as the twentieth century attests. Ours is the age of ethical relativism and nihilism, and it’s no coincidence that “we live in an age unique for the unrestrained use of brute force in international relations.” The words are those of Pitirim Sorokin, from his four-volume study of war during the past 2,500 years. The most widespread, potent, evangelizing religion of our time is communism, and communist theory has no place for the traditional ethical yardsticks; in Marxist theory, right and wrong are whatever the party commands. In consequence, communist policy during the first seventy years after the Russian Revolution has exacted a toll of more than a hundred million lives, and what it has not destroyed it has damaged.

These horrors do not faze the liberals who, when their attention is called to the facts, like to refer to Lenin’s remark that you cannot make an omelet without breaking a few eggs. Human life is cheap in the twentieth century.

You can burn down the ham and get rid of the rats, and you can discard the idea of a moral order and get rid of the reformers. But at what price! If there are no ethical standards, moral relativism holds sway, right gives way to might, and disaster overtakes us in the ways made familiar in this century.

Traditional ethical theory maintains that right is right and wrong is wrong. Why? Because the universe has a built-in moral dimension, a moral law, often identified with God’s will. In any event, this moral law is anchored in something deeper and more fundamental than private feelings, majority opinion, party dictates, or the will of some despot. The moral law is an important facet of the nature of things, and it is binding on all men and women.

Every one of us is fallible; no one can be certain that he has correctly read some deliverance of the moral law. So we shouldn’t be surprised when some would-be reformer comes out of the woodwork and annoys us with his eccentric interpretations of the moral law. He may earnestly desire to do good, but he goes about it in the wrong way. But such a person is harmless, unless he comes to power. Moreover, if we solicit the counsel of the most ethically advanced men and women we find that they are unanimous in telling us that the right and the good can be advanced in three ways only: by reason, by persuasion, and above all by example.

Fourth Point—Economic Action

It is a fact of the human situation—regardless of the nature of the social order—that man does not find, ready-made in his natural environment, the wherewithal to feed, house, and clothe himself. There are only raw materials in nature, and most of these are not capable of satisfying human needs until someone works them over and transforms them into consumable goods.

Man has to work in order to survive. He learns to cooperate with nature, making use of natural forces to serve his ends. Work is built into the human situation; the things by which we live do not come into existence unless someone grows them, manufactures them, builds them, and moves them from place to place.

Work is irksome and things are scarce, so people must learn to economize and avoid waste. They invent labor-saving devices, they manufacture tools, they specialize and exchange the fruits of their specialization. They learn to get along with each other, our natural sociability reinforced by the discovery that the division of labor benefits all. Division of labor and voluntary exchange constitute the marketplace, which is the greatest labor-saving device of all.

“This division of labor, from which so many advantages are derived,” wrote Adam Smith, “is not originally the effect of any human wisdom which foresees and intends that general opulence to which it gives occasion. It is the necessary, though very slow and gradual, consequence of a certain propensity in human nature . . . the propensity to track, barter, and exchange one thing for another. . . . It is common to all men, and to be found in no other race of animals.”

It is natural for us human beings, as we seek to improve our circumstances, to bargain, swap, barter, and trade. This is the market in action: men and women trading goods and services in a noncoercive situation. The benefits of such activity are mutual and obvious, which is why the market is everywhere. The market has always existed, and it’s in operation today all over the world. Virtually no tribes are so primitive, and no collectivism so totalitarian as to prevent people from engaging in voluntary exchanges for mutual advantage. But only rarely has the market ever got itself institutionalized as the market economy—the thing called capitalism.

What does it mean to say that something has been institutionalized? When practices which heretofore have been informal and sporadic become formalized, regular, habitual, and customary they are said to be institutionalized. As institutions they operate by an established rule or principle; they draw support from the moral code and are buttressed by appropriate laws.

For example, education is institutionalized as the school; religion is institutionalized as the church. And the market—individuals trading, bartering, and swapping—is institutionalized as the market economy, or capitalism. This occurs when free-market practices are allied with appropriate moral, cultural, legal, and political structures. Has this ever happened? Yes, but probably only once, and in a few countries only, when free-market practices coalesced with the Whig social order in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. This was the social order Adam Smith referred to as his “liberal plan of equality, liberty and justice.”

