Action at the political level is not to be disparaged, much less condemned, at least by those of us who believe in a formal agency of society as a means of keeping the peace. Keeping the peace involves a legal codification and enforcement of the taboos, the thou-shalt-nots. Inhibiting and penalizing such destructive actions as fraud, violence, predation, and misrepresentation is one way we have of invoking a common justice. In theory, if not in practice, we rid ourselves of destructive activities that our creative activities may find full expression.
Intelligent statecraft—the fine art of politics—is prerequisite to maximizing creative activities. Good citizenship in an open society requires at the very minimum an understanding of government, its limitations and potentials. Its limitations, and its potentialities, are prescribed by its nature: organized police force. Clearly, such organized force is in no sense creative but only prohibitive. A good citizen must understand what should be prohibited to insure to all citizens equally an open field and fair play, that is, to maintain a situation in which there is no special privilege for anyone.
Those who believe that a human being has a right to his life must, if they be logical, also acknowledge the corollary right to sustain life, the sustenance of life being the fruits of one’s own honest labor. This is the concept of private property. The fine art of politics is knowing how best to preserve private property against marauders, innocent and malicious, foreign and domestic.
Having acknowledged the importance of intelligent political action, I suggest that it is more the intelligence than the political action, per se, that matters. In other words, I do not share the popular notion that political action leads to an intelligent societal situation; it probably is the other way around. By thus inverting cause and effect, millions of Americans insist that political action is fast, sure-fire, and practical, and argue that self-improvement is a slow, tedious, passive, impractical alternative. “We want action,” they cry, as they throw themselves into the political arena to the exclusion of personal upgrading.
Political Paths to Nowhere
This confusion in the ranks of those who oppose socialism and favor freedom has dire consequences. For when they succeed in electing one of their number to political office, they happily bask in their accomplishment and exclaim, in effect, “Well, now that job is done; bring on the next problem.” The chances are that nothing whatsoever has been accomplished; indeed, the societal situation may very well be worsened by what has happened.
If running true to modern form, the successful candidate doubtless avoided any mention of ridding society of such socialistic measures as medicare, Federal urban renewal, payments to farmers for not growing peanuts, the post office, and so on. His tactical credo is to let sleeping dogs lie and, above all, keep away from anything controversial; keep the eye on one thing only: how to get elected! And in these circumstances, the new officeholder, regardless of how sound his personal views may be, is absolutely helpless. The thinking on which all societal change is predicated hasn’t been altered one whit; nothing has changed but the name of the officeholder. Better that socialism continue to parade under socialism’s banner than under the aegis of our own political priests. But more damaging still is the disappointment of those who have given their all to the empty victory. Once they realize their failure, they give up the ghost and join the growing ranks of the pessimists and do-nothings. All because they haven’t been able to discern what is really practical. Those who put the emphasis on political action are impractical to the core, assuming that results are the measure of practicality.
Following the Crowd
There is one simple fact to keep in mind: that which shows forth on the political horizon is nothing more than a reflection or echoing of whatever the preponderant leadership thinking happens to be at any particular time. If the winning politicians are advocating and standing for socialistic programs, count on it, the preponderant leadership thinking is socialistic. And when the time comes that those in high office are standing against all invasions of private property—standing for the open society, and willing exchange—one can be certain that the preponderant leadership thinking is libertarian.
What’s topside politically can be likened to a thermometer. The former registers the preponderant leadership thinking; the latter registers the temperature. If you don’t like what the thermometer registers, you increase or decrease the temperature; you don’t monkey with the mercury. And if you don’t like the politicians and what they stand for, you alter the thinking; you don’t toy with the personalities, that is, not if you wish to be practical.
It isn’t difficult to see why politicians merely register the preponderant leadership thinking. With rare exceptions, those who offer themselves as candidates for public office have getting elected as their objective. I see no reason why they should aim to be defeated. Now, regardless of their personal views, what can they stand for and get elected? They cannot go beyond what the preponderant leadership thinking will support.
