The Supreme Issue: The Individual Versus the State
MAY 01, 1959 by WILLIAM HENRY CHAMBERLAIN
Mr. Chamberlin is author of the definitive two-volume history of the Russian Revolution and numerous other books and articles on world affairs.
Morally, politically, and economically, the supreme issue of the twentieth century is whether the State is to be the master or the servant of its individual citizens.
It is no accident that freedom of speech usually goes hand in hand with freedom of trade. And those who try to set “human rights” against “property rights” are committing a gross error. It is where there is no security for property that such human rights as freedom of speech and press and guaranties against arbitrary arrest, execution, and slave labor are most notably absent.
When the State goes beyond its proper functions of maintaining law and order at home and providing protection against foreign aggression, and starts to assume the role of a universal provider and regulator, it never knows when to stop. One arrogation of power leads to another, and the planned economy quickly develops into the totalitarian State.
It has been and still is fashionable among the theorists of collectivism, whether of the communist or fascist type, to sneer at liberty and represent freedom as a luxury which only a rich society can afford. But this is contrary to all the teachings of experience, from early historical times to the present day. There was nothing inherently wealthy about the rough pioneer life of early Americans. Americans were not able to “afford” freedom because they were rich. They became relatively prosperous because they were free, because their institutions—at least, until the high-tax Welfare State became the rule at national and state levels—gave maximum scope for the natural human instinct of self-enrichment.
A Century of Progress
A striking proof of the pragmatic value of freedom is the record of the century that elapsed between the end of the Napoleonic Wars and the outbreak of World War I. This was a century when political and economic liberalism (in the old-fashioned sense of that much abused word) marched hand-in-hand. The old fetters which absolute monarchy and feudalism placed on human initiative and enterprise were broken entirely in some countries and very much loosened in others.
And the material results were impressive. There was not a country in the Western world where people were not better fed, better clothed, better schooled, better cared for medically in 1914 than they had been in 1814. This rising standard of living accompanied a very considerable growth of population. The three freedoms of movement that were characteristic of the nineteenth century—freedom for men, goods, and capital to cross frontiers with minimum hindrance—did much to relieve population pressure and to assure the progress of undeveloped parts of the world.
Political institutions varied from country to country. But the trend everywhere was toward more popular participation and consent in the management of public affairs. There were vicissitudes and setbacks, and the swift development of the industrial system created new social problems, along with a vast increase in the wealth of nations. The tragic shots at Serajevo ushered in a new war, bigger and more terrible than those unleashed by the plebeian dictator who harnessed to his war chariot the energies released by the French Revolution; but by and large, the century following the fall of Napoleon was the most progressive in human history.
The progress was evenly distributed all along the line: more people’s participation in government, better assurance of basic human rights (this century witnessed the end of slavery in America, of serfdom in Russia), a much wider spread in education without deterioration in quality, and a tremendous display of creative vitality in literature and music.
The Cross of War
World War I placed a bloody cross on the dream of perpetual progress which many in the
Apart from the direct toll in human lives, the psychological effect of World War I was to smash old political and economic patterns to such a degree as to let down the dykes before the fanatic, the demagogue, the adventurer. It unloosed a revolt against liberty which took two forms. There was the outright dictatorship, most formidably developed in the
The Age of the Welfare State
In countries with an older and stronger tradition of political liberty, representative institutions, and civil rights, this revolt took a different and subtler form in the creation of the so-called Welfare State. As this has developed in
Gone are the days when sturdy Grover Cleveland—rejecting a proposal to provide government compensation for farmers whose crops had been damaged by hail—remarked, in substance, that while the people should support the government, the government should not support the people. Now, it is no exaggeration to say that governments in many fields do undertake to support the people, or certain groups of the people. This task is very expensive, requiring taxation on a scale that formerly would have been considered fantastically impossible. It also necessitates far-reaching controls. One is reminded of Alexis de Tocqueville’s “immense and tutelary power, “which would rob the human race of all initiative and self-reliance, which would labor for their happiness, but choose to be the sole agent and the only arbiter of that happiness, which would “spare them all the care of thinking and all the trouble of living."
