Freedom IS Responsibility
SEPTEMBER 01, 1969 by BERTEL SPARKS
Dr. Sparks is Professor of Law at Duke University School of Law, Durham, North Carolina.
In his inaugural address on January 20, 1969, President Richard M. Nixon declared, "The essence of freedom is that each of us shares in the shaping of his own destiny." The fact that the statement received so little comment from the press and other news media is an indication of how insensitive the media have become to their own terminology. Apparently it was felt that there was nothing unusual about the statement made. But if the words are measured against the positions taken by the media with a high degree of consistency for at least the past thirty-six years, they are revolutionary.
The revolutionary character of President Nixon’s statement is best illustrated by contrasting it with a definition of freedom enunciated in another inaugural address delivered by another president twenty-eight years earlier. On that occasion some citizens were thrilled and others were frightened as they heard their president divide freedom into four categories. Within a short time and with the enthusiastic cooperation of the press and the academic community, the "Four Freedoms" achieved a status almost on a par with Holy Writ. They are still eulogized from the lecture platforms of the public schools and are still looked upon by many as at least "quasi sacred." But regardless of how solemn we become as we recite the catechism of freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom from want, and freedom from fear, it is hard to avoid such questions as whether or not these goals represent a foundation upon which a nation can build and whether or not they are aims worthy of a free people.
Kept by a Master
It might be well for those who have been taught that satisfaction of the four freedoms is enough to usher in the millennium to ask themselves whether or not there is a fattening hog in the country that doesn’t already enjoy every one of them. No one interferes with the hog’s grunting or his worship if he is inclined to either worship or grunt. He is provided with a comfortable place in which to live and with plenty of food to satisfy his needs. He is well protected from danger and has no occasion to defend himself against the wild animals of a hostile forest. Is that enough for man? Is it enough to satisfy the longing of the human spirit? Is it a sound basis for building that human dignity that separates man from the lower animal kingdom?
Our new president asserted, "The essence of freedom is that each of us shares in the shaping of his own destiny." That is something the fattening hog cannot do. And it is something a human being might not be able to do even if all the four freedoms so passionately idealized by our earlier president are fully provided for. If sharing in the shaping of your own destiny means anything, it means having a freedom of your own person. It means a freedom to move peacefully from place to place. It means a freedom to enjoy the fruits of your own body and that means a freedom to enjoy the product of your own labor. It means freedom to enjoy, use, and dispose of the things for which you have worked and which you have accumulated by the sweat of your brow. These are all things the fattening hog does not have even though the four freedoms of an earlier day are supplied in abundance. But the truly significant thing is that the fattening hog could not have the four freedoms he does enjoy unless he also had a master, that is to say, unless he had an owner who was providing them. Neither can any government provide its citizens with those four freedoms unless that government is also a master with power to seize the material necessities from somewhere else. And from where and from whom is government to make such a seizure? The answer should be clear.
But the two statements thus separated by a span of twenty-eight years are brought into even sharper contrast when it is noted that the statement of the "Four Freedoms" says nothing about responsibility while the statement from our current president is concerned entirely with responsibility. To say that one is free to shape his own destiny is to assume that one is responsible for his own destiny. And therein lies a distinction that cannot be explained away as just a difference in semantics.
Too much of what has been written about freedom and responsibility has been written on the assumption that the two are separate although closely related entities and that if one has freedom he should somehow be a responsible citizen of the society where that freedom is enjoyed. To state the proposition in such terms is to misrepresent the essence of a free society. Freedom and responsibility are not separate entities; freedom is responsibility. One can be free to share in the shaping of his own destiny only to the extent to which he is responsible for his own destiny. And he cannot be free to shape his own destiny except to the extent to which he abstains from interfering with the destiny of another.