To illustrate: I honestly believe that TVA and mail delivery, for instance, should be turned over to private ownership and operation, that labor unions should be divested of the right to use coercion in any form, that medicare, compulsory social security, and a host of other socialistic programs should be abolished forthwith. Were I, at this time, to run for office on a frank and candid representation of these convictions—and I wouldn’t run otherwise—my defeat would be assured. But suppose the preponderant lead-ship thinking were to do a turnabout and to parallel my thinking; then my election would become possible, if not probable. Clearly, the thinking is what counts.
The above explains why we should not give much weight as to how candidates present themselves to us privately. To know what we are going to get from them, once in office, we need only observe the public image they portray prior to election day. And if, to get in office, they will represent themselves to voters as something other than what they are, we can be certain that they will even more corrupt themselves to stay in office. Officeholders are rarely able to conduct themselves in a manner superior to the public representations that put them in their seats. Yes, they can and often do become inferior, but the thinking they championed while campaigning chains them down to it.
Bring Better Ideas into Play
A good society depends on good individuals, rather than bad ones. That seems self-evident, and equally evident is that individuals act in response to what they believe—the ideas they hold. Thus, it would seem to follow that the state of society is but a reflection of the underlying ideas. If we do not like the current socialistic turn of American society, the only practical first step toward correction is to bring better ideas into play. This ought to be our top-priority project.
There would be no point in highlighting the above truisms were it not for this fact: Most of us who complain about the trend in the U.S.A. toward all-out statism insist, quite impractically, on looking for improvement through political action. For example, such activities as “organizing right down to the precinct level,” getting out the vote, and other forms of political contention and competition are at the action level. This action, we must bear in mind, is but the reflection of underlying ideas; and a reflection is utterly incapable of improving itself. To expect real and lasting improvement to originate with political action is like hoping for a lie from one’s mirror. It is obvious that actions—which are, after all, reflections—cannot be bettered except by improvements which precede the actions.
I act in response to what I am. The I-am is the idea side of me; the response part is the action side of me. Thus, each of us is at once an ideologist and an actionist. If we give no attention to improving the I-am part, we are likely to be low-grade ideologists indulging in low-grade actions.
It is extremely difficult for any of us to become aware of, let alone acknowledge, our own shortcomings. We quite easily, often unknowingly, slump into an egocentric rut: We ourselves have rectitude and knowledge aplenty; the faults lie in the world around us! Getting out of these ruts requires changing ourselves; it demands the flexing of imaginative and intellectual faculties which, if long unused, are stiff and hardened. Achieving cerebral activity, once “calcification” has set in, is painful and dreaded exercise, at least at the outset. Having completed their “education,” few have any stomach for the self-improvement venture; not many have what it takes to get off the dead center they are on. This is why countless persons look for solutions to social problems at the hopelessly futile political action level, and why they repeatedly offer the excuse of “not time enough” to labor at the meaningful, practical, ideological level!
When an individual arrives at the point where he realizes that “the proper study of mankind is man,” and that the best man to work on is himself, then he has staked out the area, if nothing more, in which he can fruitfully labor. Man as thinker will take precedence over himself as actionist—which is to say, he will get the horse where it belongs, ahead of the cart!
Improvement of ideas requires a growth in one’s spirit of inquiry. The tools are study, contemplation, humility in the sense of freedom from know-it-allness, reaching out for that which is not yet understood, the kind of reading that’s “above my head,” a mind freed from dead center and unafraid to peer into the unknown and, above all, an indomitable, conscious, prayerful effort to emerge intellectually and spiritually. Ideological improvement is hitched to the eternal search for truth and is on a plane much higher than action and distinctly separate from it. One is substance, the other, shadow.
When we can get it into our own heads that we can play no part in bettering society except as we begin the process of self-improvement, thus attracting others to draw on what we have in store, we’ll be off dead center—and not before.
Logically, we should next reflect on the most natural way to spread ideas on liberty. . . .