Freedom to Choose
FEBRUARY 01, 1977 by MELVIN D. BARGER
Mr. Barger is a corporate public relations executive and writer in Toledo,
Everybody seems to be speaking up for freedom these days. Businessmen give free enterprise talks, college professors have their thing with academic freedom, feminist organizations sponsor the new freedoms for women. Students want more freedom, and so do workers, welfare recipients, soldiers, senior citizens, gay groups, farmers, actors, writers, and so on.
Since freedom has so many advocates, you’d think that we ought to be headed for a new dawn of liberty, with everybody being so free that he has to take on ballast to keep from floating away like a balloon.
Sadly, this is not the case.
Freedom is actually having a rather bad time of it in the world, no matter what part of the globe you’re talking about. We know that there’s precious little freedom in the hardcore Communist countries or the so-called
I am 51 years old, and I started school in a small town in
Betsy was a solid true blue American and she taught that George Washington never told a lie and that he even admitted he had chopped down a cherry tree. She gave us a thorough indoctrination in Americanism. Even in the Depression, we were taught that this was the best place on earth. It was the land of the free. This freedom was defined in simple, everyday terms. Free to vote for candidates of your choice. Free to live where you please. Free to travel. Free to own property. Free to speak your mind. Free to criticize the President or anyone else. Free to go to any church you wanted to.
I’ll admit that all of this was rather simplistic and that American freedom was not available to everybody, even then. We have certainly learned that blacks were not then free, and perhaps Betsy should have told us that George Washington owned several hundred slaves who were not particularly well treated. Nevertheless, Americans have always been proud of their freedom and it is this general commitment to freedom that helps pave the way for its realization in many forms.
In recent years, however, liberty has been lost. It is often hard to say just how liberty is being lost, and we are sometimes beguiled into thinking that it is not being lost at all. A massive, complicated Federal bureaucracy now runs a good deal of the country, but we are told that we chose this system and that all of it is operating in the public interest and for our own good.
Begging the Question
The people who support this massive bureaucratic despotism make short work of arguments about freedom. Their reasoning is tricky and deceptive. Tell them that you’ve lost freedom and you quickly find yourself on the defensive. What freedom are you talking about, they say. The freedom to starve? The freedom of the capitalist to exploit the downtrodden worker? The freedom of the seller to use fraud and misrepresentation? Implicit in these questions is the belief that traditional American freedom never worked very well and that individuals always act irresponsibly and destructively when left to themselves.
Now I believe that an honest study of American business and social history will prove that individuals show far greater capacity to solve social problems and make general progress when left alone than when controlled by government. In fact, it almost seems to me that governments have been the principal obstacle to progress and always become reactionary. But that’s not what’s being taught in our schools or proclaimed by our thoughtful leaders. There’s great faith in the ability of government to solve problems, despite the dismal record to the contrary. And I’m afraid the record will have to worsen before the true believers finally abandon their faith in government, if they ever do.
Freedom of Choice
In the meantime, I think we ought to take a hard look at what’s happened to our freedom of choice. This freedom to choose was the basic right that Americans always prized so highly. It was the simple freedom that my early teacher Betsy always loved to talk about. It was synonymous with Americanism and symbolized what we wanted for the whole world. But the sad truth is that this freedom to choose has been crowded out and is dying of neglect. It gets lip service, but not the support it needs for survival.
Yet, at hardly any time has an elected leader or even a bureaucrat ever had the gall to express directly a contempt for the individual’s freedom of choice. They show amazing skill in sidestepping the implications of their own actions. Their attacks and controls and regulations are always directed at unpopular organizations and institutions or prominent scapegoats, never at the individual who is called the "average person." Nevertheless, it is the average person whose freedom of choice is under attack. Until this fact becomes generally understood, the freedom to choose will continue to wither away.
Where do we stand as of this moment? Well, it is always difficult to spell out just how freedom of choice has been curtailed, because different people see it in different ways. I think it’s a fair statement to say, however, that most middle income people have lost any power of choice over the 40 to 45 per cent of income that goes to support government at all levels. You receive services in return for this, so it is not all loss in an economic sense. But you have no personal control over the quality and type of these services. You are compelled to pay for them and to take the services given to you, regardless of quality. If you become dissatisfied with any of these services or spending programs, you have little power to modify them or to eliminate them altogether. Even Congress does not have such power, practically speaking, because there is very little government spending that is discretionary. Most government spending is well-established and is jealously guarded by special interest groups. Nobody has the power to reduce it, and that is a fact of life. Nor can I conceive of any administration or important political party that could reduce it.
