A man goes down from a blow to the solar plexus, and we say he’s had the breath knocked out of him.
Every act of coercion in society—coercion being the forcible imposition of one’s will on others—is like a damaging blow that knocks the breath out of humanity.
Nor does it make any difference whether the coercive act is accidental or deliberate, for a noble or an ignoble purpose. It is not the intention behind the act, but the nature of the act itself, that does the injury. Whether one be injured “for his own good” or “for the good of humanity” does not modify the extent of the injury. Erecting a Taj Mahal in the name of love with forcibly extorted funds or enslaved labor, or compulsorily expropriating people’s income to build hospitals or art centers, are no less coercive than compelling Negro slaves to hoe one’s cotton, or forcing workers into unions, or robbing others at the point of a gun.
This is strong language when acts of coercion are proudly and widely advocated from platform, classroom, pulpit, and the editorial page; but can such a reading of the issue be logically challenged?
Coercion imposed on others, whether to gain something for self or for those we love or pity, or to keep others from gaining for themselves by their own honest effort, is the crowning evil of our times. Coercion is anything but peaceful. Its practice on the grand scale is a crippling blow to our human potential.
Nor does it make any difference whether the coercion is inflicted directly or indirectly through one’s agent, such as a personal accomplice, a labor union, a government, or whatever. I am personally responsible for any evil I support, encourage, or condone, regardless of who carries my banner. It isn’t the mob that strings up Joe Doakes; only individuals commit crimes; the hanging is done by each member of the mob. Nor is it the association that takes money from everyone in the nation to finance the local plaza; it is a coercive act on the part of the association’s members—each one of them! Individual absolution is not to be achieved by collectivization.
Regardless of pretensions to the contrary, only now and then can a person be found who does not advocate some coercion, for some laudable end. Indeed, so pervasive is the coercive doctrine that most Americans are unaware of any acceptable alternative.
After I had lectured recently in New Delhi, a reporter said to me, “Economic freedom is all right for you affluent Americans but not for an underdeveloped country such as India.” And at home I hear, “Economic freedom was all right for the simple, agrarian [underdeveloped] economy we had two centuries ago but not for a highly specialized, complex [affluent] economy such as we now have.” In a word—underdeveloped or affluent—there is no place for economic freedom but only for state socialism, that is, coercion. So decree today’s intellectuals.
The coercive doctrine is highly publicized and accounts for much of the ideological noise we hear. “Let the government do it,” goes the deafening chant. But hark! At this very moment someone is exchanging the fruits of his labor for a tank of gasoline. Each party gains! Willing exchanges such as this occur by the billions day in and day out. Taken together in their enormity, these wealth-creating, poverty-destroying actions give us all our net economic gain, every last measure of material progress. Unlike the doctrine of coercion, these willing exchanges—economic freedom in practice—are commonplace, unheralded, unnewsworthy. Thus, they go unheard, unseen, unappreciated. So impressive is the noisy babble for destructive coercion and so quiet is the performance of creative freedom that coercion is thought to be the cause of the progress we enjoy. Such mistaken correlations can be the downfall of any individual or group, of any nation, economy, civilization.
The Flow of Human Energy
Facing the matter from another point of view, we see that man is an entity of radiant energies. Each individual is a composition of realized and potential energies—diverse, unique, ever-changing. Were all to go in accord with what appears to be the Cosmic Design, these individual specimens of the Universal Energy would exert themselves in an improving, creative direction. For certainly the Design must call for human emergence in awareness, perception, consciousness.
But man, with his power to choose, can, and often does, turn his energies in a destructive direction. His energy cannot “stay put”; it has to expend itself. We observe some persons, having enormous energy, turning it inward to their own evolvement: Goethe, Shakespeare, and their kind. But others of unusual energy utterly fail in their own evolvement; their energy spins outward over the environment, in the form of coercive, dominating control of others: Napoleon, Hitler, and their kind. Of course, each of these two archetypes has its minor performers.
