Swimming Against the Tide by Clarence B. Carson
The Memoirs and Selected Writings of a Longtime Freeman Contributor
APRIL 01, 1999 by NORMAN S. REAM
American Textbook Committee • 1998 • 562 pages • $29.95
Norman Ream, a long-time Freeman contributor, is a retired minister living in Estes Park, Colorado.
No one who has regularly, or even periodically, read The Freeman for the past 40 years will be unacquainted with Clarence B. Carson. In this book, subtitled “Memoirs and Selected Writings,” one can discern how Carson’s philosophical position has developed through the years, from the time he departed his birthplace in Alabama, through his teaching career, and eventually to his connection with the Foundation for Economic Education.
The title of this volume is eminently appropriate, for all through those years he certainly was swimming against the tide of popular and academic opinion. Clarence Carson is a pithy opponent of all your standard left-wing fads and fantasies, but also finds himself in disagreement with some of his allies. His economic and political philosophy is firmly grounded in the moral and ethical principles the author derives from his Christian faith. Because of that faith, Carson takes issue with Ludwig von Mises and other heroes of the free-market movement for their purely secular defenses of private property and the market order. Agree or disagree, Carson stands his ground.
The first section of the book is purely autobiographical and may be a bit too detailed for the average reader. Born and educated in the South, with advanced degrees from Vanderbilt and Auburn, Carson spent the major period of his life teaching in several colleges. During his early education he had moved toward what is today called “liberalism,” but by the time he earned his Ph.D., his doctoral dissertation was titled “Embattled Individualists: The Defense of the Idea of Individualism, 1890–1930.”
Although Carson was a college professor by vocation, he was mainly interested in writing and has published over 19 books, many of them designed to be textbooks. Three of his books, Basic Economics, Basic Communism, and Basic American Government have been main selections of the Conservative Book Club. His six-volume A Basic History of the United States is certainly his magnum opus; it is an excellent survey of American history without, of course, any hint of the common leftist biases.
Carson began contributing to The Freeman in 1961. Forty of his articles became a book entitled The World in the Grip of an Idea. The author describes it as follows:
I believed that in my studies and writing I had reached a plateau above and beyond the ideologies of the 19th century which had fueled the conflicts of this century. I saw, or believed I saw, the underlying similarities and failings of these ideologies. I saw those things about Communism, Fascism and gradualist socialism. But I believed I saw the role and weaknesses of corporate capitalism as well. . . . What all these ideologies had in common was the justification of the use and abuse of organizations to control men’s minds and actions to their own ends. Every one of these collectivisms fails to grasp the fact of the superiority of the individual in all constructive activity and fails to understand that collectives are only superior in the use of destructive force on individuals.
Most of Carson’s wide-ranging memoir is taken up with stories, essays, articles, philosophical musings, economic ruminations, and more. A brief sampling: “The Constitution of Paper Money,” “The Dilemmas of Public Education,” and “Beyond the Christmas Story.”
The author has strong opinions and deep convictions. As noted, he objected to Mises’s secularism. Yet perhaps surprisingly, he includes a fine memorial to Ayn Rand.
The book has its weaknesses. The autobiographical section was not adequately edited and contains numerous errors of punctuation and sentence structure. Also, the volume would have benefited from an index. Still, Freeman readers old and new will find a lot of provocative and enjoyable writing in this book.