Liberty Is Not Free

Address by Dr. John A. Howard
Director, Rockford College Institute

Rotary Club of Dayton, Ohio
May 8, 1978

If someone were to ask you what is the genius of Rotary International, what is it that has given Rotary the vitality to spread across the world and continue to gain strength in so many diverse nations, it is likely you would respond that it is the ideals of Rotary which give it its power and its vigor. The concept of service above self is the animating principle of the organization, and an individual club will prosper or falter according to the degree of selfless service provided by its officers and members. This is a simple and basic analysis of a complex international organization, but nevertheless it is an altogether accurate and unfailing yardstick. The higher a Rotary Club rises toward the ideal of service above self, the greater its strength and the more devoted its members.

I suggest that that same formula applies to every group of human beings whether it is a family, a baseball team, a college, a corporation, a church, or a nation. There must be some commonly held ideals, and the closer the unit comes to deliver on those ideals, the greater the satisfaction of the members and the greater the achievements of the group. Let us remember what an ideal is: it is a concept of perfection. Since that is the case, we imperfect mortals can never achieve it, but that eternal shortfall in no way invalidates the usefulness of the ideal, the target toward which we strive. As Robert Browning stated, “A man’s reach must exceed his grasp or what’s a heaven for?”

This afternoon, I want to set before you an analysis of our society which considers our problems in the context of the necessity of common ideals for the success of the group. Let us begin by registering on the nature of a civilization. The definition of a savage is an individual who does his own thing. That is precisely what a savage is, a person who gratifies his whims and passions without regard to the consequences for anyone else. In contrast to a group of savages, every civilization must have some techniques for insisting that its members do certain things and for preventing its members from doing other things so that the group is not permanently involved in intramural hostilities and so that group objectives can be achieved. If human life is prized, then there must be techniques for preventing the citizens from killing each other. If it is believed people should have the privilege of having their own household, then the sanctity of the home must be established. And so on.

There are many kinds of civilizations. At one extreme is the dictatorship where the officers at headquarters decide what the people shall do and what they shall not do, and their decisions are enforced by secret police, prison camps, compliance officers, terrorism, torture and other techniques of tyranny. At the other end of the civilization spectrum is what is called a free society, and I emphasize the what is called. It is not a society in which everyone does his own thing — that, remember, is the cluster of savages. In a successful free society, a responsible free society, the citizens voluntarily abide by a great number of informal codes of conduct. In the free society, the do’s and don’ts are voluntarily observed by the people who respect those codes as cherished ideals. Those codes of conduct are manifold. They include religious commandments, morals, manners, civility, integrity, professional ethics, sportsmanship, the particular rules of each organization, and above all a sense of lawfulness, not just the observance of the codes for fear of paying the penalties of wrongdoing, but a deep-seated respect for the rules as necessary and useful, and a willingness to use group pressures to encourage the neighbors to observe the codes.

When the informal rules break down trouble ensues. When sportsmanship is abandoned, an athletic contest becomes a savage exercise of brute force and cunning deceit. It is not a civilized sport, but a barbarity. When the norms of sexual conduct, which are always necessary to support the institution of marriage, break down, the family comes unglued and the people behave like animals. When laws are no longer respected, crime becomes rampant.

It is, I believe, indisputable that this free nation of ours prospered because of the specific set of ideals which were woven into the fabric of our society. Among the most basic of those ideals were a respect for law, a respect for private property and a belief that it is an essential part of human dignity for the individual to provide for himself and his family. Economic self-reliance was a cornerstone of the Protestant ethic. In a biography of Patrick Henry, he is quoted as having been trained by his uncle in the code of values by which he conducted his life:

“To be true and just in all my dealings. To bear no malice or hatred in my heart. To keep my hands from picking and stealing. Not to covet other men’s goods, but to learn and labor truly to get my own living and to do my duty in that state of life unto which it shall please God to call me.”

The collapse of that set of ideals and the erosion of the codes of conduct which supported them are, I suggest, the principal causes of the circumstances which are closing in on private enterprise. The supposition that you can get something for nothing has overwhelmed good sense and is driving us toward national bankruptcy. In contrast to the ideal of self-­reliance stated so firmly by Patrick Henry, more and more of our citizens have come to believe that the government owes them food, clothing, shelter, symphony orchestras, art galleries , medical care, a good income, etc. As Walter Judd has observed, “Jesus said, ‘Seek and ye shall find’, the welfare state says, ‘Sit down, we’ll bring it to you.'” Please note that this is not simply a matter of economic ignorance, it is a whole philosophy of life: the belief that the citizens have a right to be taken care of.

Inflation, unbalanced budgets, scarcity of capital, and all of the adverse financial circumstances that are closing in on capitalism are the direct and predictable results of the shift from a general belief in self-­reliance to a general belief in the socialist welfare state. This is not a matter which can be attended to by economic education, it is a much more basic matter, a whole construct of thinking about the individual and the government.

