Who does not want to make the world a better place? With so much sorrow and suffering, poverty and plunder, cynicism and corruption in far too many places, nearly everyone, if asked, will usually say that if he could he would try to make this shared planet of ours a safer, prettier, more prosperous, and less unjust shared domicile on which we all live. The problem is, what are the best means to that end?
The answer to that question has plagued mankind for a very long time, going back to the ancients. With all the nuances and distinctions that have been discussed and debated, I would suggest that it all comes down to a decision between force and freedom. For most of human history, the implied or articulated presumption has been that human beings left to their own personal devices will bring about a world of cruelty, injustice, and societal harm.
The presumption that people need paternalism
In other words, human beings in general need someone or something to control and command them, to restrain their harmful proclivities and direct them into the ways of living and interacting that ensure degrees of harmony and fairness in the relationships between them. Conquerors and kings, as well as democratically elected politicians or populist demagogues hungry only for power, have all insisted that they want authority over others for the good of those over whom they wish to assert and impose their rule.
Whether it is just rhetorical concealments to cover the desire simply for power and privileges over others, or whether some or many of those proposing planned societies have done it or do it out of a sincere belief that they know better how human beings should live their lives and interactively associate with their fellow human beings, the end result is the same.
The latitude and liberty of the individual person is narrowed to various degrees by political constraints of one type or another that limit his options and opportunities to more fully choose his own ends and utilize various means that he considers to be most likely to successfully achieve the goals he has in mind.
The extreme instances of such planned societies were experienced over the last one hundred years in the form of Soviet and Nazi totalitarian systems. Little was left out of the control, command, and central direction of these collectivist regimes. They were determined, on the basis of their respective ideologies of either class or race conflict, to remake the entire world in their own images. Human life has neither meaning nor value outside of service to “the cause” nor independently of it.
Eugene Lyons (1898–1985) was an American news correspondent in the Soviet Union from 1928 to 1934. In his book, Assignment in Utopia (1937), he explained that when he first arrived in Moscow, he was full of sympathy for the idea of the “great experiment” in making a new socialist society. Yes, the communists were a one-party dictatorship. But he accepted the notion that sometimes a dictatorship might be necessary and acceptable if a “higher good” came out of it all, at least in the long run.
But after finishing his tour in Moscow for the United Press news agency, he travelled extensively in fascist Italy and Nazi Germany before returning to the United States. He watched and listened carefully to what was going on in those other totalitarian countries, and concluded the following:
We had gone to Russia believing there were good dictatorships and bad. We left convinced that defending one dictatorship is in fact defending the principle of tyranny…. The European journey strengthened that conviction. The common denominator in all that we saw, it seemed to me, was the decadence of the moral sense in mankind, the attrition of ethical values. That decadence showed itself in an indifference to suffering and callous disrespect for the stuff of life. The moral collapse of Europe was far more terrible than its economic collapse
Until the [First] World War, even the narrowest philosophies of progress decked themselves in the feathers of humanism: greater freedom, happiness and security for individual men and women…. Now individual human beings were being degraded, brutalized, tortured, and murdered for the glorification of some abstraction of class or race. Whatever its pseudo-scientific justifications, every specialized phobia was like the other in that it began by nullifying the individual. Not one of them has room in its scheme of salvation for individual liberties and happiness….
What is socialism but a society of regimented slaves and regimented slave-drivers…. What is the essential differentiation between state socialism in Russia according to the Politburo and state socialism for Germany according to the Nazis…? I felt this increasingly the longer I lived in Russia. Every visit to fascist countries and the long “tour of tyrannies” that I undertook after I left Russia, deepened that feeling. The “coming struggle” — and it is not coming, it is already here — is not between communism and fascism. It is the struggle for the moral and ethical ideals which have been renounced by both of these movements….
I left Russia and Europe convinced that the immediate task — for those who have the urge to participate consciously in the historical processes of their lifetime — is to defend the basic concepts of freedom, humaneness, intellectual integrity, respect for life.
Eugene Lyons referred to philosophies before the First World War that spoke of freedom, happiness, and respect and security for individual human beings. That world was, to a great extent, the product of the classical-liberal ideas of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, ideas that had transformed Western society into one of greater personal liberty, increasing prosperity, and relatively limited government constrained by constitutions that in principle, if not always in practice, declared that government should be the servant and not the master of human beings who possessed individual rights.
From liberty to totalitarianism
Another America journalist who spent 1922 to 1934 in the Soviet Union reporting for the Christian Science Monitor was William Henry Chamberlin (1897–1969). He, too, had gone to Russia with hopes for the socialist experiment and left strongly anti-communist and anti-totalitarian. Like Lyons, Chamberlin left Moscow and spent time reporting in Nazi Germany.
