A principle is an unvarying rule of action which has always been true and which permits of no exception.
If one conjectures about the early days of the human race, one is impressed at once by the early brutality of Homo sapiens.
There are few now who care to dissent when it is pointed out that man’s origins were coarse and cruel and that the movement toward civilization assisted in de-brutalizing and making more human and more tractable the peculiar entity we call brother.
One is left to marvel, in view of the nature of early men, that any progress was made at all. Force was almost the universal rule. And as every gentle modern knows, when force is directed against you, the easiest thing in the world is to reply in kind.
It can be suggested that the use of force and aggression was so common at one time among our species, that had every act of violence, inflicted by one against another of the race, been repaid in kind, it is doubtful if a single specimen would still be alive.
Somehow, somewhere, deep within our unknown past, someone got the idea of not retaliating in kind. Our survival to this date unquestionably rests upon that idea.
Nor is it necessary to explore human prehistory to establish this. It is only necessary to explore our history for the past several thousand years to note that war, murder, torture, beating, cruelties and the like, were inflicted so generally over so wide an area, that had each act of this kind been considered a debt to be paid, the blood feud would have wiped out the human race.
So, sometime a very long time ago, there were those of our species who, already partly civilized, set an example by striving to mind their own business and being unwilling to descend to the brutal level of those who engaged in aggression as a means to an end.
In the 20th century it appears that this lesson is going to have to be learned all over again. It appears that a new wave of brutality is poised, ready to sweep the globe. And in the main, normal human reaction is such that we prepare for aggression in an aggressive manner. We counsel one another that if “the other fellow” becomes brutal, he may yet learn brutality from us. Our retaliation will out-brutalize his brutality. And let that give him pause! This is the logic of the cave-man.
We are not suggesting that we should become supine and docile and the ready prey of the aggressor who is prepared to proceed in a cruel and inhuman manner. But we are suggesting that it is time we made use of our intellectual facilities rather than relying wholly on our ability to descend into the gutter to match a degraded opponent at that level.
In logic we have long understood that two wrongs do not make a right. And thus, if one individual inflicts a wrong upon another, the response is scarcely in keeping with logic if the victim of attack turns about and victimizes his attacker. What we must be willing to do, it would appear, is to act in such a way that the first act of aggression is forestalled. Aggression is always wrong. There can be no justification for it in any circumstances.
But our problem is not to control the other fellow so that he does as we wish. The “other fellow” controls himself and we cannot. We may not approve of the way he does it, but we cannot substitute our control for his.
Our problem is to control ourselves so that we become masters of the situation. We must concern ourselves with the moral recognition that we must not join the ranks of the aggressors, even for what may appear to be cause.
Governments, by their nature, are invariably agencies of aggression. This is our excuse for having them; they can be employed against the “other fellow” to compel him to provide the money for our schemes, to compel him to do or not to do in accordance with our wishes.
But to the degree that we rely on government, which is our agency of aggression, to this degree do we reject civilization. If we can learn to recognize the merit of non-aggression, and hence of voluntary action, we will begin to employ the market place to a fuller degree and ultimately we may be able to abandon government reliance totally.
The dawn of future ages depends upon man’s ability to rely on moral principles and to reject aggression.
Customs and Morals
Some people experience confusion over the differences between moral law and custom. In many a college classroom and elsewhere there is a tacit agreement that these are merely two words to express a single idea. It is conceived that customs and morals are the same thing and that what a given people do is, in fact, what that people believe is the correct and moral thing to do.
It will be argued, for example, that cannibals are every bit as moral as non-cannibals. The only thing which differentiates cannibals from non-eaters of human flesh is custom. Cannibals have a morality, we are told, which permits them to practice dietary habits which are repulsive to us. But this does not make them immoral, it merely serves to indicate that there are no moral laws as such. Custom controls all and morality (a widely shared opinion) sets the pattern for whatever the custom will be.
We are in sharp disagreement. We believe there are moral laws as absolute and final as the laws of physics or chemistry. In the latter case, the laws have always existed but until very recent years men knew little or nothing about them. Man’s ignorance in these fields did not eliminate these laws. They existed always. Through science and study, through experiment, exchange of thought and deep concentration, man has managed to learn some of the laws in nature’s handbook.
