Town Meetings1956 Style
MARCH 01, 1956 by CHARLES WOLFE
Mr. Wolfe is a member of the staff of the Foundation for Economic Education.
Study and discussion groups, conducted by libertarians, provide a vital way to aid the cause of freedom.
This spring, libertarians across the country can obtain the practical aids and counsel that will enable them to set up, in their own communities, what might be termed modern-day Town Meetings—study and discussion groups devoted to a more widespread understanding of individual rights and strictly limited government.
While the Foundation for Economic Education will have no formal organizational association with any such groups, it does have available—to help those who would like either to conduct or to attend these meetings—the following:
1) A newly-reprinted book by James Mussatti, which analyzes the concept of limited government as it first appeared in America and was formalized in the Constitution. This volume has been proved by long experience to be particularly well-suited to such discussion groups.
2) An extensive Study Guide, just completed by Thomas J. Shelly, a FEE Staff Member, which is now incorporated into the book, making it more valuable than ever for discussion groups.
3) Packets of pertinent reference materials, including all those FEE-published articles and pamphlets referred to in the new Study Guide.
4) A multilithed article, free on request, about how to start and conduct such groups, based on the ten-year experience of libertarians on the West Coast.
Also, those who wish to be discussion leaders may write to me, and in some cases I may be able to help locate other like-minded individuals in local areas.
Before going into detail concerning this activity—how it has operated in California, and how it can be started in other parts of the country—I would like to analyze briefly what could be called the evolution of the conscientious libertarian, to see how a study group might fit into his development.
There is one experience which nearly everyone shares upon awakening from the hypnosis of collectivism. Once the trance is shattered, and the victim is aroused from the dream which glorifies American-style socialism, he is suddenly aware of the presence of danger. This presence can be to him an almost living thing—a bleak, spectral form warning that his country has taken the wrong road, and is fast traveling into the starless night of totalitarianism.
Response to danger is often instantaneous, and the recently-alerted citizen may be seized with the compelling desire to awaken others. But, if well-advised, the newly-aroused disciple of freedom will not rush forth to buttonhole the first passerby; he will refuse to commandeer the nearest soapbox, or even the most accessible microphone; and he will not plunge his primary efforts into some “action group” intent merely upon repealing old laws, aborting would-be laws, or making new ones.
Rather, he will recognize that interventionist laws are like limbs of a tree—that clipping at the branches will only prune the main structure and make it grow. This structure will flourish until the tree is chopped down at the roots: the beliefs which are collectivism’s foundations.
The student of liberty will perceive that he must uproot these beliefs in himself, before he can help eradicate them in others. He will see that he himself must grasp in detail the fallacies of socialism and the merits of limited government and the free market—before he is prepared to expound to his fellow men.
So the sincere libertarian sets himself to the challenging task of self-improvement: reading, studying, thinking. Occasionally, he will share his ideas with others—often one at a time, as opportunity appears.
But as he develops, and detects still more clearly the pressing need for America’s politico-economic re-education, he is apt to ask out of the urgencies of his own conscience: “What else can I do? Isn’t there some other way I can be more useful in helping others understand?”
I say: “Yes, I believe there is.”
For some ten years a relatively small band of libertarians in San Francisco has been working with a method which has been tried and found most useful. This method has been employed with approximately equal success in the city and suburbs, by women and men; it has been conducted effectively by persons of varying degrees of education and experience, and has demonstrated its value in making better, more articulate libertarians.
This activity might be viewed as a re-establishment of one of early America’s most colorful and valuable institutions, now virtually extinct—the Town Meeting. Not the Town Meeting which constituted a local legislative or even advisory body, but the kind which assembled simply to discuss and share ideas, as Bragdon and McCutcheon describe it in History of a Free People (Macmillan, 1954):
European travelers in America were amazed to find that political discussions at public inns were joined intelligently by everybody from college-educated gentlemen to stable-boys.
Today, with so many alien notions rampant, such a casually-conducted free-for-all would not serve to promote a free society. So those in San Francisco had to evolve, through experimentation, a kind of study and discussion group which could best advance libertarian ideas.
