The Peddler as Hero

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I
was born on the lower East Side of New York and brought up on
the lower West Side. (I bring in these facts as introduction to
some ideas that may be of general interest, not as autobiography.)
Of my earliest experiences I remember practically nothing.

But, one
incident does come to mind. My father, an immigrant who, like
many others, took to peddling as a means of making a living, brought
me a toy of some sort from one of his trips; maybe the fact that
this was the only toy I ever had, if memory serves me right, made
an indelible impression on me. In those days, and under the circumstances,
a toy was a rarity in the life of a youngster.

As a vocation,
peddling has long since gone out of style in this country, and
the image of the peddler that has remained is not a glamorous
one. Yet, the peddler must be given credit for helping to build
the great American economy. He began his enterprise by bringing
to the hinterland a modest pack on his back, as much as he had
capital for, selling the contents and returning to his distributing
point as soon as possible. He lived frugally, saved much of the
proceeds of his sales, and invested his savings in a larger pack.
He continued this process until he had saved enough to buy a horse
and wagon, which enabled him to go more deeply into the sparsely
settled areas and distribute more merchandise.

After a few
of these trips he found a burgeoning community that gave promise
of supporting a permanent or resident peddler, that is, a merchant.
He built a shack in this town and filled it up with things folks
wanted, and made his residence in the back of the store. In due
time, he brought a wife to help him with the chores and to share
with him his meager quarters. As the town grew so did his store.
He built another room to hold more wares, and then an upper story,
meanwhile moving his wife and children to a more commodious house.
And when he died he left his heirs a department store.

This is the
story of most of the department stores, the merchandise marts,
that dot the American landscape today; they began with a pack
on some peddler’s back. Indeed, it is the story in broad outline
of many of the industries that make up the American economy, from
steel to automobile; some pioneer, beginning in a small way, exercised
industry and thrift and plowed back his savings into his business
to serve the needs of the community. He might have, as conditions
warranted, borrowed the savings of others to expand his enterprise,
but until he had demonstrated his ability to render service, and
the need for it, his capital consisted mainly of his own savings.

That practice
has gone by the boards these days for one reason: the income tax
absorbs the savings of the entrepreneur before he can lay his
hands on it. The tax-collector gets the accumulations that might
have been plowed back into the business, and growth from modest
beginnings is therefore impossible. This has the tendency to discourage
enterprise, to freeze the proletarian into his class regardless
of his ambition or ability. The imaginative entrepreneur of today
must begin on a relatively large scale, by borrowing from the
government against a government contract or some enterprise undertaken
on a government grant or guarantee. The “little man” must remain
little.

Now, the
peddler, using the term figuratively, was the backbone of the
American economic and social system. He was the middle-class man
who prided himself on his initiative, self-reliance, independence
and, above all, his integrity. He might be shrewd and even grasping,
but he never asked for favors and certainly did not expect society
to take care of him.

In fact,
if he thought of society at all, he thought of it as a collection
of individuals, like himself, each of whom contributed to it,
and that without them society simply did not exist. To keep his
standing in the society of which he was an integral part, he paid
his debts and taxes regularly, went to church as a matter of course,
voted as his conscience dictated, contributed to local charities
and took part in civic affairs. To be “good” a society had to
consist of “good” men, and therefore the ethos of his community
was his own. He was society.

And he was
middle class. But, the term, in the context of the early part
of the century, carried certain connotations that have been lost.
In popular usage the term “middle class” designates those whose
incomes provide them with more than the mere necessities, who
enjoy some of the luxuries, who have saved up something for future
contingencies, and who are neither “rich” nor “poor.” That is,
we think of the middle class in terms of income.

In that context,
we might include in the present middle class many who in former
times would have been classified as proletarian; for the income
of many who work for wages today is sufficient to provide them
with satisfactions that would have been luxuries to the old middle
class. The merchant or the banker of that era did not dream of
an automobile or of a Florida vacation, nor did he enjoy any of
the home conveniences that are now considered necessities by most
of those who have nothing to sell but their labor. Thus, in economic
terms, the middle class is much larger and much more affluent
than it was in the past.