Recognizing this identity of freedom with responsibility means getting down to the bedrock of what it is to be free. And to be really free has little relevance to the romantic freedom some have imagined as existing in primitive man. It is probably true that primitive man roamed the forest gathering his own figs and capturing his own game wherever and whenever he chose. But under these circumstances freedom was quite circumscribed. Primitive man was not free because after he had gathered his figs or captured his game he had no assurance that he would get to eat them before they were snatched from him by an intruder. This uncertainty made it imprudent for him to gather more than could be consumed on the spot. He was not free until he had organized himself into a state upon which he conferred power to prevent theft, robbery, murder, and similar acts.
It should be noted that even this limited organization called for a surrender of what man might previously have viewed as part of his freedom. In order for the system to work the state had to be given the exclusive power to use force. What had been each individual’s right and responsibility to provide for his own self-defense became an organized self-defense. And therein lies the essence of the true state. The state is organized self-defense and any time it becomes anything more than that it becomes a threat to freedom and a threat to man’s dignity as a man. But so long as it is confined within its proper boundaries it serves the uplifting purpose of setting the individual man free to gather more food than can be presently consumed and it gives him the assurance that the surplus will be protected for subsequent use or for trade. With that freedom primitive man began to contemplate and to make tools, thereby increasing his material efficiency and expanding his productive capacity. He was on his way up!
How Power Grows
But the state did such a good job of keeping the peace and the advantages of this organized self-defense became so obvious that other temptations began to present themselves. Each time man was faced with an emergency in his personal life he was tempted to surrender additional responsibilities to the state. Each time he did so he soon learned that with each surrender of a responsibility he also surrendered a freedom. To that extent he found himself turning away from his march upward as a man and toward the level of the fattening hog. He was turning away from responsibility for his own choices and his own destiny. He was responding to the invitation to enjoy the four freedoms and abandon his dignity as a human being. Upon discovering his predicament man has usually recoiled and has sought to regain that which has been lost. But once a thing has been surrendered to the state, the only agency clothed with power to use force, it can rarely ever be recovered without a struggle, and the struggle is usually a violent one. Unfortunately, as soon as the battle is won and the weight of its responsibility is felt, the temptation to retreat is again presented.
Probably the most dramatic as well as the most widely known illustration of this fight for freedom followed by displeasure with its consequences occurred when a mass of foreigners were being held as slaves in Egypt. They had been reduced to the fattening-hog stage of serving their masters and somehow they were not enjoying it. Along came a leader named Moses who led a rebellion. The rebellion was a success and within a short time the now ex-slaves were out on their own. They were no longer the property of their masters. They were free. But as free men they had no master who could be relied upon to supply their material wants. They became distressed and threatened a rebellion against their new leader. They began to say they had rather be slaves of the Egyptians than to be faced with the necessity of planning for themselves. They were distressed to learn that freedom to shape their own destiny meant nothing more and nothing less than responsibility for their own destiny.
Early American Experiences—Plymouth and Jamestown
The experience of the Egyptian slaves has been repeated with depressing and monotonous regularity throughout human history. Men offer their lives to become free only to become frightened as soon as the prize is obtained. It would not be profitable to pile up a multiplicity of illustrations here but the experience of the early European settlers who arrived in America cannot be ignored. These settlers came to America to escape oppression of one kind or another in the old country. They arrived on rocky, inhospitable shores where there were no houses, no factories, no drug stores, and not even any neon signs to brighten the horizon. It’ was an underdeveloped country.
The first group in Virginia in 1607 and the first group at Plymouth in 1620 were in a similar predicament and they both went through the same process. When supplies became scarce they decided to build a common storehouse, put all the food there, and let some bureaucrat dole it out as needed. The result is a familiar story, though present-day social planners would like to forget it. The food shortage became more acute. Starvation increased. Few houses were built. There was much illness. When supplies reached the desperation point, both colonies, without any collaboration on the subject, took similar steps. They both abandoned their economic planning business and told each man that he would have to shift for himself, that he would have to shape his own destiny. Prosperity was on its way immediately.