One thing was immediately apparent: Such groups have to be conducted from a definite perspective—the libertarian outlook—and are not in business to “present both sides.” This means the discussion leader should be a well-rooted libertarian; and he or she ought to make it clear to those who attend that the group exists to encourage a better understanding of a free society. Participants do not have to be libertarians, and many at first may come with considerable reservations about the philosophy of limited government and a free market. But all must acknowledge that the group’s purpose is to elucidate such ideas, and should be receptive enough to be willing to explore these concepts.
It was also obvious to those in San Francisco that it is not enough merely to have “discussions,” without prior preparation. Such meetings easily deteriorate into idle talk. Each discussion period should be preceded by individual study of specifically assigned material.
From the beginning, the Golden Gate groups found this to be one of the most vital questions: What subject matter should be covered? A lesson learned the hard way—generally, people are more interested in current events than in principles; but if there is preoccupation with timely issues before the group has grasped the principles of individual rights and minimum government, discussion is apt to be fruitless.
Writing on this point, one of the San Francisco discussion leaders said:
During a six-month period, when the group stuck to fundamentals, attendance dwindled from about 25 to 10-12 people. When current topics were announced, attendance suddenly increased to 18-20 persons. Those who did not have the background of principles were continually taking the side of the social planners, and could see no wrong in governmental aid and intervention. They glibly stated that what was principle to one individual was not necessarily principle to another.
It was difficult to discuss the subjects without turning the meeting into heated debates. After several such meetings, it was seen that nothing constructive was being accomplished, so the group discontinued current topics and returned to the study and exploration of principles.
What is the best way to present principles? Here is what the San Francisco group found: Its ideal solution was to center study around the Constitution of the United States.
This does not mean preoccupation with the merely technical details of our national charter; it does not imply overlooking such basic issues as rights, morality, and force, nor does it necessarily involve overemphasis on political rather than economic aspects of freedom.
It simply means that experience has shown the Constitution to be uniquely suited as a discussion group focal point, around which basic ideas can be elucidated. Many persons who have at first only moderate libertarian leanings, and little interest in economics, do have a desire to learn more about their nation’s foundational document. Thus a Constitution Study Group can attract a fairly broad audience, and gradually evoke an interest in and understanding of a free economy and a strictly limited, noninterventionist government.
The discussion leader can explain the merits of voluntary transfer of goods and services, unhampered by government interference; and point out that this is possible only when the role of the State is carefully limited and defined in a basic legal document. Then he can observe that the original Constitution, if properly understood and strictly interpreted, is—to a large extent—such a document; although, admittedly, it was the result of some compromises and does allow the federal government certain areas of authority which seem questionable to some thoughtful persons.
During the discussion, it will be seen that the original spirit of the Constitution has been largely lost; and that by means of amendments and misinterpretations, the Constitution has been twisted and bent, thus allowing it to offer ostensible sanction to America’s creeping socialism.
The San Francisco Discussion Leaders always present an introduction to the study of the Constitution. Their foundational convictions might be summed up thus: God has endowed man not only with certain inalienable rights, but with a capacity to discover essential truths and to distinguish right from wrong. If one reasons from moral principle, he will find that actions can be rationally classified as either primarily black or white—that there is no need for an endless scale of grays.
Working from these premises—that man can perceive basic fundamentals and recognize good from bad—they conclude that a neutral point of view on issues is indefensible; and that one must, as soon as he can bring the component elements into focus, take one side or another. A man should have convictions, and act accordingly.
Among the basic truths, they cite these:
1) The individual—not the group—is primal. We should accept the individual as the basic unit of society, and think things out from the basis of what is right for the individual.
2) The Ten Commandments are the foundation of morality. Individual morals are the only morals and apply as directly to millions in societal and political relationships as to two people in a personal relationship.
3) The way to help others is to help them help themselves; we should not do these things for them which relieve them of their own responsibilities, nor should we try to force our ideas upon them.
4) Resorting to moral compromise, compulsion, or sheer expedience is destructive—whether in individual or national life.
5) Government exists only to serve the people, in the sense of securing them in their rights; people do not exist merely to serve the government.
