Freedom Is Honesty, and Honesty Is Freedom

In a public lecture in New Haven, CT on January 16, 1899, Yale sociologist and laissez-faire advocate William Graham Sumner did what an intellectual is supposed to do: he told the truth. After America's easy military victory against Spain, by which Puerto Rico and the Philippines became possessions of the United States, Sumner took the curious position that Spain won the war. Not Spain the country, but Spain the idea, Spain the Empire. By engaging in this conquest, we had become what Spain was. As Sumner put it:

"Spain was the first, for a long time the greatest, of the modern imperialistic states … We have beaten Spain in a military conflict, but we are submitting to be conquered by her on the field of ideas and policies. Expansionism and imperialism are nothing but the old philosophies of national prosperity which have brought Spain to where she now is. These philosophies appeal to national vanity and national cupidity. They are seductive, especially upon the first view and the most superficial judgment, and therefore it cannot be denied that they are very strong for popular effect. They are delusions, and they will lead us to ruin unless we are hardheaded enough to resist them. In any case the year 1898 is a great landmark in the history of the United States." ("The Conquest of the United States by Spain," in On Liberty, Society, and Politics: the Essential Essays of William Graham Sumner, Robert C. Bannister, editor)

Sumner was in part prophetic, in part not. He was right in seeing no good result in our takeover of the Philippines, right about militarism in Europe, right about Negroes "falling out of fashion" according to new partisan alliances, right that there are some things that government just isn't able to do. He did not foresee decades down the road, but who can? The advent of the income tax and unlimited government, which quickly gave us the resources to join World War I, Sumner did not foresee. So he obviously couldn't have predicted any subsequent wars, or that such wars were justified in the most grandiose moral language. Our war against Spain in Cuba in 1898 was fraudulent and wrong, as all of our wars have been. Nevertheless, the Spanish-American War had to do with saving a neighboring (Cuban) people from chaos and injustice (winning the Philippines was an unintended consequence). The Spanish-American War had limited aims; it was not about saving the entire world.

Sumner could not have foreseen the process of lies and propaganda by which America became the savior of the entire world – not just a colonial power with rivals, but the dominant power on earth. It achieved this because a religious zeal overtook America in its wars, in which the principle of "non-aggression" became the actual excuse for aggression. Like Star Trek's Starship Enterprise obeying the Federation's "Prime Directive," the United States wouldn't interfere in the domestic affairs of any other civilization, unless that civilization had contrary interests to ours, or was morally hypocritical or otherwise repugnant. The fact that these criteria would indict every nation, just as it would every civilization the Enterprise ever visited, does not invalidate the high moral principle. We will just use our superior power and technology, in one way or another, to demonstrate to backward peoples the error of their ways. That's the American way, and it happens to be Captain Kirk's way, too.

Sumner dreaded the thought that America would adapt Rudyard Kipling's justification for British Empire as a morally inevitable "White Man's Burden" which our country was obliged to undertake. And, ultimately, we didn't, at least not exactly. But it's hard to say what we really have fought for instead since World War I. We gained nothing at all from World War I; we only made things worse. We fought the Nazis in World War II, willingly gave half the world over to the Communists, and then realized (!) that communism was actually more hostile to America than Nazism or Fascism ever could be.

World War II proved nothing but that Democracy hates human life. Russia's Communism? A democratic movement. Italy's fascism? The same. Hitler's Nazism? The same thing. The extension of socialism in Britain? Same thing. Nationalism in the United States (direct election of Senators, income taxes, Prohibition)? The exact same movement. All were justified not by a commitment to liberty, but by submission to Democracy.

Democracy is genocide, mass bombings, mass murder. Democracy is the principle that the individual doesn't count. Democracy is resentment and envy; it is venomous hatred of foreign peoples and anyone not like "us," especially, not like "me." Democracy is the principle that all people should suffer equally.

Sumner didn't foresee any of this. How could he? Nevertheless, our nation and the world have become even worse because we didn't heed his warnings. What I love about Sumner's speech is that at this stage of his life he was free to speak. He had come to regret his political activism of the 1870's. He was now free to speak in opposition. He spoke as one with no stake in the fight, Democratic or Republican. He did not endorse imperialism with some "concerns" or "reservations." He instead thought imperialism to be impractical, a Constitutional conundrum (are conquered peoples subject to the Constitution? Are they to be made states?), and immoral. He felt free to criticize his country, not just one Party.