But that is only half the problem. Just as it is hopelessly naive and devastating for a society to believe that you can get something for nothing economically, to go on acting as if there is such a thing as a free lunch, it is equally stupid to suppose that you can sustain a free civilization, in the absence of self-discipline. When respect for the law, respect for private property, integrity and the concepts embodied in Rotary’s four-way test are no longer generally accepted as guides for the citizen’s conduct, then vandalism, theft, embezzlement, collusion and many other forms of legal and illegal irresponsibility begin to multiply and the society moves rapidly toward savagery, toward an every-man-for-himself, dog-eat-dog jungle. Faced with the collapse of self-discipline and the horrible consequences of it, people clamor for more laws and more regulations and the regulatory bureaucracy multiplies until we all have thirty-seven government functionaries looking over our shoulders and telling us how to manage everything we do. Organized private endeavor is swamped in governmental regulations, and private enterprise, as such, is converted into activities run by a governmental tyranny.

Capitalism, which is nothing more than the economic dimension of a free nation, is the double victim of the collapse of the informal codes of conduct. Capitalism is impaled on both horns of the welfare state dilemma, the unbearable cost of taking care of everyone and the smothering effect of over-regulation by a busybody bureaucracy.

Well, some day we must face up to the fact that there is nothing in human nature which inclines the human being to live according to the codes of conduct which make freedom possible. It is perhaps sad, but certainly true that the human being must be trained for his responsibilities in any group, and must be given extra training if it is a group that aspires to freedom. It is far easier to sustain a successful tyranny than a successful free nation.

For a century and a half, the schools and colleges of our country, like the educational institutions of every other society up to that time, consciously trained our young how to live affirmatively and effectively in their homeland. Citizenship education and character education were given top priority. The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 set aside lands, the revenues from which were to be used for education. In referring to this purpose, that historic document stated, “Religion, morality and knowledge being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means for education shall be forever encouraged.” Notice that set of priorities — religion, morality and knowledge. At Rockford College where I serve, the presidents of the College until well into this century, all carried the double title, “President and Professor of Moral and Ethical Philosophy”. There was no confusion about what was most important in the educational process.

Let us contrast that traditional view of education with what has come to prevail in our time. We have seen most of our institutions of higher learning move from having the highest priority set on citizenship and character education, to the exact opposite wherein it is now considered a grievous sin to try to transmit any specific set of values to the students. The eternally open mind, with all points of view equally welcome, has become the domineering orthodoxy in the schools and colleges. Those who advocate Communistic tyranny must be granted equal status with those who understand and cherish freedom. Those who glorify the elimination of capitalism or any other aberration or idiocy must be granted their place on the platform and as teachers in the classroom.

The destructive impact of this value-neutrality is hard for most people to imagine.

When I served on the National Commission on Marijuana and Drug Abuse, the same massage came through over and over again. When the university failed to take a formal position that because marijuana is illegal it would not be tolerated on the campus, but instead had a policy that marijuana use was a matter of indifference to the university and the student should decide, it turned out to be an open invitation to try this mind-altering drug.

If you wished to design an educational system for the express purpose of destroying liberty, you could not do better than today’s academic orthodoxy of value-neutrality as the overarching principle. The gravity of this situation is, of course, increased by the value neutrality which has spread to the other primary influences in the opinion-making apparatus, television, rock music, novels, plays, poetry, popular and intellectual magazines and to an increasing extent, even the church.

My friends, liberty is not free. And private enterprise, which is nothing but the economic dimension of liberty is also not free. Both are fundamentally and eternally dependent upon a disciplined and self-reliant citizenry. If the leaders of American business genuinely wish to reinvigorate the capitalistic system and free it from the jeopardy of ruinous taxation, regulation, inflation and assault by thieves, vandals and arsonists, they will need to redirect their principal efforts. The fulcrum on which the survival or collapse of capitalism is balancing is neither economic nor political, but cultural. It is the opinion making apparatus — the educational institutions, the television, the magazines and so forth — which are selling the citizens on the philosophy of do-your-own-thing, live it up and have a good time and the government must take care of you.

The central task is to reenlist the cultural institutions in behalf of liberty, to persuade them that they, too, are dependent upon re-establishing those informal codes of conduct. This is not an easy task, but I am convinced that it can be more readily accomplished than one might suppose. This, as you might suspect, is a primary objective of our work at the Rockford College Institute. If any of you are interested as to how this might be done, I have with me some copies of one of our recommendations, and you are welcome to take one.

To conclude these comments, let me return to the place we started. Rotary International has prospered because it is not confused about its ideals. It has held proudly to the ideal of service. Its new officers each year proclaim and interpret those ideals and new members are given instructions in the objectives of Rotary. Our country also prospered as long as it held to the ideals of liberty, as long as its officers proclaimed those ideals and the children were instructed in them. Now that those ideals have been cast off, our free society is seeing a rapid increase in undisciplined and barbarous conduct and a growing effort to suppress that conduct by government regulation and tyranny. If America wishes to breathe new life into liberty and reestablish the conditions conducive to a thriving capitalism, it will need to take a page out of the book of Rotary International and once again give top priority to its ideals.

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