Not Just for the 19th Century

By: Nelson Hultberg | Tue, Feb 7, 2006
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Not Just for the 19th Century

A most profound philosophical truth has been thrown down the Orwellian memory hole over the past 100 years. We no longer teach our children that the classical liberal heritage of the Founders was noble and good. Yet it was this intellectual heritage of laissez-faire, in which all men were held to be self-responsible beings possessed of equal rights, that formed the cornerstones of America. This is what gave to our country its grand idealism. This is what created the mindset for early Americans to build their new nation into Earth's Eldorado.

Throughout those sprawling colonial years to the trying times of the Revolution, and beyond to the boom towns of the West, the railroad age, Edison, Carnegie, and Henry Ford, a new way of life (never before experienced in history) took shape. The dominant figures that built America were neither privileged lords, nor leveling bureaucrats. They were dynamic entrepreneurs, patriots, pioneers, scientists, inventors -- bold, ingenious men and women willing to rise or fall on their own merits and the strength of their faith in a just Providence.

They fought a war with a ragged little army against a mighty empire, and won. They wrote a Constitution for all the ages, and crossed a vast and death dealing frontier with nothing but covered wagons and their own personal stamina. New inventions and miracles of production and an astonishing wealth, that staid men of Europe never dreamed possible, sprang from the fervor of their unbounded ambition. They turned useless prairies into golden wheat fields, their wagons into powerful locomotives, and a savage wilderness into a network of commerce and trade. Their tiny republic grew to be a colossus in face of a scornful Europe still mired in the Old World that couldn't conceive of why men were meant for liberty. Law was crowned as King, and all men were held to be equal before it. Government conveyed privilege vanished, and men pursued a life centered upon the individual for the first time in recorded history.

The Philosophy of Individualism

It was thus that a whole new philosophy came to be through the first stirrings of these brave men and women. It was the philosophy of individualism, and it stood in direct contrast to the accepted beliefs of Europe, which taught men to seek security and subordinate themselves always to the dictates of the monarch, or the feudal lords, or whoever had the power of the state behind them. This new American philosophy declared that men were their own rulers, that they were endowed by their Creator with free will, that they were responsible for their own lives and possessed the power within them to overcome any obstacle. It was a philosophy that exploded across a whole continent with the most dazzling burst of hope and optimism mankind had ever seen. It transformed the world and turned life into an evolving, mobile force for good instead of the stagnant, autocratic ritual it had been for so much of human history.

For 125 years, Americans rigorously adhered to this remarkable idea of individualism, and as a result, their prosperity grew to unparalleled heights. Life was meaningful. Peace was the rule, men of good will abounded; and most important of all, the free creativity of sovereign beings was everywhere.

With the advent of the 20th century, however, the alien doctrines of Marxist thought began to invade our land under the subtle guise of "social progressivism." The grand principles of the Founding Fathers that gave birth to our nation were redefined in academia as the "elitist schemes of aristocratic reactionaries." Clever sophists and blind ideologues merged to strip the truths of 1776 of their moral-philosophical base. Men and women were communalized into chess pieces to be maneuvered by social engineers. Government bureaucracies -- the scourge of rebel colonists 150 years prior -- were suddenly idealized into modern saviors to solve the great dilemmas of humankind. Billions of dollars of personal wealth were confiscated from the entrepreneurial class to feed burgeoning bureaucratic appetites.

As a result, our federal government now controls and manipulates our businesses, our schools, our banks, our unions, our welfare, our health care, and our retirement. Life has become less and less meaningful, peace has become the exception, men of good will have shrunk from sight, and that ever so vital sovereignty of being has faded in face of the spreading ministrations of the Welfare State.

"The individual means less and less, mass and collectivity more and more -- and so the net of servitude which hems in personal development becomes ever denser, more closely meshed, and inescapable," wrote Wilhelm Ropke 45 years ago in his great classic, A Humane Economy. [1] He saw all too clearly the horrible changes that were sweeping over the Western world as a result of collectivism and bureaucratism.

Can Freedom Survive?