In Collectivism: A False Utopia (1937), Chamberlin contrasted that older classical-liberal world before 1914 and the new collectivist world of communism, fascism, and Nazism that was enveloping Europe in the 1930s:
Before the [First] World War it would have seemed banal and superfluous to make out a case for human liberty, as far as North America and the greater part of Europe were concerned. Such things as regular elections, freedom of press and speech, security against arbitrary arrest, torture, and execution, were taken for granted in almost all leading countries.
People could travel freely in foreign lands without worrying overmuch about passports and were not liable to be arrested by the police of one insolvent country if they failed to declare a few bills of the currency of its equally insolvent neighbor at the border. Concentration camps for political recalcitrants, and the wholesale conscription of forced labor as a means of getting public works done was unknown….
The revolutions of the twentieth century, unlike those of the eighteenth and nineteenth, have led to the contraction, not to the expansion, of freedom. The two main governmental philosophies which have emerged since the war, fascism and communism, are based, in practice, on the most rigid regimentation of the individual.
The premises behind totalitarianism are still present.
But, wait! We have left those extreme forms of totalitarian tyranny long behind us, have we not? The Italian fascist and the German Nazi regimes were brought down in the devastating destruction of the Second World War in 1945. And after decades of seeming to be winning the Cold War, the Soviet Union imploded owing to its political corruption and economic stagnation, along with its ideological bankruptcy in 1991.
Yes, the government of China still wraps itself in the Marxist rhetoric that was first imposed on the Chinese people with the victory of Mao Zedong and his communist armies in 1949. And there are those residues of communism in Cuba, North Korea, Nicaragua, and Venezuela. Surely, however, the ideas behind these past and present regimes are a spent force.
Unfortunately, that is not the case. We have been seeing the same philosophical premises at work here in the United States for a century now. Its modern origins can be traced to the Progressive Era in the early decades of the twentieth century. But its far more direct appearance occurred with the coming of the New Deal with the Franklin Roosevelt administration in the 1930s.
It is interesting to note that Lyons tells us near the end of Assignment in Utopia that when he arrived back in the United States in April 1934 the country was very different from the one he left several years earlier. He entered “an America of the New Deal, N.R.A. industrial codes, brain trusts, legal liquor … [and] the state’s obligation to feed, clothe, and house its population was no longer disputed.” He went on:
But the differences were microscopic when measured on the scale of social and moral distances separating our life from life in [Nazi] Germany or [Soviet] Russia. The talk of New Deal regimentation sounded absurd against my experience of totalitarian practices…. I now found myself angered by glib and offhand denunciations of American democracy by [“leftist” and socialist-leaning] people who could not even imagine what total annihilation of democratic processes and civil rights meant…. And I was shocked by the cavalier fashion in which certain Americans seemed ready to trade in these hard-won rights for a mess of slogans. They needed to be reminded, I felt, that these liberties, for all their limitations and blemishes, were wrenched from unwilling masters and are treasures to be guarded.
The stark contrast between the comprehensive and centralized command-and-control regimes that Lyons witnessed in Stalin’s Russia and Hitler’s Germany, on the one hand, and the far less dominating presence of Roosevelt’s New Deal, on the other, over American life, made him reluctant to say that there was any fully one-to-one comparison of what he saw in Europe with what was occurring in the United States in 1934.
Nullifying the individual in service to a higher collectivist cause
Yet in hindsight the similarities were clearly evident if one stepped back just a little bit to see the family resemblances. The key, let me suggest, was among the tragic aspects of European society that Lyons had pointed out: the “nullification” of the individual, with a reduced place and space for the individual liberty and rights of each and every human being.
Once the focus is taken away from the individual person, and instead attention is given to a greater end or cause — “the nation,” a “master race,” a “social class,” the “common good,” or “the general welfare” — the way is made for the abuse and misuse of individual persons who fail to conform to the blueprints and dictates of those in political authority who assert insight on how all “should be made to right” for a better and more beautiful future for the collective as a whole.
The New Deal abridged the personal freedom and private property rights of the American citizenry. Private enterprises under the National Recovery Administration (NRA) compulsory regulatory codes were told what to produce, how much to produce, to whom to sell, and at what prices they might sell their output, as well as what to pay those who supplied the needed inputs for the functioning of their businesses. The same heavy-handed central planning was imposed on American farming under the Agricultural Adjustment Act (AAA), with commands over the types and quantities of crops to be grown and the kinds of livestock that might be raised and supplied to the market, and the prices at which their produce and animal products might be sold.