The middle
class, of the earlier period, was identified by something besides
economic status; one thinks of them as a people motivated by certain
values, among which integrity was uppermost. The middle-class
man was meticulous in fulfilling his contractual obligations,
even though these were supported only by his pledged word; there
were few papers that changed hands, fewer laws covering contracts,
and the only enforcement agency was public opinion. In the circumstances,
personal integrity in the middle-class community was taken for
granted; anyone who did not live up to his obligations was well
advertised and lost his credit standing. Bankruptcy carried with
it a stigma that no law could obliterate and therefore was seldom
resorted to.

The life
of the old middle-class man was, by present standards, rather
prosaic, even humdrum, being enlivened only by plans for expanding
his business. If he had dreams, these were concerned with getting
ahead by means of serving his community better, of widening the
scope of his enterprise. But, his personal life was quite orderly
and quite free of eroticisms; rarely was it disturbed by divorce
or scandal. His sense of self-reliance imposed on him a code of
conduct that precluded psychopathic adventures and gave him stability.
Orderliness in his personal life was necessary to his main purpose,
which was to produce more goods or render more services for the
market; that burned up all the surplus energy he had at his disposal.

It never
occurred to this middle-class man that society owed him a living,
or that he might apply to the government for help in the solution
of his problems. The farmer is a particular class in point; the
present day agriculturist, who must be included in our present
day middle class in terms of income, holds it quite proper to
demand of government, that is, the rest of society, a regularized
subsidy, even a subsidy for not producing; the farmer of the early
part of the century would hardly have thought of that.

The merchant
or manufacturer located in the area served by the Tennessee Valley
Authority has no hesitation in accepting electricity at rates
that are subsidized by the rest of the country, and even demands
more of that handout, without any hurt to his self-esteem. The
pride of the peddler, the entrepreneur, has left the industrialist
who now grovels before legislatures and bureaucrats in search
of government contracts, while the independence that characterized
the early banker has been replaced by a haughty obsequiousness
of the modern financier in his dealings with government.

Indeed, it
has become a “right” to demand a special privilege from the authorities
– as, for instance, the urgency of professional athletic
organizations for publicly financed stadia in which to display
their wares; and the man who secures such a privilege does not
feel humiliated by its acceptance, but rather holds his head as
high as did the earlier entrepreneur who made his way on his own
steam.

Among the
modern middle-class men, in terms of income and the station in
life they have attained, there are two categories that deserve
special attention: the bureaucrats and the managers of the great
corporations. In earlier days, the government employee was held
to be a man who could not have made his way in the business world
and was therefore tolerated with condescension; he had little
to do and his remuneration was correspondingly small. Even the
few entrepreneurs who entered the public service did so mainly
under draft, as a necessary though unwanted duty, to be got out
of as soon as possible.

Today, the
government agent holds his head higher than do those who furnish
him his keep – he is the government while they are
only the people – and is held in esteem by the very ones
he dominates. He is, of course, a non-producer, but in the present
ethos that circumstance does not degrade him, either in his own
eyes or that of society; indeed, the producer holds an inferior
position in life than does the government official. The government
official is the law.

The managers,
of corporations owned by stockholders, have largely taken the
place of the old peddler class. But, while the latter were characterized
by self-reliance and a willingness to assume responsibility for
their choices, the managerial class, taking them by and large,
hide their personalities in committee decisions. To be sure, the
corporations must abide by the decision of the market (except
where its principal customer is the government), but its operations
are bound by rules, conventions and rituals behind which the management
can well hide. Risk is something nobody takes, if he can avoid
it, and where he must make a decision he is sure to have an excuse
or scapegoat in case he decides wrongly. “Passing the buck” is
considered de rigueur by even the supervisory help.

And, above
all, security has become a fetish among all classes of society,
from the lowliest wage-earner to the president of the corporation.
To be sure, security against the exigencies of life has always
been a human aim. But, while in the last century man made provision
against disaster, in insurance, in paying off the mortgage on
the old homestead, in savings, the tendency during the latter
half of the twentieth century is to put the burden of one’s security
on society. The young man entering the business world is not concerned
with the chances of advancement that are open to industry and
skill, but rather with the pension system provided by the company;
and the candidate for president of the corporation is concerned
with his retirement even as he takes on the duties of the presidency.
This change of attitude from personal responsibility to collectivized
security is probably the result of the income tax; it would be
difficult to trace it to any alteration in human nature or any
deterioration of character.