I have briefly set forth four convictions of mine—which I would put into the category of self- evident truths. First, every person has an unquenchable urge to be free to pursue his personal goals—but seldom translates this into the idea of “equal freedom.” Second, every person has an instinct for private property—every “me” requires a “mine.” Third, every person has moral sense; he knows when he has been dealt with unfairly or treated unjustly. When we become mature persons we strive for equity; we try to treat others as we would like to be treated. In the fourth place, it is a fact of common observation that people of every culture, and at every level from the most primitive to the most civilized, engage in trade and barter; the market is ubiquitous.

A Fifth Point—Political Plunder

And now for the bad news: Whenever a society moves above the level of desperate poverty, and has generated even a modicum of prosperity, some citizens set up institutions which enable them to live on the fruits of others’ toil. The law, established to achieve justice between person and person, is perverted into an instrument of plunder. This is the central message of Frederic Bastiat’s The Law.

Citizens of our own nation have gone far in this direction. A recent news item reports that 66 million Americans receive 129 million checks each month from the Department of Health and Human Services. Tens of millions of additional Americans derive their incomes in part or in full from money taxed from productive working people. These 80 or 90 million people constitute what Leonard Read used to call a plunderbund.

We are now a nation where almost everyone is trying to live at the expense of everyone else. We have written a form of theft into our statutes. Why? Because there’s a little bit of larceny in our souls! Large chunks of the American electorate have discovered that living off government handouts is easier than working for a living and safer than stealing, so they create political parties in their own image; and they elect politicians who promise them an inside track to the public treasury.

Present-day Americans are not unique in this respect. The legal transfer of wealth from producers to beneficiaries goes on today in every nation, and something like this has occurred in virtually every society since the dawn of time.

The Roots of Plunder

How did this politico-economic pattern originate? The most plausible answer is that the system of plunder was installed in the aftermath of a conquest. A hardy band of warriors swoops down from the hills and overcomes the people of the plain. The victors enslave the vanquished, setting themselves up as a governing body over a permanent underclass. Time passes, intermarriage occurs, and gradually the former warriors go soft and a hardier tribe overcomes them, and history repeats itself.

Apart from whatever excitement some men feel in battle, and the gratification that some people get from being the boss and giving orders, there is an economic motive behind the conquest and the subsequent system of rule. There is a natural drive in human beings to live better while working less; or, better yet, to live well without working at all.

Now, no one can get something for nothing unless he wields political power or is a friend of those in power. If you have such power you don’t have to go into the marketplace and try to woo customers; you take what you want. This is not considered theft because the legal system has been set up to facilitate this transfer of property from those who produced it to those in power.

Such is the political pattern exhibited by most nations known to history. This pattern can be viewed as an effort to answer three questions:

1. Who shall wield power?

2. For whose benefit shall this power be wielded?

3. At whose expense shall this power be wielded?

What we are describing here is the well-nigh universal arrangement by which nations have been governed over the centuries by kings, presidents, and potentates; by emperors and mikados; by shahs, czars, maharajas, and pooh-bahs of all kinds. Their institution is usually called “government.” The word “govern” is derived from the Latin Guber-nare, to steer. So when a group of people is elevated above the generality of citizens — as a result of conquest, usually — to ride herd on them, rule them, regulate them, control them, and exact tribute from them, they are “governing.”

This was the modus operandi in the governance of nations, everywhere, and in every century. Then came the Whig breakthrough in the eighteenth century. It was the polar opposite of “rule” in the old sense; it was a new vision of a society which aspired to achieve liberty and justice for all. It was the novel idea of a government that did not “govern,” but sought instead to protect the life, liberty, and property of all persons alike. The keynote of Whiggery was the ideal of equality before the bar of justice: The Rule of Law.

It is an idea familiar to everyone that the same instrument may he put to radically different uses. The knife you use to slice the roast may be used to kill someone. The hand that now caresses may, next hour, deal someone a mortal blow. And the law, as Bastiat points out, may serve justice, or it may violate justice when it is employed as an instrument of plunder.