The Plymouth and Jamestown experiences have been repeated over and over in both governments and individual lives. Cynics continue to say, "Yes, but the situation has changed." They seem to assume that the fact of change repudiates every lesson the human race has learned thus far. Of course the situation has changed and, so long as even the rudimentary elements of a free society are preserved, the situation will continue to change. The more relevant question is, how has it changed? If a planned economy wouldn’t work in either Jamestown or Plymouth for a group so small that every person present was known by name to every other person, that should be all the more reason why it can’t work for 200 million people in an industralized society.
Positive vs. Negative Aspects of Freedom
The philosophy expressed by the president inaugurated in 1969 might be distinguished from that of the president of twenty-eight years earlier by saying it is just a difference in prepositions. President Nixon said the essence of freedom is that each of us shares in the shaping of his own destiny. Expressed in a slightly different way, that would mean each one is free to participate in shaping his own destiny. Each one is free to work for himself, to venture into the unknown and the unexplored, and to risk everything on his own personal judgment. But the definition offered twenty-eight years earlier was peppered with negative prepositions. It was freedom from fear and freedom from want. Can it be truthfully said that the current crop of "beatniks," "hippies," and similar characters is anything other than a generation that has grown up taking the four freedoms seriously? They are crying for freedom from all responsibility, freedom from all restraint. Either their cry must be heard or the philosophy on which it is based must be repudiated.
In a free society men must be free to embark upon their own ventures, free to start new enterprises and search for better ways of doing things. Each one must be free to seek his own goals, not just accept what his government either forces or permits. Wherever that kind of positive freedom has been permitted to flourish the economic well-being of all people, especially those at the lower end of the scale, has always moved steadily upward; and wherever positive freedom has been curtailed, the reverse has been true. That is the kind of freedom that enabled this tract of land known as the United States to emerge from a wilderness to the wealthiest nation on earth within a very few years. And let no one assert that the wealth of the United States is more the result of her natural resources than it is of her love of freedom. Any such assertion would display a total ignorance of both history and geography and would leave unanswered the question why a similar development has not been observed in South America, Africa, or India.
Two specific incidents, one from early America and one from modern America, will suffice to illustrate the operation of positive freedom in the economic realm. The settlers at Jamestown soon discovered that the gold they thought was there was not to be found and that the corn they thought would be the great new agricultural crop actually produced very little in proportion to the work required to grow it. They turned to tobacco but had difficulty selling it to Europeans. Under these conditions a young man named John Rolfe went to work on the problem. He began with tobacco, the one plant that seemed to grow unusually well in Virginia. The taxpayers didn’t provide him with any experiment station nor did he receive any foundation grant. But he went to work on his own responsibility without any assurance that anything would ever come of his efforts. Within a short time he developed a tobacco plant of a lighter color and a finer texture which was found more palatable to Europeans. Within a short time they were buying all the tobacco the settlers of Virginia could produce and were demanding more. Hundreds and even thousands were soon employed in a new industry and some were getting rich. A battle in the continuing war on poverty had been won. And such battles will continue to be won as long as men are left free to fight them. And no battle will even be undertaken when man’s freedom to shape his own destiny, that is, responsibility for his own destiny, is withheld.
Anyone who thinks experiences comparable to that of John Rolfe are necessarily confined to a bygone age and therefore unworkable in the more complex economy of the present might consider the story of a man who will be called Joe. (The name is fictitious but the rest of the story is authentic.) According to reports in the public press, Joe, his wife, and his four children moved into a $15-a-month, two-room shack in 1952. With $600 as his total assets he began experimenting in uranium mining. By 1957 Joe and his wife were living in a large mansion where they were throwing parties with guest lists running upwards of 5,000 names per party. Then by 1969 Joe was on the verge of bankruptcy. But Joe vows he will pay out and that he will again be throwing million-dollar parties. Whether or not he actually achieves his present goal is still uncertain. But whether he succeeds or fails his experience illustrates the story of freedom everywhere in every age. If risks are taken some must fail. If no risk is taken all must remain in poverty. And whatever the outcome in Joe’s present struggle to regain a vanishing fortune, Joe will have experienced the romance and tragedy of being a free man, of making his own choice as to the enterprise he will pursue and the manner in which he will pursue it, and of living by the choices made. No government can give a citizen more.