From these precepts the discussion chairmen have gone on to voice the conviction that the U.S. Constitution is based on moral law, and is the finest national charter yet put into practice; and that much of what is wrong in government today is a result of a misconception of this document.
Fortunately, the San Francisco groups early discovered an excellent volume by James Mussatti, a former instructor in history at the University of Southern California. For years, this book, originally titled “Constitutionalism,” was used with great success by the study groups. They found it so valuable that they urged the Foundation for Economic Education to republish it, complete with a FEE-created Study Guide. The Foundation took on the task. Tom Shelly has just finished the Study Guide, which is most comprehensive and provocative, and includes—for each chapter—a detailed topical outline for study, abundant questions on the text, and interesting additional references which further reinforce the book’s libertarian viewpoint.
The new volume, published by D. Van Nostrand Company and also available through the Foundation, is re-titled The Constitution of the United States. Complete with its new built-in Study Guide it runs to 176 pages, and is priced at $2.00 paper-bound and $3.50 clothbound for individual copies. A discount is offered on bulk orders.
Anyone who wants a libertarian insight to our Constitution—and the gradually-unfolding development of the understanding of individual rights and limited government—as seen in the Magna Carta, Petition of Right, and English Bill of Rights; as well as the philosophy of Locke, Montesquieu, and Blackstone—should read this book. It will be especially valuable to those who would like to be discussion chairmen. One participant in the West Coast groups wrote:
Our greatest problem has been to get capable leaders. Therefore, I am very pleased that Mr. Shelly has made a Study Guide for Mr. Mussatti’s book. I feel it will be of great help to a comparatively inexperienced leader.
In addition to the book and Study Guide, the Foundation offers packets of reference material, along with a multilithed explanation, “How To Start anti Conduct Constitution Study Groups.” To obtain the Mussatti book, the packet price list, or the multilithed article, write to” Study Groups, FEE, Irvington-on-Hudson, New York.
Anyone who wonders just how fruitful such an activity can be, should have been with me recently when I talked with about 50 members of a Constitutional Discussion Group in San Francisco. All were libertarians—active, thoughtful, articulate.
Writing me about their experiences with the study groups, members made such comments as these:
I was raised in a family which accepted the Welfare State philosophy. Anyone who presented an argument against social security, federal aid projects, government schools, and the like, I crossed off as selfish and unfeeling. That is, until I started attending the discussion group and began to understand the concept of minimum government and man’s rights with which this country began.
Before joining the Constitution Study Group, we felt that governmental affairs were to be left to the politicians—that we were just “average citizens” too busy with our own activities to concern ourselves with local or federal conditions. Now our thoughts have been awakened, through the Constitution Discussion Group, to the vital importance of all that concerns our government, beginning with the basic principles—especially the rights of the individual.
Through our meetings I have replaced the “divine right of kings” or of the State with the “divine right of the individual.” I have learned that Americans grant government certain responsibilities, but that government—not being an entity—can grant nothing. I have discovered that the best government is the least government—that limitless wonders are achieved when the individual is left to his own enterprise and ingenuity.
At the time I started attending, I would classify myself as an average American, loving my country but confused and disturbed by socialistic trends, yet unable to diagnose them.
Gradually I discovered that the chief aim of the Founding Fathers was the preservation of the sanctity of each individual; and that this liberty could only be maintained by a limited government set up as a republic. I had found a yardstick. As a result, I am no longer confused about the merits of social legislation, and have learned to stand for individualism.
A few of the letters were reminiscent of accounts from early American history which tell how some of our national figures emerged in the stimulating atmosphere of local Town Meetings. Henry Clay as a young man had always been exceedingly timid. But one evening, after long and silent attendance at the discussion club in Lexington, he finally got to his feet and delivered a fumbling but brilliant discourse. It was the start of his public career.
The Town Meetings of today—such as the Constitution Study Groups—offer an opportunity to re-create the kind of alert, informed citizenry which originally made this country great. Here is one practical answer to those lovers of liberty—of the free market and limited government—who ask: “Isn’t there something else I can do?” Yes, you can start, or join, one of the new libertarian Constitution Study Groups.