The fundamental question we face now is: Can the philosophy of individualism, inaugurated by Jefferson, Smith and Locke, survive? Or is it to wither away under the ever swelling shadow of a monster government and the womb to tomb security its social engineers are forcing upon us? Are we as a people to just passively accept being humble wards of the state and underlings to Washington's feudal lords who direct its encroachments, or do we still possess enough of that spirit that founded America to overthrow such trespassings upon the basic rights of man? Do we, as human beings, still value freedom; or is it really state omnipresence that we seek down deep in some craven corner of our souls?

Can we, as Americans, learn from the irrefutable lessons of Rome and other nations of history who succumbed to the arrogance of centralized statism and arbitrary law? Or does history have to repeat itself a few more times before we realize that reality cannot be cheated, that its laws must be obeyed in order for life to be good; that bread does not come from stones, nor wealth from paper dollars; that government's power is either limited or it is tyranny; and that a nation of spendthrifts is doomed to destruction.

Can we not see that the troubles we suffer from today are rooted in our abandonment of the individualist creed that originally built this nation? Are our memories so short, our craving for the unearned so strong, our obsession with security so great that we no longer wish to face life on the strengths of our own merits?

When the Founding Fathers of America gathered in Philadelphia in 1787 to establish their new country, they were seeking a thorough reduction of the coercive powers of the state not just for the 19th century, but for all of time. They knew that cultural conditions may change, that progress may rework the world, but that the basic relationship of man and his government was never to change. They knew there was but one kind of government that was right for human civilization -- a strictly limited government.

The Constitutional Republic they formed was not based upon glib expediency and the lure of welfare entitlements, but upon certain self-evident principles that are eternal. The Founders understood these self-evident truths very well:

  1. If justice is to prevail, then people must be left alone to peacefully live according to the dictates of their own dreams.

  2. If men are to remain independent, then they must rise or fall according to their own capabilities.

  3. If freedom is to be our goal, then all men must possess the right to free will, free association, and free trade.

  4. And most important of all, if men are to be equal, then they must all possess equal fundamental rights. This was the meaning of America: equality of rights under the law, not equality of results in the achievements of life.

Yet as significant as these great truths are, they are seldom discussed today in our chic and learned establishment circles. They are being evaded by all those in positions of political power, and until they are again debated openly and honestly, the malevolent growth of government bureaucracy will not be stopped.

Our leaders must begin to confront the real problem in America -- that of the government's unlawful erosion of our basic rights. The issue is not how much should Washington tax the people for welfare, social security, and economic stimulus packages -- but does the state have the right at all to tax any man against his will for such grandiose national goals? The necessity is not to control rising prices, but to stop the government from inflating the money supply, which is the cause of rising prices. The need is not to keep modern day Machiavellians out of politics, but to keep politics out of free enterprise.

Above all else, the main dilemma confronting America is this: Are men to be allowed to build their lives on their own according to objective law, or is the state going to plan their lives for them according to arbitrary dictates? Until this question is faced, all discussion about freedom and justice is a sham.

Is Collectivism Dead?

With the dramatic collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the fading of Communist Party control over Eastern Europe, the ideology of socialism was administered, in many Western eyes, a final death blow. But look closer, for the coffin is not being nailed shut. Like some grotesque alien from outer space that assumes human shape, the monster inside is merely reforming its basic goals into a more salable ideological framework.

Incredibly the purveyors of forced collectivity on the political left in Europe and America still cling to their gargoyle dream -- the grand merger of Eastern socialism and Western capitalism into an authoritarian World Welfare State where equality of conditions for everyone is implemented. Still they proclaim that mankind must continue on to build the collectivist ideal; it just has to be along more "democratic lines." Still they proclaim that free markets and coercive bureaucracies must merge, that with more time, more taxation, and more regulation, humanity will one day realize the collectivist paradise.

What is needed in place of Marxist socialism, they inform us, is the more moderate democratic socialism of Sweden. But to consider individualist capitalism is impossible. Men must be taught to relinquish the direction of their lives to professional bureaucrats and academic elites who are so much more "qualified" to determine how we are to live. When all this has come to pass, mankind will surely have found the egalitarian kingdom.

