»  National Review Online

December 21st, 2002

  On Liberty


I just got through reading Fred Reed's column "The Suicide of Marlboro Man," which in turn takes its inspiration from G. Gordon Liddy's book of conservative nostalgia When I was a Kid, This Was a Free Country. (So this column is conservative commentary inspired by conservative commentary on a book by a conservative commentator. Cut me some slack here, it's close to Christmas.) The ineffable* Fred** shares Liddy's nostalgia for the old American independence and self-sufficiency, but argues that the erosion and eventual loss of that way of life was inevitable. I hope Fred won't mind if I quote his last paragraph in full. He has a way with words that I admire, but cannot hope to emulate. Here you go.

I'd like to live again in Mr. Liddy's world. Unfortunately it is self-eliminating. Freedom is in the long run inconsistent with freedom, because it is inevitably exercised in ways that engender control. As a species, we just can't keep our pants up. But it was nice for a while.

This got me thinking about liberty, nostalgia, and the rugged independence of our forefathers. Unfortunately my own forefathers were mainly English coal miners, not yeoman farmers in the hills of West Virginia, so I'm coming at the topic from a different angle. I hope I can shed some light on these matters none the less.

So far as liberty is concerned, my own thoughts always start from the opening page of A.J.P. Taylor's English History, 1914-1945 (one of the volumes in the Oxford History of England). I'm going to give you the whole page, I can't bear to précis or cut it. Here you go (with British spellings left unchanged):

Until August 1914 a sensible, law-abiding Englishman 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 for ever 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 of the European continent, the state did not require its citizens to perform military service. An Englishman could enlist, if he chose, in the regular army, the navy, or the territorials. He could also ignore, if he chose, the demands of national defence. Substantial householders were occasionally called on for jury service. Otherwise, only those helped the state who wished to do so. The Englishman paid taxes on a modest scale: nearly £200 million in 1913-14, or rather less than 8 percent of the national income. The state intervened to prevent the citizen from eating adulterated food or contracting certain infectious diseases. It imposed safety rules in factories, and prevented women, and adult males in some industries, from working excessive hours. The state saw to it that children received education up to the age of 13. Since 1 January 1909, it provided a meagre pension for the needy over the age of 70. Since 1911, it helped to insure certain classes of workers against sickness and unemployment. This tendency towards more state action was increasing. Expenditure on the social services had roughly doubled since the Liberals took office in 1905. Still, broadly speaking, the state acted only to help those who could not help themselves. It left the adult citizen alone.

At a first reading, this sounds idyllic — a libertarian's dream. Now look a little closer. As it happens, I grew up among English people, the oldest of whom were working and raising families at the time Taylor is writing about, the years just before World War I (or, as they always said, "The Great War"). They had a lot of social-conservative attitudes, and in that respect were at one with G. Gordon Liddy. In their young days, they would tell you, the beer was stronger, people looked out for each other, the country wasn't full of foreigners, kids knew better than to talk back to their elders, murderers were tried, convicted, and hanged, all within a month, and so on. And yet, these oldsters were all socialists. On matters of public policy, you couldn't give them enough government. Nationalization of the mines? State-provided old age pensions? National disability insurance? Public housing? Free education? The National Health Service? Bring it on.

If you probed for the origins of their socialistic inclinations, the horror stories would come out. There was that poor widow down the lane, eight kids to feed and not a pair of shoes between them. There was old Sam Matthews, who died in agony because he couldn't afford an operation. There was cousin Alfred, the cleverest and best-read man you every met, who had to leave school at 14 and go "down the pit" (i.e. into coal-mining work) because there was no money in the family. There were the hazards of work, pit fires for example: "Relays of men crawling behind iron trucks, each man dashing forward to put a shovelful of burning coal into the truck, then going behind the relay again — all for ninepence a truck." (From some notes I took once at a family gathering. Ninepence was fifteen U.S. cents in 1914.) Worst of all, there was the workhouse — a word spoken with such horror and dread that I can still feel its chill myself. The workhouse was the only form of welfare in Victorian and (though, as Taylor points out, to a lessening degree) Edwardian England — a communal house, run by the parish, where the destitute got minimal shelter and food in return for menial work.

The historians — including Taylor, by the way, who was himself a socialist — confirm that the libertarian idyll was in fact seething with discontent and injustice. The best book on this is George Dangerfield's classic The Strange Death of Liberal England, still in print today after 66 years. Dangerfield shows the dark underside of the Edwardian endless summer. Labor unions, beginning to flex their muscles, were pushing for widespread strikes and nationalization of industry. Women's suffrage campaigners were burning down country houses, chaining themselves to public railings, throwing themselves under racehorses. Ireland was a festering sore, one mass of her people demanding Home Rule, another mass resisting, the British Army in mutiny when ordered to fire on loyal Ulstermen. The constitution itself — yes, Britain has a constitution, they have just never bothered to write it down — had become unstable, with the constitutional monarch being obliged to exercise his powers for reform.

