Foreign Correspondent: Belgium
Most interesting news in columns like these must be about noneconomic issues like sex, drugs, the draft etc., because in Europe economic collectivism simply is no longer seriously debated. Whenever someone speaks for "free enterprise" it should be kept in mind that he isn't referring to something akin to our kind of libertarianism, nor even to classical liberalism. Chances are that he only wants taxes to be increased somewhat less than has been proposed by somebody else. A rather good speech, however, was recently held by the president of the important Federation of the Belgian Industry. In it, the increase in wage deductions (that part of the wage the employee cannot spend as he wants, but which automatically goes to different kinds of funds and insurance) was criticized as was the subsidizing by the state of individual industrial concerns in order to interfere with their management.
One of the more picturesque but nevertheless philosophically important debates going on here is about tombstones. More and more local authorities seem to become sympathetic towards the idea of total uniformity on cemeteries, tombstones included. Stonemasons, whose interests would be most hurt by compulsory uniformity, have been quick to organize in protest. In unusually strong language, their president spoke of a "fascist mentality," seeking to destroy all variety in life. Another important question was asked in a newspaper editorial: If there is to be uniformity, what kind of uniformity will it be? Will the tombstone have to carry a cross? Presumably it will, since a majority of the Belgians are Catholic. But at the same time, this would be a heavy insult for the nonreligious minority.
Like many other countries, Belgium is struggling with the draft problem. The draft has never been popular here but has long been accepted as a "necessary evil." As long as it was universal, one could at least pretend to believe the civic duty explanation. Now, however, with 50% of the young men being exempted, especially for family-related reasons, the unfairness of it becomes clearer and opposition more widespread. Support for the career army is growing. The trouble is that you won't find many career soldiers for one dollar a day (the amount draftees get paid). And since many Belgians seem to believe, with President Eisenhower, that "the army makes men out of boys," many people are not completely averse to the idea of seeing even their own boys being coercively enlisted. And then, of course, there's always the left wing, warning that an army of professional soldiers would be "a state in the state," a danger to democracy, etc. At present, the favorite approach for politicians seems to be a promise with every election campaign to reduce the service period by a few months. From a military point of view, that is the worst of two worlds, of course. The value of one year of military training is almost nil, while it makes much time, money and effort get lost.
In the meantime, efforts are done to make military life somewhat less inhumane and barbaric than it used to be. The right to appeal punishment has been extended.
No column like this can be written without mentioning Minister Vranckx and his morality crusade. While appealing, until recently, almost exclusively to the silent majority, he has now found more organized support with the establishing of a militantly conservative group called "Verontruste Ouders" (alarmed parents). Needless to say, their name has immediately been changed by cultural progressives into "Alarming Parents". Something of the style and the intellectual level of the group can be perceived from the following exchange, which took place at one of their meetings:
V.O. Speaker: "You (the moral revolutionaries) are all uprooted people, sex maniacs, masturbators."
"Moral revolutionary": "Now come on, every one did masturbate once in his life. You too, didn't you?"
V.O. Speaker: "By God [and the two fingers go upwards], I have never masturbated in my whole life!"
If ten or twenty years from now, you wonder why Belgium is still, just like today, the most culturally backward nation of the west (dictatorships excluded), remember this little "cultural document" and you'll know.
"I swear to speak the truth, nothing but the truth. So help me God," runs the formula everyone has to pronounce who appears as a witness in court. Nonbelievers in God have long protested against this "So help me God," which has no meaning for them. But the Belgian law left them no choice: whoever does not take the oath in its full form is punishable as one who refuses to appear as a witness. Now, however, a high civil servant of the Ministery of Justice, has proposed changes in the law that would make the "So help me God" optional.
