The First World War and the Great Depression were, I would suggest, the major events that have shaped most of the political, social, and economic trends for more than a century. The Great War, as it used to be called, undermined the generally “classical” liberal world that prevailed, at least in much of Western and Central Europe and North America before 1914.
Not that that world before then was some pristine reflection of the laissez-faire ideal of fully recognized and protected individual liberty, radically free markets, with strictly limited government assigned to only protect people’s right to their respective life, liberty, and honestly acquired property. In many instances, very far from it. By the benchmarks of the world before the heyday of classical-liberal ideas and policies in the middle of the nineteenth century, however, the Western world practiced a high degree of freedom. That period also stands out on the same basis in comparison to the rise of modern collectivism in the decades after the First World War in the twentieth century.
A classical liberal world of individual rights and liberty
After all, basic civil liberties of freedom of speech and the press, of religion, of peaceful assembly, and legal security of one’s person and property, were more or less widely accepted as the norm and ideal on the basis of which any breeches of them were evaluated and criticized. Compared to the mercantilist economic restrictions and controls of the eighteenth century, much of the “civilized world” had moved to a recognition of and respect for widely unregulated freedom of private enterprise and international trade.
Certainly, by the 1860s and 1870s, in much of Europe and North America, the practice of relatively free markets at home and aboard was taken as the normative standard from which actual government economic policies were being increasingly judged.
Political freedom in the sense of expanded voting franchises were also increasingly taken for granted. A free man, it was argued, should have a say in the selection and appointment of those who are to hold positions of political authority for stipulated periods of time in the government. The nineteenth-century classical liberals frequently warned of the uncertainties and dangers from a growing and unrestricted system of political democracy.
For this reason, they usually argued for constitutions based on social tradition or in a written form. They would clearly define and delineate what liberties belonged to each and every free citizen that even majorities should not have the power to restrain or abolish through the coercive powers of government.
A world of wide liberty overturned by the First World War
The British historian A.J.P. Taylor, no doubt with a degree of exaggeration, explained in his English History, 1914-1945 (1965):
Until August 1914, a sensible, law-abiding Englishmen could pass through life and hardly notice the existence of the state, beyond the post office and the policeman. He could live where he liked and as he liked. He had no official number or identity card. He could travel abroad or leave his country forever without a passport or any sort of official permission. He could exchange his money for any other currency without restriction or limit. He could buy goods from any country in the world on the same terms as he bought goods at home. For that matter, a foreigner could spend his life in this country without permit and without informing the police. Unlike the countries on the European continent, the state did not require it citizens to perform military service…. Substantial householders were occasionally called for jury service. Otherwise, only those helped the state who wished to do so.
Taylor did point out that already before the First World War, the British government did impose a variety of regulations for purposes of food and health safety, legislated mandatory public education on the young, instituted a number of rules on hours and work conditions in the labor market, and was beginning to implement features of what later became the British welfare state. “Still, broadly speaking, the state acted only to help those who could not help themselves,” he stated. “It left the adult citizen alone.”
War resulted in regimentation and collectivism
In other words, before 1914, a resident of Great Britain could live out his life and pretty much be respected (to use Herbert Spencer’s happy phrase) in his “right to ignore the state.” This all changed with the coming of the Great War. Said Taylor:
The mass of the people became, for the first time, active citizens. Their lives were shaped by orders from above; they were required to serve the state instead of pursuing exclusively their own affairs. Five million men entered the armed forces, many of them (though a minority) under compulsion. The Englishman’s food was limited, and its quality changed, by government order. His freedom of movement was restricted; his conditions of work prescribed. Some industries were reduced or closed, others artificially fostered. The publication of news was fettered. Street lights were dimmed.
The sacred freedom of drinking was tampered with; licensed hours were cut down, and the beer watered by order. The very time on the clocks were changed. From 1916 onwards, every Englishman got up an hour earlier in summer than he would otherwise have done, thanks to an act of parliament. The state established a hold over its citizens which, though relaxed in peacetime, was never to be removed and which the Second World War was again to increase. The history of the English state and the English people merged for the first time.
I have used A.J.P. Taylor’s description of this transformation in Great Britain with the coming of the First World War. Similar accounts easily could be given about all of the belligerent countries and governments, including the United States under Woodrow Wilson after America’s entry into the conflict in April 1917. But since Great Britain was considered the model country in the nineteenth century for advocating and widely implementing many facets of the classical-liberal ideal, highlighting how the conflict changed that country helps to bring out the impact of war collectivism on the Western world in general.
FDR and the New Deal “nationalized” the American people
The world has not been the same since the experience and policies of the First World War. But what made the turn toward political, economic, and social collectivism a seemingly permanent trend for the remainder of these last one hundred years was the Great Depression and the coming of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. America, too, imposed a regimented economy during its short participation in the Great War, with government production planning, wage and price controls, restrictions on freedom of speech and the press, imprisonment of critics of the war, and increased centralization of power in Washington, D.C.