Of course, the collectivists who dominate our schools and media today do not incorporate such clear-cut language as to their intentions. Collectivists use a form of Orwellian newspeak that makes their despotic goals appear to be a "new kind of freedom." They always paint their tyranny in the hues of "community and security." They always talk about "the people versus the powerful" and what government will give to you if only you support it with steadily more of your earnings. But we are never to dwell on the fact that the most powerful danger to human lives throughout history has always been government. We are never to dwell on the fact that the price paid for government guaranteed security is government imposed slavery.

Thus, even in face of collectivism's worldwide squalor and despair, most pundits of the West still believe the socialist ideological corpse retains some semblance of idealism, needing only "theoretical adjustments" in order to be workable. Such is the miasma of our age that has conned the entirety of the world's people into kneeling at the altar of Big Brother and renouncing large chunks of the self-reliance they once possessed.

The Rise of "Creative Government"

The erudite scholars and editorialists who dominate today's university and media scene and so glibly report that we must re-evaluate and modify the antiquated principles of individualism, that we must strive to make our government "more creative" in the solving of modern day problems, are so consumed with myopic scientism that they can no longer comprehend the living of life in heroic form.

When you start "re-evaluating individualism," you are questioning the moral legitimacy of freedom itself and the natural right of all men to personally direct the advancement of their own lives. It is like asking if we, as living creatures, really need sunlight's photosynthetic process or the biophysical powers of air and water. It is tampering with the most elemental of life's requisites. To say we must "legislatively modify individualism" is to say we must forcefully modify humans, which is to make men into mechanized cogs. To propose that we develop a "more creative government" is to propose the unleashing of those dark forces of man's nature that lurk beneath the chains of our Constitution. Such semantic snake oil games are the province of history's cerebral charlatans sneaking out once again from under the rocks of prudence and principle to desecrate the pursuit of high level life.

The only kind of intellect that could allow such concepts as "creative government" and the "modification of individualism" to find favor in his brain is the man who does not see other men as actual entities that think, or strive, or desire with that fervency of hope that is God given. He does not consider other men as real live people with definable rights, but as anonymous lumps of matter to be schooled, worked, fed, clothed and manipulated in some sociological chess game hatched and implemented from Washington to further advance the Great Centralized Planned Society.

This is why America is careening down the path to political absolutism. The perpetuation of the Great Centralized Planned Society has transcended the rights of individual men. Blind, arrogant intellectuals dominating our schools, our churches, our media, and our government -- captive of a false economics and consumed by visions of material bliss without toil -- are attempting to "modify" the gallant philosophy that built this country with a hideous, smothering collectivism. The goal of these intellectuals is not to establish freedom and independence as their clever newspeak declares, but to bring about a mass, standardized, state-dictated security in which centralized government runs every important aspect of our lives while consuming two-thirds of our earnings. And too many Americans are tolerating such a goal placidly, almost enjoyably.

The worshipers of "creative government" that rule America today (in the legislatures, in the media, and in the universities) are lost forever to the siren call of the mega-state and the dehumanizing bureaucracies it generates -- unable to conceive of life in any other way and unwilling to make the necessary reversal of thought that preservation of freedom now demands. They don't even realize what "freedom" is and why it is so important, both psychologically and economically, for men to be allowed to make their own choices in the furtherance of their lives.

Such blind apparatchiks for Big Government march imperviously on, still praising the all-pervasive statism of the New Deal, only crafting their message around "better" government programs instead of "more" government programs. Still they steadfastly profess that Washington must expand the Great Centralized Planned Society, that Congress must control all the facets of our lives and whatever else is desired by the new god Demos (about which Tocqueville so presciently warned us).

They can't possibly abandon their governmental obsessions even in face of the "new despotism" they are bringing down upon us, for they would then have to admit they've lived their lives on a huge paradigmatic fallacy -- and few men have the courage to do that.

The Fierce Battle Ahead

But for all those men and women who still value the resplendent legacy that our Founders bestowed upon us, there is a great battle lying ahead. It is a fight that will be rife with danger and devastating setbacks. Powerful political and financial forces are allied against the restoration of freedom to America. If liberty's days appear dark right now, however, and the fight seems hopeless, remember that all things of great value require a fierce and protracted struggle, that most often right when events are at their worst is the time to press on the hardest.