But the lack of self-control is not all; there is another influence at work. Whenever coercive policies dominate the societal situation, inhibiting and prohibiting energies from manifesting themselves creatively, these energies, under the necessity of expending themselves, tend to turn destructive: moral laxness, riots, strikes, vandalism, wars, and so on. Coercion—even when backed by good intentions—must knock the breath out of humanity, totally, sooner or later. Coercive practices breed more coercion, and there is no remedy short of replacing these practices with freedom and willing exchange.
In the name of doing good! To illustrate my point, let us consider an educated electorate as an objective. But how is universal education to be achieved? Surely, not by relying on freedom, as we do with religion! Freedom can’t be trusted for something as important as education! Here, runs the argument, coercion is necessary: compulsory attendance, government dictated curricula, and the forcible collection of the goods and services to pay the educational bill. To challenge this near-unanimous, deeply-embedded notion is to risk being classified as a “nut.”
Yet, the application of coercion to education is turning out what a vast majority of us do not want: millions of “educated” coercionists, annually—exactly what any capable diagnostician would have predicted. It is unrealistic to believe that institutions founded on coercion can, in the long run, advance an understanding of freedom. The record is already speaking for itself.1
Universal education may be a worthy objective. But when coercion is applied, compelling universal attendance, it becomes necessary to “scrape the bottom of the barrel” to find teachers. The qualified teachers are “watered down” by the unqualified, turning the trend away from excellence and toward mediocrity. The itch to teach, to project one’s views, takes precedence over eagerness to learn, and this is a perversion of the educational process.
Granted that education ought to rank high in any rational hierarchy of values, it must also be conceded that there is no more difficult aim to achieve in the whole creative realm. It is precisely for these reasons that education should be divorced from coercion and left completely to freedom. While the free market or willing exchange way of life is necessary for the preservation of an affluent society, it is an absolute “must” for any growth or development. Especially when confronted with difficult or “impossible” problems, turn to freedom.
Wisdom Will Not Be Forced
It is a simple, obvious, self-evident fact that ideas, understanding, wisdom cannot be coercively injected into the consciousness of another. Yet, such is the presumption of persons who employ the coercive techniques.
If human creativity is the goal, the reliance should be on freedom. And it matters not whether the anticipated area of growth or development be education, steel making, dress designing, or whatever. Creativity at the human level behaves according to the law of attraction. Attracted to what? To someone or to something better. Available to each of us are literally tens of thousands of “betters.” From among the millions of seemingly common men, stars appear—some tiny, some a little larger, and the relatively big ones: Socrates, Edison, Beethoven, Christian Dior, Pasteur, Madam Curie, Booker T. Washington, Menger, Adam Smith, Bastiat, Marshall Field, Mises, and perhaps your good self should be included. These luminaries—when freedom in transactions prevails—set the pace, lead us, if we so elect, into new and higher realms; they cut all the patterns for progress.
Our human stars come from every walk of life—when not retarded by illusion or slumber or fear or coercion. They emerge from the oddest environments and circumstances, as if every new-born babe were a potential star. These talented ones shine for a moment, help to light the way, and then are gone forever except as they remain in book or memory. Together, and over the millennia, they serve to increase the over-all glow, this being the Universal Energy in its human manifestation.
This human luminosity is as mysterious as life itself for, indeed, it is life in its richest form. For any one of us in our proximity to absolute ignorance to attempt its controlled management, that is, the coerced coalescence of this infinitely intricate profusion of minute energies, is to reactivate a notion as nonsensical as “the divine right of kings”; it is to say, in effect, “Only I can make a tree”; it is to ask for enthronement atop the Cosmos! The coercionist in us is this pretentiousness; as it asserts itself the glow dims—a dark age; when it lessens, the glow brightens—a renaissance. Infinitesimal human energies, as minute molecules, configurate naturally, miraculously, creatively when free to flow, when obstacles are out of the way.
If we would improve ourselves, we will cast off our coercionist inclinations; we will look to the stars, which is to say, we will look to excellence in ourselves and others. This is what we do when we abandon our coercive ways and put our reliance on freedom.
So, let us proceed with several speculations of what’s right and righteous in order better to discern what not to do. . .