The law serves justice when it acts to restore the peace, broken when someone’s rights were violated. But the law may misuse the power entrusted to it by itself violating someone’s rights, for its own ends or to further the purposes of a third party.

The Whigs used the word “government” but gave it a radically new meaning; from now on its role was to be limited to the actions required to maintain justice between person and person. Government was no longer to intervene positively in people’s lives to rule them, regulate them, or interfere with the peaceful actions of anyone.

Confusion is sown when two radically different functions are tagged with the same label; the agency designed to serve the ends of justice by securing each person’s rights to life, liberty, and property may rightfully be called “government.” But the institution set up to impair people’s rights to the life, liberty, and property ought to bear some other name. Albert Jay Nock suggested that the law, when perverted into an instrument of plunder, be called The State. The functional distinction between the two institutions—government and state—is clear.

It is in the nature of government, we might say, to use lawful force against aggressors for the protection of peaceful people. Government does not initiate action; government is triggered into “re-action” by earlier criminal conduct which causes personal injury to innocent people or otherwise disrupts the peace of the community. The state, on the other hand, initiates action. The state initiates legalized violence against peaceful people in order to advantage some people at the expense of others, or to further some grandiose national plan, or to promote some impossible dream. To paste the same label on two such radically different actions is to promote misunderstanding.

The problem is ancient, as witness the testimony of St. Augustine, dating back to the fifth century A.D.:

Without justice, what are kingdoms but great robber bands? For what are robber bands themselves, but little kingdoms. The band itself is made up of men; it is ruled by the authority of a prince; it is knit together by the pact of the confederacy; the booty is divided by the law agreed on. If, by the admittance of abandoned men, this evil increases to such a degree that it holds places, fixes abodes, takes possession of cities, and subdues people, it assumes the more plainly the name of a kingdom.

The Whig Idea

The Whigs got the point. Whiggery was the eighteenth-century creed of such men as Edmund Burke and Adam Smith; on these shores it was embraced by the likes of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. Whiggism became Liberalism after 1832, and this noble creed projected a pattern for the lawful ordering of a society which was radically different from every political pattern known to history prior to the eighteenth century. Since the eighteenth century many nations have gone from monarchy to republicanism to democracy to socialism, but this is merely to rearrange the furniture while the political plundering continues much as before.

Whiggism is a difficult philosophy to grasp, for old ways of thinking stand in the way—and so does the ingrained reluctance of many to give up the ages-old political racket which operates whenever the law is perverted into an instrument of plunder.

Jefferson and his friends had a solid grasp of the old Whig idea when they wrote that “all men are created equal,” and that they are “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights,” and that governments have no other reason for being than to secure people in their God-given rights.

The Whig idea filtered down into the popular mentality and came out as a piece of folk wisdom wrongly attributed to Jefferson: “That government governs best which governs least.” Close, but no cigar. Thoreau did better with his play on words: “That government governs best which ‘governs’ not at all,” perhaps having in mind Aesop’s fable about King Log versus King Stork.

The Whig idea, the American idea as voiced in the Declaration of Independence, viewed “government” as an instrument of justice, set up to interpret—and enforce when necessary—the previously agreed upon rules without which a free society cannot function. “Government,” then, would be analogous to the umpire in the game of baseball. The umpire does not direct the game, nor does he side with either team; the umpire acts as an impartial arbiter who decides whether it’s a strike or a ball, whether or not the runner is safe at first, and so on. In the nature of the case these decisions cannot be made by the players or by the fans; the game of baseball needs an independent functionary who sees to it that the game is played within the rules. Every society, likewise, needs a nonpartisan agency to act when there is a violation of the rules on which that society’s very existence depends.

The uniquely Whig and American political breakthrough was the conception of a government that did not “govern,” an umpire government limited to insuring that the rules upon which a society of free people is premised are maintained—and with the authority to penalize anyone who violates those rules.

We have moved a long distance away from a truly free society; and we’re even further from the theory or philosophy which gave rise to the free society. The restoration of that philosophy begins with a candid exploration of the issues.

However, no clarification of the issues is sufficient by itself to rehabilitate the old ideals of freedom and justice. The next step must be adequate educational attention to the matters in question; and from there on we rely on informed moral choice.


Originally published in The Freeman, October 1987.

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