These governmental policies of war planning and central control in 1917 and 1918 became the backdrop to the mindset and the policies introduced by Franklin Delano Roosevelt starting in 1933 with the implementation of his New Deal. Sociologist and historian Robert Nisbet explained this well and clearly in his book The Present Age (1988):
[FDR] had served Wilson as assistant secretary of the navy in World War I, and had been thrilled by Wilson personally and by certain aspects of the War State. It is interesting to speculate on what form of American response to the depression of the 1930s would or might have taken had it not been for the legacy of government planning and regimentation left by the First World War….
The response made by FDR and his chief aides … was simply a revival of structures and relationships which had characterized the Wilson War State. With altered names, many of the same production, labor, banking, and agricultural boards of World War I were simply dusted off, as it were, and with new polish set once again before the American people. This time the enemy was not Germany or any foreign power but the Depression; this did not, however, prevent Roosevelt from literally declaring war on it and likening himself and his associates to a “trained and loyal army willing to sacrifice for the good of a common discipline.”
American industry was conscripted into government mandated cartels as part of the National Industrial Recovery Administration (NRIA), which set prices, wages, and production targets; American farmers were placed under
the command of the government through the Agricultural Adjustment Administration (AAA), with its power to determine crop sizes, animal herds, and the prices of all that was supplied by the farming community. Grandiose public works projects of road building, dam construction, regional electrical programs (TVA), and huge budget deficits and central bank money creation were used to “stimulate” economy-wide demand and artificially push up prices, profits, and employments. The welfare state was planted with government mandated Social Security and healthcare programs, along with public-housing projects, and unemployment insurance. Plus, the Roosevelt administration used a host of propaganda campaigns, such as the Blue Eagle, to rally the people to loyally accept and obey this new central planning role of government.
Collectivism came to America and people passively followed
Individuals, communities, and states were all submerged within and aggregated into nationalized tasks under government direction. This aspect to the nature and legacy of the New Deal was also emphasized by Robert Nisbet:
The New Deal is a great watershed not only in twentieth-century American history but in our entire national history. In it the mesmerizing idea of a national community — an idea that had been in the air since the Progressive era … had come into full but brief existence in 1917 under the stimulus of war — was now at long last to be initiated in peacetime as a measure to combat the evils of capitalism and its “economic royalists”….
[FDR] once explained the New Deal’s ‘drastic changes in the methods and forms of the functions of government’ by noting that “we have been extending to our national life the old principle of the local community”…. Without doubt the idea of national community burns brightly in the American consciousness at the present time. Initiated by President Roosevelt, the idea has been nourished, watered, and tended in one degree or other by each succeeding president … the national state, the centralized, collectivized, and bureaucratized national state….”
The significance of this political and economic transformation was understood by some at the time. For instance, the noted American journalist Walter Lippmann emphasized that what was happening in the United States was not policies for a temporary emergency, but, as he said in the pages of the June 1935 issue of Yale Review, the establishment of a “Permanent New Deal.” In fact, said Lippmann, it was initiated by Republican President Herbert Hoover, with the coming of the Great Depression in the autumn of 1929 and was simply magnified and intensified with FDR’s New Deal planning, regulating, and redistributing policies beginning in 1933.
The policy initiated by President Hoover in the autumn of 1929 was something utterly unprecedented in American history…. It was Mr. Hoover who abandoned the principles of laissez faire in relation to the business cycle, established the conviction that prosperity and depression could be publicly controlled by political action, and drove out of the public consciousness the old idea that depressions must be overcome by private adjustment….
Only those who have forgotten the inclusive and persistent experimentation before March 1933, can, I think, fail to see that most of [FDR’s] recovery program is an evolution from its predecessor’s program; and that there is a continuity of principle; and that both programs are derived from the unprecedented doctrine that the government is charged with responsibility for the successful operation of the economic order and the maintenance of a satisfactory standard of life for all classes of the nation….
Did any previous American president suppose that it was his duty to tell farmers and businessmen and bankers, debtors and creditors, employers and employees, governors and mayors, what to do in order to restore prosperity, or that he had a right to draw upon all the powers of government and the resources of the nation?
What most surprised Lippman was the massive increase in the size and scope of government in the United States. “Yet when the change occurred, there was almost no comment,” he wrote. Hardly anyone raised his voice in challenge on the ground of the individualistic tradition or the accepted limitations of the federal power.
There were voices, in fact, who raised questions and criticisms, especially following the further concentration of federal control and planning after FDR took office in 1933. Nonetheless most Americans and almost all of the policy and press media pundits either acquiesced or strongly endorsed the president’s near dictatorial hand with the fascist-like economic planning institutions of the early New Deal.
Acceptance of presidential discretion in going to war
The same pattern of acceptance of centralized power and decision-making grew out of the Second World War. Public sentiment was strongly for keeping the United States out of the wars in Europe and Asia before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. When Roosevelt ran for his unprecedented third term as president in 1940, he had to loudly and repeatedly assure the American voters that he would do all in his power to keep the U.S. neutral and out of the war. He lied.