It reminds me that, to find the truth in any historical period, it does little good to look at the partisan newspapers. Better to look for those who wrote in opposition. Henry David Thoreau and John C. Calhoun were diametrically opposed on the issue of slavery. Nevertheless, the one's individualism and the other's theory of state's rights each make more sense than Lincoln's "Tariffs – {cough} ahem, excuse me – Union Forever!" approach. Both Thoreau and Calhoun would have let the Southern states, or any state, secede. That's the point: Thoreau wouldn't want to pay taxes to a state or federal government that supported slavery. I wish I had that courage with regard to paying for somebody else's abortion through my taxes.

When I mean "Opposition," I don't mean one side or the other of the "we must hear both sides of the issue," the standard Democrat line or the Republican line. Whether "under God" should be in the Pledge of Allegiance is a typical issue which, so they say, in "fairness" people must hear "both sides." But it's actually the same side. The premise is that the purpose of the Pledge of Allegiance is noble, no questions asked. Devotion to the flag is already understood. You are not to think about any other flag: not your State flag, not the original Gadsden "Don't Tread on Me" revolutionary flag, and certainly not the Confederate flag. To the people in power, only the Stars and Stripes is sacred, whether or not it is "under God." But when I mean the Opposition, I don't mean the Party out of power at the moment who still support the Stars and Stripes. That is merely the opposing Party, jealous of the power it now lacks. This is different from the real Opposition.

The real Opposition doesn't seek power, because it is anti-government. Morality from time immemorial suggests, at minimum, "hurt no one." Do nothing to another person against that person's will. Respect their freedom. Granted, a higher level of personal happiness will be achieved if one goes beyond this minimum, to the idea of "do unto others as you would have done to you" and even greater with "love your neighbor as yourself." But these are only higher formulations of the original concept, and they can't possibly violate it. You can't love someone as yourself and hurt him at the same time. Freedom of the individual is the foundation of morality. And those who believe in the freedom of the individual will have two qualities: a respect for truth and a distrust of government.

This is the radical idea that has always outraged the powerful. When the economist Ludwig von Mises proved with logic the necessity of human freedom, he was exiled from his own land and couldn't even find a university that would pay his salary in the "freest" country in the world, the United States. That's why it is good to read his opus Human Action. (Or at least some of it!) It was published when the belief in statism was at its highest in America.

That's not to say that everyone in the Opposition was necessarily an anarchist. Mises himself wasn't one – at least, he never thought himself to be one. Neither were many of his pro-freedom American contemporaries.

Isabel Paterson, in The God of the Machine laments that the Bill of Rights did not apply to the states at the very beginning. (But she wrote in 1943 before the Supreme Court went completely insane). And I have never read a bigger cheerleader for American government than Rose Wilder Lane, in her Give Me Liberty and The Discovery of Freedom. And certainly Garet Garrett was no libertarian, having, in The American Story even called Prohibition a “noble experiment.” Nevertheless, these three writers, like Mises, “get it.” They knew what made America work, and that was free people encumbered only by small and limited government, which existed only by their own consent.

In comparison, Albert Jay Nock and H.L. Mencken, who were also contemporaries of the above, were anarchists. America worked best, not where there was small or limited government, but precisely in those places where government – more precisely, The State – didn't exist at all. Yet all of these defenders, anarchists or not, were part of what Murray Rothbard called the "Old Right," mainly because they had something truthful to say. Not because they were all in agreement. Not because everything they said was actually truthful, but that it was at least honestly truthful in the eyes of the writer. They believed in what they said, even at the expense of fame and fortune. It is in such people and such people alone – those who spoke as honestly as they saw it even at personal cost – that truth may be found. It might be found elsewhere, by accident. And it's never found among some kinds of conscientious dissenters, especially communists and other advocates of Statism. But where we see, more or less, a commitment to leave the individual alone, there will we also a commitment to truth and a strong suspicion of government. Lane, Paterson, and Garrett, and Ayn Rand afterward, may have been cheerleaders for American-style government as they understood it. But they never wrote in the hope of gaining power. They wrote instead on behalf of freedom; they supported America and American government because of how it protected American freedoms. Not because of how it took away those freedoms.

Truth is, without doubt, the primary enemy of The State, because Truth is Freedom. And it's an exciting time to be an enemy of The State, to be someone who calls it honestly. Honesty is indeed the best policy after all, because honesty is the freedom of the individual to tell the truth as he or she sees it. And maybe, just maybe, this is the age in which the tide begins to turn, where the Opposition will actually be listened to. There are strong signs that America is heading in that direction.

June 20, 2003