It is most
difficult to find a cause and effect relationship to explain changes
in the ethic of a people, as, for instance, the transmogrification
of the freedom-loving (and therefore self-reliant) American of
times past into one leaning on society. Undoubtedly, ideas have
consequences, and the current urgency to turn to government for
assistance in solving life’s problems might be traced to the socialistic
and populist ideas promulgated during the last part of the 19th
century.

But, ideas
must be institutionalized before the mass of people can accept,
or even comprehend, them; a religious concept has no meaning until
it is ritualized, given material form in a church and reduced
to a catechism. So with political ideas. The socialists and the
populists might have ranted on and on ad infinitum and
without effect, had not the politicians, in their own interests,
taken hold of these ideas and institutionalized them.

The first
of these ideas to attract the attention of the politicians was
the income tax; the socialists and populists advocated this as
a “soak the rich” measure, purely out of the covetousness which
is in all men’s hearts, but the politicians took to it because
more taxation means more power. And getting and exercising power
is the principal business of the politician.

Changing
values do not indicate a change in the nature of man. In all likelihood,
the American of 1900 was as equally inclined toward getting something-for-nothing
as was the American of the 1960s. The land-grabbing schemes and
the tariff-mongering of the 19th century indicate an inclination
to improve oneself at the expense of neighbors, while the “robber
barons” were likewise out for all the traffic would bear. The
one facet of human nature which, because of its invariability
and constancy, we can put down as a natural law is: man always
seeks to satisfy his desires with the least effort.

It is because
of this inner compulsion that man invents labor-saving devices,
and it is also because of this inner compulsion that man sometimes
turns to exploiting his neighbor, which is a form of robbery.
But, robbery is attended with the use of force, which might be
met with a contrary and defeating force, and is therefore risky;
however, when the government, which has a monopoly of coercion,
exercises its power so as to favor one individual or set of individuals
to the disadvantage of others, there is nothing to do but to comply
with its edicts.

And, because
its edicts are regularized by law, mental adjustment to the exploitation
takes place, while the recipients of the advantages thus gained
learn to look upon their loot as a “right.” The urgency for something-for-nothing
is endemic to the human being; therefore, when the government
exploits one group in favor of another, the cry goes up by other
groups, in the name of “justice,” for some of the same. Thus,
a new ethic, a new complex of beliefs and conventions, takes hold
of the people; all of them expect society, through the agency
of government, to take care of them.

The ethic
of the 19th century (sometimes called the Protestant ethic) held
that man was endowed with free will and therefore was a responsible
being, responsible for himself, responsible to his fellow man
and to his God. The origins can be traced to the Industrial Revolution,
with its emphasis on individual initiative; or perhaps to the
introduction of the capitalistic system, with its emphasis on
contract rather than on status, which prevailed during the feudalistic
eras. The emergence of the idea that “a man was a man for a’ that,”
that freedom from restraint was his due, not only gave him a sense
of individual dignity but also put upon him the necessity of making
choices and of suffering the consequences. This called for industry,
thrift, and self-reliance. Society could do nothing for the individual
which he could not better do for himself; in fact, society could
do nothing for the individual.

This ethic
held, in this country, because it was institutionalized. There
was the institution of the Declaration of Independence, and the
institution of the Constitution, with its inhibitions on the power
of the government. A particularly inhibitory influence was the
limitation on its taxing powers; the government could do little
in the way of interfering with private affairs because it did
not have the wherewithal necessary to effect interference. What
it could get by way of excise taxes and tariff duties was just
about enough to make it a going concern; its power of exploitation,
inherent in all governments, was sharply delimited. Washington
was a village on the Potomac where some legislators met for a
few months in the year, to pass a few laws which little affected
the welfare of the people, except when the laws had something
to do with war. Debates in Congress were interesting to read about
or to talk about, but the issues involved did not concern the
making of a living or the manner in which one got by in this world.
Newspapers sent reporters, not correspondents, to Washington.

The ethic
was further institutionalized in the manners and habits of the
people, in the books that were written and the plays that were
produced. For instance, the moral concepts of Hawthorne’s stories,
the peccadilloes of Mark Twain’s characters, the simple tragedies
in the lives of Louisa Alcott’s Little Women all emphasized
the worth of the individual, while the popular plays dealt with
individual heroics, rather than social trends. The school books,
too, stressed the virtues of independence and personal responsibility.
Charity was a personal matter, both for the donor and the donee;
somebody gave to somebody, as a duty and not by way of law. Young
folks took care of their parents, with love, not as they do now
through the medium of taxation.