Of course, almost all historians now admit and detail the various ways FDR aggressively did all in his implicit authority to plan for and get the United States into the war against Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. The fact that Roosevelt violated or at least skirted laws passed by Congress and sometimes earlier signed by him to restrict America being dragged into foreign conflicts, and that he went far beyond his traditional constitutional prerogatives in pushing for war is not even considered an important historical event anymore.
It is now presumed that for all intents and purposes, if a president considers some foreign conflict to be some way “vital” to American interests or concerning “humanitarian” matters that “American cannot ignore,” then he has fairly wide discretion to enter such a conflict in some way, shape, or form. Only later is he obligated to officially and fully inform Congress and arrange for needed appropriations to fund the foreign intervention.
Rules for presidential war-making — limit the American deaths
The only thing that seems important in an era of instantaneous media coverage of anything, anywhere in the world, is to not seem to be putting American military lives into too serious a harm’s way. The war in Vietnam brought forth a huge amount of resistance from the American public. They pushed back, not simply because many Americans couldn’t understand the reasons or rationales for the war, but because so many of the hundreds of thousands of U.S. military personnel who were sent to Southeast Asia had been drafted into a conflict that those young men and their families did not want them to die for. And you saw all the gruesome details every day on the evening news.
After fighting for 20 years in Afghanistan and over a decade in Iraq, U.S. presidents have learned that they can fight long wars at their own discretion, at large financial costs, and with little public uproar, as long as they do it with a volunteer military and minimize the number of American deaths. And they certainly can’t have too many of those casualties shown on television.
Modern technology helps with that. Drone warfare makes it relatively easy for the president of the United States to order attacks on human targets virtually anywhere around the globe and not risk a single American life. In the process, he can kill people in another country without even having to inform the government of that country what the United States is doing within their borders. This enables presidents to initiate wars that are worth killing for but not dying for, in terms of limiting domestic criticism or opposition from American voters.
COVID-19 and Big Brother equals tyranny
Enter COVID-19. In response to the feared number of possible cases and deaths from the coronavirus that were bandied about in the beginning months of 2020, governments around the world, including that of the United States, and most especially the state governments through most parts of the United States, instituted draconian measures. The American people were commanded and ordered to stop almost everything they were doing — don’t produce anything but what the political authorities declare to be “essential” items; do not go to work, except in those industries considered essential by politicians and their “experts”; stay at home, and only go outside for “essential” shopping for food or medical supplies; shut down your “non-essential” retail business of practically every type; and wear that mask and stay six feet away from others.
Many “essential” and “non-essential” goods, not surprisingly, disappeared from retail stores, with panic buying setting in. Governments instituted or threatened price controls to prevent “price gouging” at a time of “national crisis,” which, of course, only exacerbated the short supplies and the desperate search for everyday items by consumers.
Output fell, unemployment rose, people’s incomes dramatically went down or went to zero. The first truly American government-made and mandated economic collapse impacted the entire country. As like during the Great Depression, most Americans silently, passively, and obediently followed what the government told them to do. The increasing pockets of resistance or opposition to these near totalitarian policies are viewed by those in political power and in most of the media as “kooks” and ideological “extremists” not willing to “follow the science.”
The danger is that the precedent has now been made. Every future declared health crisis can become a new reason and rationale to impose lockdowns and shutdowns, order everyone to wear a mask and stay “x” number of feet away from those around you, command people to stop working and stay at home, and justify dictating where, what, and when private enterprises may produce and sell, and at what prices.
What friends of freedom must do
So, what is to be done? For friends of freedom, I would suggest the following.
First, know some of the history of how and why the Leviathan appeared and grew to such a monstrous size in comparison to before the First World War. It is important to be able to explain to and assure people that there is “another way” other than political paternalism and planning. And however imperfectly, it existed before World War I and brought great prosperity and wellbeing to hundreds of millions of people.
Second, uncompromisingly and in a clear and articulate manner learn to make the case for individual liberty and rights, and for why the new tribal political paternalism of identity politics and cancel culture are inconsistent with and a danger to the free society.
Third, do not let those in favor of these various forms of political, economic, and social collectivism to set the terms of the debate. Politely and courteously, but firmly, insist that America does not suffer from “systemic racism” and has historically kept moving in a direction of greater respect and rights for each and every individual. If this march toward liberty has been impeded or side tracked, it is due to the very policies and presumptions of the collectivists in our midst.
And, fourth, do not become despondent or despairing in the face of seemingly “irreversible” increases in political paternalism and planning. The collectivists want it to seem as if they are on the “right side of history,” when in fact theirs is an ideological and political journey backwards to a tribalism and tyranny of centuries gone by. Freedom can win, but it requires dedication, determination, and willingness to fight the good fight, even when the trend seems against liberty.
It all starts with each of us as thinking individuals devoted to freedom. The twenty-first century can showcase a better and more consistent classical liberalism — one that shows how human beings can be free, prosperous, and peaceful. It falls on each of us to do our part.
This article was originally published in the July 2021 edition of Future of Freedom.