Forms of Intervention
It is very easy to belabor this argument, but I think you could go on to discover that freedom of choice has been curtailed by other actions. Regulatory agencies have greatly restricted freedom of choice without noticeably benefiting the consumer. Public education is now largely controlled by administrators and professional educators rather than the people who pay for the services. There is a proliferation of agencies and programs and actions which purport to solve various social problems while really doing little more than spending money and employing armies of bureaucrats. All of this seems to mushroom no matter who is in office and no matter how much it is criticized.
Taken as a whole, this accumulation of government has effectively destroyed the individual’s right to choose or reject the services and controls being offered. This governmental apparatus is not under the control of the public and is only nominally controlled by our elected representatives. It is under the control of people who believe that they know what is best for you. It is managed by people who deeply believe that coercion ought to be used to make you toe the line. They are not evil people, and for the most part they want you to be healthy, well-fed, well-housed, well-educated and culturally uplifted. They are often people who express passionate approval of individual rights and personal dignity. But there is one thing they cannot give—your free choice. They can’t help playing Big Brother and Big Sister. And in order to carry out their missions, they have to demand ever more power over your life. Never for evil purpose, mind you. Their despotism is always for good reasons.
Who Would Control Us?
Is there any way that this despotism can be dethroned and free choice restored? I believe that there is, if enough people have the will and understanding to see that it is done. But it’s important to know that we didn’t arrive at our present condition by chance. Our freedom of choice was bargained away in complicated legislative horse trading over a long period of time, and there are powerful interest groups that would oppose its restoration. They are, in fact, working to impose further controls on us. I will try to point out who they are and to show why it’s in their interest to resist any change.
One of the principal defenders of big government, I’m afraid, is the business community itself. I don’t like to say this, because I have worked for large corporations for 25 years and I am proud of the major accomplishments of American business. I really believe that we are in for very serious trouble if our business system is dismantled and replaced by some of the bizarre schemes now under consideration. American business, for all of its alleged shortcomings, has performed with great skill in identifying and serving its markets, and it worries me that more people do not realize how poorly this job is done under controlled and regimented systems.
But business firms and their managers tend to be specialists. They know their own ground, but they are often naive and self-serving in their dealings with government. I believe that if you assemble any group of company executives in a room, you’ll find one or two who insist that they need government controls or benefits for the well-being of their own company or industry. You’ll find others who have spent their entire careers in regulated industries such as utilities or transportation. Government intervention has become such a part of their business life that they see it as part of the supporting structure rather than as an unnecessary burden. They complain about the evils of too much regulation or interventionism, without ever being willing to battle it openly as a questionable system. They would join with the bureaucrats in opposing any attempt to eliminate regulation, particularly efforts to allow free market pricing or freedom of entry to the market.
We shouldn’t expect business leaders to perform death-defying acts in defending private enterprise. It’s also hard for an executive to take a position that is unpopular in his own company or industry. Nevertheless, the market place and the whole range of free choice could be better defended than it presently is by the business community.
"The New Class"
A second group that will defend the bureaucratic despotism is a body of people which Professor Irving Kristol calls "The New Class." The New Class includes journalists and others in public media, intellectuals and professionals who make their careers in the public sector, teachers, public administrators, and a broad group of people who have an established faith in interventionist politics. They are very anti-business, and they are suspicious of, and hostile to, the market. Professor Kristol says that they are interested in power, a power which in a capitalist society is supposed to reside in a free market. They want that power redistributed to government, where they will then have a major say in how it is exercised and can reshape society more along lines they have chosen.
I think it would be very easy to prove that the New Class has produced the ideas and blueprints for the kinds of interventions we have today. Although business and the free market have always had defenders, the larger part of what has been published, broadcast, and taught during the past several decades has usually been more or less anti-business. Quite often, I’m sorry to say, some of this has been false and misleading. Even when true, it has been presented by prejudiced witnesses. So business, and the market, never really get a fair hearing.
The third major group that would oppose any significant change in the system are the beneficiaries of what Professor Daniel Bell calls "the revolution of rising entitlements." You could also call it the egalitarian movement, which is already in a very mature phase. Egalitarianism is a social movement that is supposed to make everybody equal. It is irresistible if you accept the egalitarians’ major premise that government has the right and the duty to make everybody equal in all things. The problem with egalitarianism is not that it offers everybody equal opportunity. The real problem is that it is now going much further and offering equality of result, a much different thing.
Egalitarianism is an intensely seductive philosophy because it has many faces of appeal. For the down-and-outer—the person at the bottom of the heap—it is the hope that things will be better, that he will gain parity with his more fortunate neighbor. For the humanitarian, it is the hope that the world’s resources will be applied to basic human needs rather than what he sees as frivolous things. For the planner, egalitarianism is a rationale that will give him the power he craves, for who can resist a bid for power by a person who strives only to do good.