For the nearly three years that the NRA and AAA codes and commands were in effect, until the U.S. Supreme Court declared that version of American economic fascism to be unconstitutional, the citizens of the United States were invited to be police informers to report on businesses not complying with the imposed price, wage, and production controls; in principle, that was not much different from those who surreptitiously supplied information in Soviet Russia to the NKVD or to the Gestapo in Nazi Germany, with often disastrous if not lethal consequences for those they denounced. American businessmen were not threatened with concentration camps or slave labor in Siberia, but there were legal financial penalties to be faced and possible jail time.
Desensitizing people to the loss of liberty
What was significant in this admittedly far milder version of a planned economy was the grow-
ing desensitizing to government abridgement of people’s liberty and property. There was now the explicit and constant presumption that it was the duty and responsibility of the government to intervene into the market affairs of ordinary citizens. It was increasingly taken for granted that government had the right and responsibility to restrict or prohibit those voluntary trades and associations that in an earlier era were considered the natural and sovereign activities for individual persons to enter into without worrying that political power would preempt their own decisions and peaceful interactions with others.
When the twentieth century began there were very few in America who considered it the role and responsibility of government to guarantee jobs, supply subsidized housing, set wages and prices, or redistribute income and wealth on the basis of a political paternalism ensuring a more “just” income equality among the people in the country.
Today, how many Americans ever think about ending or even just radically reducing any such interventionist-welfare state programs? Answer: virtually none; advocates for real human liberty are very, very few and far between. And private property rights? They practically do not exist, if one means by economic liberty an unrestricted right to buy and use and sell private property as desired, on the basis of voluntary, honest, and peaceful consent.
A few months ago, a YouTube video showed a young woman being arrested, handcuffed, and dragged away from an open-air grandstand at some school sports event where fans were “distanced” from each other. What was her “crime”? She was not wearing a facemask.
What was the reaction of the other spectators also sitting on the bleachers as she shouted her innocence of not having done anything wrong and asking for help? Nothing. Just quiet, passive indifference to what was happening to the young lady. And seemingly everyone was focused, instead, on the players and the play on the field.
In Nazi Germany, people looked away or cheered when Jews were beaten up on the street or were rounded up and sent off to concentration and death camps. In the Soviet Union, people would quietly sit in their apartments or verbally support the secret police when some neighbor was arrested and removed from his dwelling, usually in the middle of the night never to be seen again.
Victor Klemperer (1881–1960), in his diary, I Will Bear Witness (1999), documented his virtually daily observations and experiences during the entire Nazi period in Germany, including the war years. He recounted that after Jews such as he had been required to always wear a yellow Star of David on their jackets whenever outside of where they lived, he was walking home one day when a German woman, who was a total stranger, whispered to him as they closely passed each other on the street, “I am sorry.”
On the YouTube video of the young lady being forcefully removed at a sporting event, not only did everyone else sitting there just ignore what was happening to her, no one seemed to object or say he was sorry. This is not to equate removing someone from an American sporting event in 2020 for not wearing a face mask with the humiliation, abuse, and brutality that German Jews suffered at the hands of the Nazis in the 1930s. But it says something about the indifference and disregard for another person’s freedom in contemporary America, I would suggest.
Jealous for your own liberty and that of others
When the British laissez-faire liberal Herbert Spencer (1820–1903) was on a lecture tour in the United States in 1882, he said to an American newsman, “The fact is, that free institutions can be properly worked only by men each of whom is jealous of his own rights and is also sympathetically jealous of the rights of others — will neither himself aggress on his neighbors, in small things or great, nor tolerate aggression on them by others.”
In the 1880s, many British and Americans would have agreed with Spencer, even though they may not have always fully or consistently practiced it, since already in the United States, for instance, the federal and state governments bestowed favors and privileges on some at others’ expense. But many at that time would have said, no doubt, that they shared the idea and the sentiment in Herbert Spencer’s words, even if they did not always practice it in their own lives.
This individualist conception of liberty seems to be understood and believed in by fewer and fewer people every year in the United States, and certainly by even fewer in most other parts of the world. The only aroused excitement, apparently, is for collective or tribal group “rights” based on gender, race, or social class, which in reality are “entitlement” privileges that can be given to some only by burdening others to provide the income and wealth to supply them, along with the regulations and restrictions so that some may get what they might not be freely given or earn in a free society.
All of this opens the door to the totalitarian trends so visible in American society currently, especially among the cancel culture and identity-politics warriors with their ideological certainty and self-righteous determination to destroy property, burn down neighborhoods, and beat up and even kill gender, race, and class “enemies.”
I have written a number of times against pessimism among friends of freedom, regardless of how far gone and hopeless current political circumstances seem to be. The fact is, trends that seemed to be irreversible have been halted or have been reversed in history, and that includes our own times.
What is needed, however, is the character, confidence, and courage to defend liberty in all its facets: political, economic, and social. Otherwise, the idea and ideal of American liberty might very well be lost.
This article was originally published in the December 2020 edition of Future of Freedom.