Some parallel points can no doubt be made about the old, freer America that G. Gordon Liddy remembers so fondly. "Yeoman farmer" sounds very nice and Jeffersonian, until you think of Ethan Frome or the Joads. Liberty is a wonderful thing, but like every other good, it has a price, and the price for many people was too high. They traded in their liberty for some security, creating the America and the Britain we have today. Nobody twisted their arms about it. They accepted the trade gladly, willingly — indeed, many of them fought bravely, and some even died, so that the trade could be accomplished. The older, freer way of things was, as Fred puts it so succinctly, "self-eliminating."

Hence the America of today, with its stupendous levels of taxation, vast government bureaucracies of breathtaking arrogance and — as we have seen all too clearly these past few months — incompetence***, industry-killing tort lawyers and property-snatching regulators, Saudi-Arabianization of the workforce (God forbid any American-born American should wash cars, clean toilets, shine shoes or pick fruit — we have 13 million illegal immigrants to take care of that stuff****) and thought-choking government-patrolled codes of "diversity,"  "sensitivity,"  and "correctness." We have reached the stage foreseen by De Tocqueville, in which "the supreme power … covers the surface of society with a net-work of small complicated rules, minute and uniform … it does not tyrannize, but it compresses, enervates, extinguishes, and stupefies a people, till each nation is reduced to be nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd."  And aside from a few grumblers like Fred Reed and G. Gordon Liddy, we are fine with it.

Fred leaves off right there: "As a species, we just can't keep our pants up. But it was nice for a while." So far I am with him. What about the future, though? Ours is not the kind of society that can stand still. Will liberty go on diminishing, till bio-technology and neuroscience land us in the state-controlled infantile hedonism of Brave New World? (A few weeks ago, re-reading Huxley's masterpiece, I suddenly realized why I find the TV show Friends so unwatchable. Phoebe, Chandler & Co. would be model citizens in the World State of the year 632 After Ford.) Or is there a road back to a re-birth of liberty? And if there is such a road, do we want to take it?

That last question is the tough one, of course. I am sure, at any rate, that there is a road back. The evils of the past were real enough, but the twentieth century's favorite remedy for them, enhanced governmental authority, passed the point of diminishing returns long before that century reached its close. In many cases, it proved no remedy at all, and sometimes it actually made things worse. Readers of Charles Murray's book on libertarianism will recall the "trend line test." What you do is, quantify some social phenomenon — poverty, educational attainment, traffic accidents, infant mortality — and draw a graph of its incidence across several decades. Then, by staring hard at the graph, you try to spot where government intervention kicked in. Usually you can't.

This is all contrary to "official" history, of course. On race relations, for example, the "official" version says that the nation was riddled with gross discrimination against black Americans until the 1964 Civil Rights Act broke the power of legalized racism. In fact, segregation and its associated evils were in steady decline from the end of WW2, and the decline was getting steeper in the late 1950s. The civil rights movement and consequent legislation did not drive the process, they followed it, or at most were just a part of it — epiphenomena, not First Causes. Bull Connor, Lester Maddox and George Wallace were not really fighting the government, they were fighting irresistible social change, and would have lost anyway.

The twentieth century was full of processes like this. It is a cliché in political science that revolutions hardly ever happen when things are at their worst, they happen when things are starting to look up. So it has been with the encroachments of government into our lives. Something undesirable is identified; agitation is raised; legislation is enacted … And yet, while this is going on — even before it started, probably — the trend line has already tipped downward, and we should have ended up in the same place whether or not that $40 billion government bureaucracy had been created, whether or not that raft of new laws had been passed, whether or not we had surrendered up another slice of our liberty.

The yeoman farmer, as a significant component of our society, has gone for good. So, thank goodness, has shoveling burning coal in relays at ninepence a truck. Rolling back the great twentieth-century advances of government does not mean a return to the workhouse, Jim Crow, disenfranchisement of women, and brutalizing work conditions. Technological advance, more sophisticated financial systems, and changes of consciousness will spare us those things, and would most likely have spared us them anyway, without any need for the galloping socialism of these past few decades. We can live, and live well, with a lot more liberty in our lives and a lot less government, if we want to. The issue that will define this new century is: Do we want to?

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* Forgive me if I have mentioned this before, but one of my all-time favorite cryptic-crossword clues from the London Times was as follows: "No four-letter word could describe it." Answer: INEFFABLE.

** By the way, I notice that when I am reading Fred's columns online, my mouse pointer is set to the little hourglass symbol the whole time. Presumably this means that Fred is surreptitiously loading up my hard drive with "cookies," comprised, I imagine, of gun-cleaning tips, cop stories, recipes for coon pie, sales promotions on scuba gear, and clip art of raven-haired Mexican beauties.

*** The incompetence goes all the way through, even to the most basic and long-established kinds of services. I recently asked the post office to check whether a certain letter, which I had sent by certified mail, had been delivered. I filled out a form and supplied the original certification stub, from which, they assured me, they would be able to track the letter. Six weeks later my form came back to me, stamped NO RECORD. If there is no record of the &*!!#@/?%*# thing, why did I pay to have it certified?

**** I mow my own lawn. This puts me in a fast-dwindling minority of Long Islanders. Most of my neighbors have their garden work done by teams of Aztecs.