Once opened, however, the issue of egalitarianism has become a Pandora’s Box. Professor Bell has correctly stated that the demands of egalitarians may endanger our political system. What this revolution amounts to is that there’s apparently nothing in it that places reasonable limits on the demands special interest groups are making from government. Groups, in their striving for benefits and privilege, apparently know only one word, and that is more.
Professor Bell refers to an observation by Professor Charles Lindblom of Yale: "One of the great puzzles of twentieth-century history is that masses of voters in essentially free democratic societies do not use their votes to achieve a significantly more equal distribution of income and wealth, as well as many of the other values to which men aspire . . . What needs explaining is why they do not try."
In this regard, there’s a second quotation that’s been used frequently during the past 15 years. It’s supposed to be a statement by an English historian a couple of hundred years ago, but I rather think it’s anonymous and of very recent origin. Here is the quotation:
A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until the voters discover that they can vote themselves largesse from the public treasury. From that moment on, the majority always votes for the candidate promising the most benefits from the public treasury with the result that democracy always collapses over loose fiscal policy, always to be followed by a dictatorship.
Mushrooming egalitarianism, or the revolution of rising entitlements, is proof that voters have learned how to vote themselves benefits from the public treasury. There’s reason to believe that national elections are really becoming vast and brawling auctions, with well-organized pressure groups manipulating candidates in their own behalf. The candidates not only promise more to certain groups in order to get elected; they also must view as sacred any legislative or spending program already in force.
Millions of voters already have a vested interest in these benefit programs and will resist any reduction or modification in them. Since a candidate usually loses support by cutting spending and gains votes by spending or by imposing more controls, there’s little hope for anything but steady increases in government on the road ahead.
Finally, there’s the influence of the bureaucracy itself, which closely parallels the influence of the egalitarians. All of the government employees at every level are also voters and, as more people are added to public payrolls, there is increased political support for public spending programs which will benefit these same public employee voters. Federal and state legislators are already feeling considerable heat from organizations of teachers and postal workers, and it’s safe to say that other groups will not be far behind. In effect, this helps make Federal bureaucracy self-perpetuating when the people who benefit financially from it are able to choose the policy-makers who control their salaries and benefits.
I think you’ll have to agree that all of the four groups I’ve mentioned represent a great deal of political influence, and some of us will find that our own fingers have been in the government pie. Our companies have government contracts or subsidies, for example, or we have some other special interest in legislation or benefits in our own behalf. And that’s one of the reasons why it will be difficult to find a way out of this bureaucratic despotism that is running our lives in so many ways.
But the outlook is not hopeless. It is probable that the problem will deepen in the months and years ahead. Nevertheless, there are countervailing forces and ideas that will either modify the problem or remove it altogether.
I believe that the thing to watch is never the prevailing power structures but the ideas that are dominant in most people’s minds, and particularly in younger people who will soon be in positions of influence. Ideas Have Consequences was the title of an important book along these lines and the same rule was expressed thousands of years ago: As people think, so do they become. What this means is that the ideas people choose will determine the shape of their government and the future course of their country’s history. This is true for both good and bad ideas.
What ideas will help us? Well, here in the
The problem with bureaucratic despotism, however, is that it violates this fundamental belief in fair play and often offends our common sense. It promises much but delivers very little, and this fact is coming home to many people. It is surprising and encouraging to find large numbers of people complaining about the unfairness and stupidity of the bureaucracy. So there is actually a great deal more public support than we realize for freedom of choice, not only in ideas but in all things that matter.
I also believe that there’s more support than we realize for the free market and common sense in our economic affairs. And this is where business firms have a great story to tell and one that they understand very well. Despite the sins that are laid at the door of business, most companies owe their vitality and growth to their success in a market place in which the consumer has been able to exercise freedom of choice. We are still competing, we are still bidding against many others for the customer’s favor. This freedom of choice among goods and services clearly can be seen in every supermarket and shopping center in the land, and it has raised up a standard that government can’t hope to match. Even our young people, who are supposed to be anti-business, are very much aware of this fact.
A Reaction to Force
We can expect the bureaucracy itself to serve as a great force in building a desire for free choices. You don’t have to be another Jeane Dixon to predict that bureaucracy and government will become more oppressive and heavy-handed in the months and years ahead; it can’t be otherwise. In government, the principle seems to be that nothing fails like success. The bureaucrats have been highly successful in expanding their spheres of power and their reasons for doing so have been plausible and convincing. They have not been able to perform up to expectations, however, and this failure is angering and alienating large groups of people. In the end, we will come to see that we have also lost free choice and that to seek its restoration is our right and our duty.
I don’t know how free choice will or can be restored, but I am confident that it will happen if enough people believe in it and demand it. Since free choice has been woven into the very fabric of our society and has a long history, it cannot be permanently destroyed. It will either have its way or we will have to stop describing ourselves as a free people. I am confident it will have its way.