Trouncing the Trolls of Collectivism


Crossroads: The Great American Experiment, by Barry Asmus and Donald B. Billings, Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 408 pp., $26.75/$14.25

An End to Allegiance: Individual Freedom and the New Politics, by Geoffrey Sampson, New York: Universe Books, 253 pp., $17.50

Two books have appeared recently that deserve the attention of anyone concerned with contemporary economic conditions. One is the pyrotechnical display of two angry American scholars; the other is a typically British observation of a political-economic phenomenon, not quite bemused, but not entirely disinterested either.

The first is Crossroads: The Great American Experiment, by E. Barry Asmus and Donald B. Billings, both teachers at Boise State University. It is a masterly survey of the political and economic progress of the United States from colonial times to the present. Its anger increases as the authors paint a picture of a still young country afflicted with the arthritis of statism.

The anger is understandable. And to a reader new to the subject of intellectual and economic history, little seems to have escaped the scrutiny of Asmus and Billings. But this same anger has led them to gloss over important episodes in that history. To put it another way, Part I, "The Rise of Individual Freedom and the Market Economy," is perhaps one of the most succinct recountings of the rise of Western liberal ideas ever written.

The centerpiece of this section is a thoroughgoing discussion of Adam Smith and his seminal Wealth of Nations, published in 1776. But in the ensuing narration of the decline of the idea of freedom, no mention is made of a book published a mere five years later, Critique of Pure Reason, by Immanuel Kant, which was phenomenally more influential—not to say antithetical—in that it helped to make possible the very decline that Asmus and Billings understandably bewail.

True, a lengthy chapter on the complexities of Kant and his thought, and that of his successors, may not seem to have any relevance. Yet Kant, not Jefferson, is often called the foremost thinker of the very same Enlightenment that gave birth to the United States.

Part II, "The Decline and Fall of Personal and Economic Freedom," is as discouraging as Part I is enthusiastic. The authors narrate the abysmal record of retreat from those ideas in the intellectual, political, and business arenas. The reader gets a clear picture of how advocates of controls and the "public interest" exploited the patchwork of compromises that were built into the US Constitution.

As early as 1909, Herbert Croly, in The Promise of American Life, asserted that the "promise" could only be kept by the state actively intervening to promote a socialized political structure. The reader also encounters Alvin Hansen, a Harvard economist little known to the public but something of a legend in the frequently lightless alcoves of academe. It was Hansen who popularized the interventionist economics of John Maynard Keynes in the United States by translating the Cambridge don's thought and language into terms that Franklin D. Roosevelt's Brain Trusters and New Dealers could appreciate.

One of the most original sections of Crossroads portrays the typical modern politician as an entrepreneur who has fallen into the habit of counting voters, constituencies, taxpayers, and other people's wealth as his capital with which to acquire and retain a seat in the legislature, to further expand his powers, and to live the good life. Another perceptive section attacks those "friendly" politicians and bureaucrats who speak of free markets but vote consistently for constraint and regulation.

Asmus and Billings argue that freedom has lost its appeal chiefly because most people, over a period of time (but principally since the late 19th century), gradually accepted the notion that the state is the best guarantor of their economic and social well-being. Politicians neither invent nor promulgate these notions by themselves but, like most of us, receive them in school, where economic, political, and social doctrines "trickle down" from the academic endeavors of theoreticians and political philosophers far removed from most of us. The authors point out that among the many important reasons for the initial success of the American revolution—or the "great American experiment"—was the fact that most people in the colonial era were not indoctrinated as they are today but were at least minimally educated to function in a society whose paramount ethical vehicle was self-reliance and self-responsibility.

With ruthless editing, Crossroads could become the honors high school or college undergraduate textbook of tomorrow. Fully a quarter of the book could be cut without affecting its overall impact. Many sections are overwritten or redundant; others are not developed enough. Typographical and grammatical errors abound. There is much to admire about Crossroads, especially its ambition. This same ambition, however, overreaches itself and leaves one unsatisfied.

But its major inadequacy occurs in the discussion of the moral basis for capitalism. Here Asmus and Billings repeat the errors of Adam Smith and scores of other champions of freedom and the free market by repeating vaguely utilitarian assurances about the ultimate social usefulness of "enlightened" self-interest.

A conscientious liberal may concede any and all arguments concerning the benefits of freedom. But suppose he doesn't value freedom. Suppose he doesn't value free minds or free markets. Suppose his root concept of freedom is Orwellian in nature. "Freedom from fear," "freedom from want," and the like, are expressions of Roosevelt's and others' fundamental premises, predating Orwell's "Newspeak." Where did they come from? Who taught them? How were they formulated? Why were they so widely accepted? Any sound intellectual history requires philosophical detours.