There's an open war going on between the Minister of Economic Affairs and the pharmaceutical industry. The minister has ordained a freeze on the price of medicines. The industry has replied that it will quietly ignore this decision and increase the price of at least some medicines. If the minister takes repressive measures it will strike back by stopping all help to scientific and cultural organizations. News like this, like the one about the doctors' strike some years ago, may create the impression that at least the medical and pharmaceutical professions resist the tendency towards state interventionism. This is only partly true. Like the American Medical Association, their "individualism" is very selective. The state-sustained official organization of doctors (perhaps somewhat comparable with the A.M.A.) has rebuked two young colleagues of Maoist tendencies because they had criticized the organization (complaints relating to their politics and the too low price they charged patients were dismissed). Expectations are that if they don't mend their ways, the organization will take more harsh measures. And, of course, the doctors are all FOR state measures to prevent "incompetent" persons from practicing medical science. When, a few years ago, a macrobiotic doctor in Ghent had a patient who died of pneumonia, the patient's relatives were pressured into lodging an official complaint (which they later unsuccessfully tried to retract), which resulted in the doctor being declared mentally insane (like most macrobiotics he believes in some kind of astrology), his license to practice medical science being suspended and his being forbidden ever to write or publicly speak about macrobiotics again (!!!).
If you feel in the mood for some more 1984-type news, here it is: In Liege, drugtakers who had been condemned to different kinds of penalties, were freed on parole, at one condition: that they actively participate in the actions of an organization that fights the use of drugs! At the other end of Europe, in Turkey, a 14-year old boy was condemned to six years in prison for selling drugs. In the more culturally progressive Netherlands, on the other hand, a very official commission on public health has urged the legalization of soft drugs. And even in UN-progressive France, some questions start being asked. the cover-article of one of the largest circulating French periodicals asks the question: "Should the selling of marijuana be legalized?" But, back in Belgium again, a popular weekly with conservative-Flemish nationalist tendencies, carries an editorial under the title, "Stamp out the drug prophets."
Book news: Robert Heinlein's THE MOON IS A HARSH MISTRESS and Eric Frank Russell's THE GREAT EXPLOSION have been translated into Dutch, but no effort has been made by the publisher to point out the ideological significance of the books. So chances are that most readers will read (and forget) it as "just another nice story." More important is the news that Milton Friedman's CAPITALISM AND FREEDOM has been translated into French. Friedman is the only libertarian-leaning economist who is well-known in Europe. Papers like LE MONDE regularly comment on his ideas. Other widely read books that I would call at least semi-libertarian are Germaine Greer's THE FEMALE EUNUCH, Alvin Toffler's FUTURE SHOCK and especially Charles Reich's THE GREENING OF AMERICA. All three have been translated into French and the latter two into Dutch. Very important also, especially if you consider the fact that it was published in the Dutch underground-new culture newspaper ALOHA, is an article about pollution in Russia. The article explicitly concludes that the Russian example proves that it would be wrong to blame pollution on private property.
An article of mine has been published in a periodical that is rather widely read in Dutch and Flemish intellectual Catholic circles. The article gives an historical outline of the emergence of libertarianism in the United States. The split-off from conservatism and the pioneering role of Mises and Rand is mentioned and briefly explained. Murray Rothbard, Natalee Hall and Skye d'Aureous and Karl Hess are mentioned by name. An attempt is made to explain the relations between libertarianism on the one hand and liberalism, conservatism and New Left on the other. In a short bibliography, six libertarian books are listed and the name and address is given of two libertarian organizations and five periodicals, among which REASON. I guess it will be too optimistic to hope that REASON might have received some requests for information from Belgium or Holland!? [We have —Ed.]
To keep the least important news for the end. Parliamentary elections were held in Belgium a few months ago. The Socialist and Christian government parties held their positions, while in the opposition, the nationalist Flemish- and French-speaking parties progressed at the expense of the liberal party. The only interesting problem for libertarians, had they existed in Belgium, would have been whether the hope in progressive circles that Minister Vranckx would be replaced in the new coalition (which consisted of the same parties, of course) by the at least philosophically libertarian Senator Calewaert, would materialize. It didn't. Minister Vranckx has succeeded himself and you can expect his name to be mentioned regularly in future columns.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Foreign Correspondent: Belgium".