We believe the same is true of moral law. Such law has always existed. It rests upon the nature of things as they are. Man may not know what moral laws actually exist. But if he will study and observe and remember, he can learn that because things are the way they are, certain behavior patterns are correct and proper and others are not.
Cannibals are merely human beings who have not studied their lessons. Were they capable of abstract or deductive reasoning they would quickly discover that the practice of cannibalism is destructive of their own self-interest.
Morals and customs are not the same thing. Throughout the world most human beings have a sense of moral rightness which exists at a higher level than the customs they have adopted. In fact, one can discern the progress of the species in an upward direction as one follows the history of man from earliest times and observes his improved customs. Rarely, if ever, has any group of men been able to make their customs and their moral ideals coalesce at all points.
Consider the United States today. Morally, we inveigh against theft. We have laws to punish the thief or the robber. We try to teach our children the validity of property rights and constantly remind them they must not take for themselves things which belong to someone else. Customarily, we will punish the person who steals, either when he is a child and parental responsibility is invoked, or when he is an adult, and the state authority is called upon.
In these two instances we have tried to make morality and custom the same. But this in no way establishes that custom and morality are identical. For in the United States, to a very real degree, nearly everyone practices theft of a different kind. Morally, we don’t approve of it. Customarily, we practice it.
We are referring here to legalized theft, committed through the offices of an agency of plunder and looting called government.
Although legalized stealing and illegal stealing can be defined in precisely the same terms, and hence would be contrary to our moral sensibilities, the fact is that, like the cannibals, we have not studied our lessons.
The family which subsists on a government dole is subsisting on stolen money. Yet this family will have no qualms in the matter. The persons receiving a monthly cut in public loot accept this as their due. Yet, such a family will possibly have very strong opposition to an act of illegal theft, even as they share in the immorality of general and public theft. At this point, custom and morality do not agree. The former trails behind the latter.
Yet we can learn, if we do our homework, that like cannibalism, the practice of public theft works to our undoing. In spite of the arguments of fear, it is always wrong to steal and legal justification does not make right that which is morally wrong.
Ends and Means are Different
Consistency, ah, consistency! This is the cornerstone of logic.
All knowledge rests upon our ability to match things which are alike and to disassociate things which are not alike.
Here we have four major elements. Things that are identical; things that are similar; things that are dissimilar; things that are opposites. Our ability to analyze things correctly and to match them correctly or reject the matching is the cornerstone of reason.
Let us take the philosophy of freedom.
We hold that the concept of freedom rests upon the means and the methods to be employed to attain that which we wish to attain. Freedom is not so much a goal as it is a direction to be taken in an effort to reach our various and divergent goals.
Thus, any study of freedom must concern itself primarily with a methodology rather than an objective.
Here are six desirable things we would like to see everyone have.
- Good education.
- A large income.
- The best medical care.
- A comfortable home.
- Ample food and clothing.
- Protection of life and property.
Every one of these things is good. Surely, no one will dispute that. But if we believe in freedom it isn’t the ends alone that concern us. We must also be concerned with the means taken to secure these ends. For if, in our blindness, we do not count the cost of the things we want, we will, perhaps, achieve something for ourselves while making it impossible for someone else to have the same tangible goods that we want.
This is the folly of turning to the government to provide us with the ends we seek.
For instance, if we call upon the government to provide good education for everyone, we are actually asking that everyone be assessed in some way to pay for that education.
Let us see if this is justified. Whereas we have assumed that all six of the ends named are desirable ends, they are not desired in equal intensity by everyone. Some persons may not be particularly interested in education, but may be far more interested in the best possible medical care obtainable.
Surely, this is legitimate. We do not expect everyone to want everything in precisely the same way at the same time, do we?
But we are beginning with education. So we institute a general tax on everyone so that schools will be provided and everyone will have education. Or at least everyone will have a tax-paid opportunity to spend a certain amount of time in school. These are not the same things.
But what have we done in the process?
We have impaired the ability of those persons who put medical care first in their own scale of values, to get the medical care they want and could otherwise afford. We have substituted our scale of values for theirs.