While Crossroads attempts to pulverize the welfare state with what amounts to a sustained naval rocket barrage, An End to Allegiance confines its targets and takes better aim. In terms of scope, it's the difference between the epic television portrayal of World War II, The World at War, and The Guns of Navarone. What Geoffrey Sampson, a professor of linguistics at the University of Leeds, sees, especially in Britain, is a radical turnaround in the intellectual status of government. He reports—with a barely contained intrigue that may draw in the skeptical—the gradual but measurable fading of the cult of state worship and a widespread disenchantment with state socialism as the panacea of first and only resort.

"Socialism won't wash with Britons any longer," writes Sampson. "We have our own lives to lead; we have outgrown allegiance." He announces the rediscovery in Britain that the "classes" are made up of individuals, not of delimited ciphers or immutable aggregations of customs, skills, and feelings. His book heralds a renaissance of individualism in Britain, not only among the educated middle classes, but among what were once known as the "working" classes.

Sampson delves into the nitty-gritty of statist attitudes. He is concerned with the mystique of government services and entities and with why they seem to be able to perpetuate themselves in spite of outrageous conduct and atrocious performance. There is the explanation that they are there simply by legislative mandate and protected by the expropriated moral force of law. But up until recently, the trolls of collectivism were immune from criticism, considered sacrosanct by the miasma of a sick but gripping philosophy—to wit, that society and all its "goods" ultimately originate from and ought to be arbitrated by the state.

Everybody once believed that. But no more. "Welfare benefits are bribes which help the State to maintain its power," writes Sampson of the growing consensus in Britain. "There is nothing 'compassionate' about giving away other people's money." Even more to the point, he concludes one chapter with the suggestion that "we must somehow deprive our rulers of the power to use law as a tool for bribing voters."

As might be expected, one of Sampson's targets is Britain's National Health Service (NHS). Sampson discusses the innumerable conundrums created by socialized medicine—such as the number of people who die each year while awaiting treatment of curable ailments, and the married couples fined by health authorities for choosing home deliveries of babies over hospital stays. "Anyone who hoped that the Welfare State would help to foster the dignity of Man must surely be depressed by the experience of visiting an NHS hospital as an out-patient," observes Sampson. "Amid the dreary decor, patients are moved from queue to queue like children too young to look after themselves."

The medical profession, writes Sampson, is a monopoly, "clothed in a mystique of professionalism." In Britain, most doctors are under the aegis of the NHS and are so overworked and manipulated that they respond in kind. There is no incentive to care about what they are doing. (Sampson, however, has stronger words for the American Medical Association (AMA), which he notes is a "powerful…cartel.")

Sampson's most acerbic words are reserved for the wilted knights of Inland Revenue, Britain's IRS. "Employees of the Inland Revenue tend to be grey, socially-inadequate personalities who in a decent society would be tactfully shunted away from positions giving them power over others." Income-tax collection drives sane people crazy and even to suicide over the arbitrary complexity and absurdity of tax regulations. Tax collection, writes Sampson, "distorts our lives and oppresses us in ways that have little to do with spending foregone.…The collection of income tax has become an affair in which…citizens are stripped of their human dignity."

Although Sampson is at pains to lead skeptics to see the value of dismantling the welfare state, he doesn't buy all of what he calls the "liberal" position, an umbrella that covers "conservatives" and "libertarians." He casts a critical eye on the positions of libertarian thinkers Murray Rothbard, Robert Nozick, and Walter Block. And he explores the gaping holes in libertarian fringe arguments for completely stateless societies.

The welfare state, concludes Sampson, is a fraud, not only in substance but, more importantly, in intent and spirit. It is this latter half of his contention that is crucial. Perhaps there are too many books on how the welfare state does not meet its objectives. There are too few about why these objectives are naturally corrupt and corrupting. "A politics founded on economic theory," writes Sampson about the conservative-libertarian alliance, "implies a hopelessly blinkered, one-dimensional vision of the human condition."

Crossroads, because it has no philosophical center of gravity, is eloquent but unsatisfying. It raises more questions than it answers. Allegiance, although a much shorter book and of narrower subject, answers all the questions it asks. Its center of gravity is nothing less than the revival of self-esteem: Individuals who respect themselves balk at being treated like children.

Edward Cline is a staff member of the Institute for Humane Studies in Menlo Park, California.