Is this not our heritage as a country and a people? To persevere at all costs? Our forefathers came to these shores in rickety ships with nothing but heaps of hopeful dreams. They weathered the freezing snows of Valley Forge and fought for eight long years to form their Republic. They built the quality of their lives and their communities to unheard of levels under constant threat of extinction from perilous dangers all around them. And now in our present crisis, the least we can do is live up to the treasured heritage they have passed on to us.

Let it not be said that it is the nature of an American to accept a life of servitude. Let it rather be said that there is too much fire deep in his soul, that what this country was meant to be can still be won, that the future belongs to those who are willing to stand on their own and walk through this world's enigma as independent people.

Surely there lies more mettle in the American psyche than that which our present day demonstrates. We cannot truly wish to hold as our ideal this ghastly egalitarianism that drives men to political subservience and a desecration of all that is sublime? Are we expected to take pride in the bleak servility of a demeaning state welfarism and shameful collaboration with collectivist authoritarians that are propelling humanity toward Huxley's Brave New World? Is this the final denouement of the once noble American experiment? Or do we still possess enough inner fiber to face the great moral crisis of our age and set about restoring this nation upon the sustenance of our forefathers -- faith in Providence, right reason, and the willingness to fight for a society in which liberty truly prevails?

In 1944, Nobel Laureate Friedrich Hayek wrote: "Though we neither can wish nor possess the power to go back to the reality of the nineteenth century, we have the opportunity to realize its ideals -- and they were not mean. We have little right to feel in this respect superior to our grandfathers; and we should never forget that it is we, the twentieth century, and not they, who have made a mess of things. If they had not yet fully learned what was necessary to create the world they wanted, the experience we have since gained ought to have equipped us better for the task. If in the first attempt to create a world of free men we have failed, we must try again. The guiding principle that a policy of freedom for the individual is the only truly progressive policy remains as true today as it was in the nineteenth century." [2]

In all of history, there has been only one society that has come close to a morally proper form of government whereby men are their own rulers. And that society was the first 125 years of America from 1789 to 1914. Let us restore and perfect that ideal; and with it, develop once again the nobility, the wisdom and the personal greatness that sustained it.

The fate of all mankind lies with what we as Americans make of our country. If we continue down the path to collectivism, then so also will the world, for if America herself loses faith in a free society, how possibly could the rest of humanity keep such a faith? Under the pressure of collectivism's insidious lure, the lights of freedom would gradually be extinguished everywhere, and another Dark Age would descend upon the spirit that was ours. But if we regain the strength to once again want to live in freedom, so also will the rest of the world, and slowly step by step, we could restore the grandeur and boundless optimism that once were the hallmarks of the West. Life would again be heroic, and men could stand tall in the knowledge that they are fulfilling their proper destiny.

Life is meant for so much more than the base idolatries that the modern state worshipers teach. We will never find solace in our obsessions with the womb of state welfarism and its confiscated security. We will find it only in pursuit of the wellspring of truth that transcends both the insular self and egalitarian lust, a truth that can only be realized by respecting the legacy of our Founders. That legacy was meant not just for the 19th century. It was meant for all of time.

1. Wilhelm Ropke, A Humane Economy (Chicago: Henry Regnery, 1960), p. 17.
2. Friedrich A. Hayek, The Road to Serfdom (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1944), p.240. Emphasis added.


Author: Nelson Hultberg

Nelson Hultberg
Americans for a Free Republic

Nelson Hultberg

Nelson Hultberg is a freelance writer in Dallas, Texas and the Executive Director of Americans for a Free Republic www His articles have appeared in such publications as The Dallas Morning News, Insight, The Freeman, Liberty, and The Social Critic, as well as numerous Internet sites. He is the author of Why We Must Abolish The Income Tax And The IRS (1997) and Breaking the Demopublican Monopoly(2004). He is presently finishing a book on political-economic philosophy entitled The Golden Mean: The Case for Libertarian Politics and Conservative Values.

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