This Protestant
ethic has been largely supplanted now by what has been called
the Freudian ethic,[1] which
is based on a peculiar notion of the nature of man. Sigmund Freud
came up during the latter part of the 19th century with the queer
notion that man is indeed a complex of emotional impulses, the
principal one being sex. He comes into this world without the
biological equipment with which to meet its demands. What kind
of world would best suit the needs of the babe Freud does not
say, although it seems it should be one most like the warmth and
comfort of the womb. At any rate, his entry into the world is
accompanied by a traumatic experience, the first in a series that
complicate for man his way through life. Society is to blame for
all these neuroticisms. The best the individual can do to make
his way through this vale of gloom is to make adjustment as best
he can to the demands of society, until death at long last releases
him from the uncongenial climate of existence.

There is
no empirical knowledge to support this concept, nor are there
any demonstrable facts underlying any of Freud’s fanciful psychological
ideas. Nevertheless, his notion that society is at fault whenever
the individual cannot or will not meet its demands appealed to
the socialists and other do-gooders – it gave them something
“scientific” on which to base their urgency – and they promoted
it as incontrovertible truth. Psychologists, educators, jurists,
criminologists, social workers and, of course, politicians, took
to Freudianism as a fish does to water, so that, during the second
half of this century, it is generally taken for granted that the
ills of the individual are all socially made, and that there is
nothing to do but to change society. The old idea that man is
a free willing, responsible and self-reliant individual was swept
aside by the new ethic, and in its place we have a neurotic who
must be ever coddled, provided for, adjusted and generally managed.

Whether or
not Freudianism is the cause of this change in attitude, it is
difficult to say. Other ideational vogues have had their sway
without getting beyond the realm of fanaticism, and have died
away; as, for instance, the bimetallism of William Jennings Bryan,
or the end-of-the-world enthusiasms of earlier times. To get hold
of the people an idea must be institutionalized, must be fixed
in custom or validated by law; then only does it become part of
that complex of beliefs which motivates men.

Now, associated
with the rising vogue of Freudianism was the rise of statism;
the politicians, who knew nothing about Freud, but who are very
astute in evaluating any vote-getting device, instituted the Welfare
State, and this fitted in very nicely with the Freudian notion.
The Welfare State does indeed relieve the individual of self-responsibility,
and does indeed undertake to remodel society; therefore, the Welfare
State seemed to validate all that Freud claimed as to the nature
of man.

And so it
has come to pass, during the second half of the 20th century,
that the ethic of the peddler class has been replaced by the ethic
of mendicancy. I am inclined to the thought that the change indicates
a deterioration of the American character; but, then, I am loyal
to my youth, as is every older man, and may be prejudiced.

It may well
be that social security is an advance over self-reliance, that
the individual prospers better under the ministrations of the
bureaucrat, that juvenile delinquency is a social rather than
individual malady, that individual proficiency is a social curse,
that freedom is indeed the right to feed at the public trough.
The young people, those who were born or got their rearing during
the New Deal era, do not question that concept of freedom, and
the professors of economics, psychology, jurisprudence, sociology
and anthropology write learned books in support of it. Therefore,
it must be so.

Any attempt
to revive the old concept of freedom – that it is merely
the absence of restraint – would be a fatuous undertaking;
it would be like trying to “turn back the clock.”

Yet,
one cannot help speculating on the future. When the present generation,
well inured to the Welfare State, shall have grown old, will it
not also write books on the “good old days,” even as this book
speaks lovingly of the ethic of the peddler class? And what new
ethic – every generation has its own – will these books
decry? Maybe it will be the ethic of the totalitarian state. Who
knows?

This article
is excerpted from the first chapter of Out
of Step: The Autobiography of an Individualist
, published
in 1962.

Note

[1]
This whole subject has been discussed at length in a recommended
book, The
Freudian Ethic
, by Richard LaPiere (Duell, Sloan and Pearce).

Frank
Chodorov (1887–1966), one of the great libertarians of the
Old Right, was the founder of the Intercollegiate Society of Individualists
and author of such books as The
Income Tax: Root of All Evil
. Here he is on “Taxation
Is Robbery
.” And here
is Rothbard’s obituary of Chodorov
.

Frank
Chodorov Archive

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