In this age of the Welfare State the word liberalism has been distorted out of any recognizable similarity to the ideals of its Founding Fathers. The British Liberal Party, which gave
The “Soviet Experiment"
Gradually the gigantic crimes of Stalinism, the starving of millions of peasants, the slave labor camps, the undiscriminating purges that took the lives of many veteran communists, became better known. Stalin’s pact with Hitler was the final psychological blow to many radicals who had sympathized with the “Soviet experiment.” The color of the beacon light has changed, although it remains false.
Now, especially since the Soviet rulers tried to take the minds of their subjects off the drab and dreary lives which they lead on earth by hurling huge projectiles into the sky, there has been a widespread campaign to frighten us into believing that the Russians will catch us if we don’t watch out and that we must force our rate of industrial growth higher by all possible means, including reckless inflationary spending. What is not realized is that Khrushchev, when he boasts of overtaking
Statistical vs. Physical Output
What Khrushchev and the gloom-and-doom American commentators who take him seriously are doing is to compare the growth rates of full-blown, highly developed
Similar comparisons could be made for housing, plumbing fixtures, and a host of other consumer goods too vast to enumerate. One must also place after Soviet figures of output an indefinite but very substantial discount for defective quality. This point was powerfully brought home to a personal acquaintance, a former journalist who returned to
A survey of a few key points in the Soviet economic system shows that the individual is treated as a ward or serf of the omnipotent State, without any of the guaranties of comfort and well-being which are implicit in a free economy. The Soviet ruble, for instance, is simply funny money outside the Soviet frontier; it has no value in international exchange, and will buy nothing, although there is an official rate of four rubles to the dollar, with foreign tourists, as a special concession, getting ten rubles. Both rates are completely arbitrary and have nothing to do with the real value of the ruble.
Not long ago the Soviet government calmly repudiated its whole internal national debt on the somewhat naive ground that interest payments were getting too heavy. By one stroke of the pen, Soviet citizens were robbed of billions of rubles which might have helped them considerably in their years of retirement. But so complete is the Soviet control of all means of public expression that this act was represented as being “at the desire of the people."
On three occasions the Soviet government has completely wiped out or greatly depreciated the value of its currency. The Revolution did for the Russian ruble what the aftermath of World War I did for the German mark: reduced it to worthless paper. The Soviet government next launched a new currency at the nominal value of the prewar ruble, a little less than two to the dollar. This soon became shaky, and collapsed altogether under the inflationary impact of the First Five Year Plan. The ruble was then assigned the new value of five to the dollar; and the dollar itself during this period had been devalued by 40 per cent. After World War II, the Soviet government carried out another currency slash, issuing a brand new ruble that was forcibly exchanged, in many cases, for ten old ones. In view of what has happened to the currency and to the bonds, incentives to save in
Nor is the individual allowed to buy land or to invest in real property. The Soviet design is to keep him working hard all his life, getting what wages the State, the owner of all sources of employment, may wish to pay and paying prices which the State, the producer of all goods, may wish to charge.
A Modified Form of Slavery
From the cradle to the grave the Soviet citizen is conditioned by propaganda and, through a rigidly authoritarian school system, is assigned or directed or channeled into the work the State thinks he should take up. The horrors of forced labor under Stalin, the worst kind of slavery, have abated. This is not because his successors are more humane than the deceased dictator. But they realize that the former system of overworking and half-starving millions of people in Arctic slave labor camps is too wasteful in manpower for a country that is feeling the effects of tremendous war losses in its present low birth rate. However, large numbers of people, if not actually kept behind barbed wire, are forcibly detained in remote places where they are forced to work at the tasks assigned to them.
It is a great pity and irony that just when the strength of the United States lies in being as different from the Soviet Union as possible, in adhering firmly to the principles of the free market, consumer free choice, maximum opportunity for the individual, there are voices in this country that use a mistaken fear of Soviet economic competition as an argument for driving us further along the path toward economic statism.
Apart from the threat of military attack, which is a question in itself, the only thing we need fear from the Soviet economic pattern is that we should imitate or adopt it, even in part. Only if and as we maintain in our own lives the historic American principles of individualist opportunity in economics and other fields shall we worthily fill our historic destiny as champions of the principle that the State should be the servant of its citizens, not the master of its subjects.