Not only is this not justified, we have actually injured everyone to some degree who doesn’t happen to agree with us about the primacy of education.
This is what happens when we confuse ends with means. Because we hold that formal education is good, we have decided that a coercive and corruptive means of obtaining that end is good.
Precisely the same rules can be applied with the other five ends we listed. And after that, we could list the thousands upon thousands of desirable ends all of us would like to achieve.
Every time we use the wrong means to obtain a good end, we impair the ability of others to get the things they want out of life. Is this consistency? Is it wise? Is it even feasible?
Somewhere the end must be reached in the employment of wrong means.
Take Time for Truth
There is always enough time for truth.
Many men do not think so. They fancy that they will make greater gains if they assume there is no time for truth and, therefore, that something else must be believed. There isn’t time to think things through to the right answer; we must act and act now.
If one can dispassionately view the progress of the human race, he can see men hurrying and scurrying about, down through the ages, muddling and bungling along and making what progress they make, not so much by dint of careful individual planning of their own lives, but by trial and error. Man has advanced from the simple brute to what largely could be called the political brute because, in spite of all, he has kept trying.
Life persists and human beings persevere.
Many scholars today are in agreement that one of the reasons we have advanced no further than we have relates to the dearth of a generally accepted philosophy of realism which would both properly and ideally orient man to his environment and his fellow man. But most of us are not willing to move quietly through our lives in pursuit of truth and then in alignment to that truth.
We have noticed recently a number of traffic warnings in various parts of the country which express this thought: “Slow down and live.” In a sense, this slogan could be adapted to our national unrest and applied with some merit to our propensity for action. Perhaps a more accurate slogan would be: “Slow down for truth.”
A certain degree of trial and error, in our more primitive days, was doubtless inevitable and perhaps desirable. With virtually no history to rely on and little in the way of actual knowledge to guide us, trial and error is about all we had.
But today, with man’s enormously advanced technology, unless trial and error can be confined to the laboratory, we may make a shambles out of society by one unnecessary trial and by one unforgivable error.
And the place so few are willing to give up massive experimentation is in society, where the lives of other people are to be tampered with.
It should be clear by now that in our American civilization, as an example, we have made great progress and there is yet great progress to be made. There must be a complete willingness on the part of all of us to examine this progress, or this lack of it, discover that which is true and right, and then to discard that which is not true or right and replace it with something which comes closer to the realism our times demand.
There is, unfortunately, both a tendency to discard the whole thing, which would reduce us to savagery, and an equally noticeable tendency to cling tenaciously to every facet of it, which would seal us into a living tomb of error.
We know of no way out of the dilemma except by the processes of rational thought, logic, scientific inquiry and individual freedom in which self-discipline can be practiced. Obviously, these things are not much to the liking of most of us. But it is becoming more and more apparent that to the degree we neglect them and instead look to our government to show us the way, to that degree do we compound our problems and fail utterly either to solve them or to stop creating them.
If there is one lesson which the times cry out for us to learn, it is this: Stop trusting government.
Government, when it is examined, turns out to be nothing more nor less than a group of fallible men with the political force to act as though they were infallible. Remove the political force and these same men would be as ordinary and as reasonable as any of us. And in order for us to take time for the truth we are going to have to someway help to create the kind of climate in which government cannot and will not keep rushing us frantically into the next round of folly. Reason and political force are deadly enemies.
For thousands of years we have relied upon political force. We cannot rely on it a moment longer. The greater and the more reliable agency of our time is individual reason.
Robert LeFevre (1911–1986) was a businessman and radio personality, and the founder of the Freedom School in Colorado Springs, Colorado, whose purpose was to educate people from all walks of life in the libertarian intellectual tradition. Before it closed in 1968, it had featured among its rotating faculty Rose Wilder Lane, Milton Friedman, F.A. Harper, Frank Chodorov, Leonard Read, Gordon Tullock, G. Warren Nutter, Bruno Leoni, James J. Martin, and even Ludwig von Mises. His library and papers are housed at the Mises Institute.
February 19, 2009
Reprinted from Voluntaryist.com