The Liberal in the Dark

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Albert Jay Nock

The Liberal in the Dark

Published in The Freeman, April 13, 1921

Albert Jay Nock, founder, Editors - Van Wyck Brooks, Walter G. Fuller, Clara La Follette, Francis Neilson, Albert Jay Nock, and Gerold Tanquary Robin

In attempting to define the position of the radical, we have had occasion to discuss in a friendly way the propositions advanced from time to time by our liberal friends; and we are tempted by the Nation's recent editorial on True Leadership once more to pry gently into the liberal mind. Our contemporary takes for its text President Hadley's plea for open-mindedness, critical judgment, vision, and courage as giving to leadership the knowledge whither to lead; a knowledge, we should add, that can not be looked for in the absence of a guiding principle by which to distinguish right from wrong. But a theoretical consistency of this sort is just what seems most to annoy the altruistic liberal, who regards it as the hobgoblin of little minds, and would like to believe with the Nation that "those who insist that their little panacea will cure all the world are less and less listened to or trusted"; that the must be classed as dangerous egotists, or as blind men offering their quack remedies of single tax, proportional representation, disarmament, communism, or nationalization of industry as capable of lifting us out of our present chaos. How, the radical may well ask, is it possible to dismiss this heterogeneous list of conflicting theories without the patient examination which would alone determine whether one or more of them may not offer a good enough panacea for all practical purposes? The situation would seem to him to call for intelligent discussion of the evidence.

That some such thoughts are stirring among liberals may be assumed when the Nation finds it necessary to warn its readers against anyone with a complete programme; and to hint at the invasion of editorial calm by those who attempt to distinguish between destructive and constructive criticism, and who require a plain statement of policy. While this paper [The Freeman] welcomes these evidences of intellectual ferment, it would be still more gratified over an attempt to analyse the proposed remedies with a view to discovering whether any of them are in harmony with natural laws - say the law of equal freedom - and are, therefore, worthy of active support. But the Nation having waved aside the theorists, propounds a theory of its own - that "the most that can be done to day is to grope step by step," accepting woman suffrage, peace, disarmament, free trade, and a world court as pointing in the right direction, since they "are of the fibre of democracy, justice, and Christianity."

If this then is the test, why was it not applied to the first group of remedies, discarded as doubtful panaceas? Or was disarmament the only one to meet the requirements? It would be interesting to know just why the Nation found, say, the single tax wanting in "democracy, justice and Christianity," since its advocates believe that it would serve democracy by returning to the people the power of which they have been robbed; that it would further justice by substituting equality of opportunity for legal privilege; and that it would give reality to the pretension of Christianity by invoking the Golden Rule in the daily business of life.

It is for these reasons that radicals have consistently demanded the reform of land-tenure as the basis of equity. Even while dismissing communist theories as erroneous, Herbert Spencer insisted that they were nearly related to truth, being "unsuccessful efforts to express the fact that whoso is born on this planet of ours thereby obtains some interest in it - may not be summarily dismissed again - may not have his existence ignored by those in possession." For the natural law recognizes that "all men have equal rights to the use of the earth." Neither democracy nor justice can be satisfied until the ancient wrong of disinheritance is righted; and as for Christianity, was it not St. Gregory who said, "In vain do they think themselves innocent who claim God's common gift as private to themselves," and St. Ambrose who regarded charity merely as an act of restitution, because "the earth is all men's and not the property of the rich," although "those who use their own are fewer than those who have lost the use of it"?

If we apply the same test to the reforms acceptable to the Nation, we must welcome the enfranchisement of women, in spite of their immediate service to reaction, because of our adherence to the law of equal freedom. Anxious as the radical may be for peace and disarmament, his study of cause and effect leads him to believe that these blessings can not be successfully imposed by compulsion after the manner of the prohibition amendment. His whole endeavour is to substitute voluntary co-operation for coercion, and he believes that the way to peace lies through economic freedom. It seems to him logical to suppose that the public appropriation of ground-rent will accomplish this purpose by making natural resources equally accessible to all men and all races. He is at a loss to understand how advocates of free trade can balk at the idea of freedom in the production of goods before the exchange takes place. But when land-monopoly comes up for discussion, a strange reticence overcomes critics whose moral judgments do not ordinarily lack vigour. Is one kind of freedom more in keeping with "democracy, justice, and Christianity" than the other, or have free-trade liberals simply neglected to follow the lead of truth beyond the conception of tariff for revenue only?

The question seems to us to be one of fundamental importance, for economic forces determine the issues of life and death. Given equal freedom to use the earth, such political expedients as international courts and parliaments seem of minor importance, if not superfluous. For national boundaries would cease to be barriers, and the fierce nationalist instinct would die for want of stimulant. An important part of wisdom is not only to know what to do, but to do first things first - to permit the needy to help themselves, for instance, before subjecting them to the formal operations of charity.

It is precisely because we can not pierce the veil of the future that we must cling to principles and apply them as fearlessly as we dare. If the liberal agrees to this general statement, what does he mean when in one breath he rails at the quack with his "immediate and complete specific," and in the next breath calls for "a definite philosophy, a definite chart of life, a definite and sound position towards human rights and aspirations? With such an equipment is he not ready to venture resolutely into the unknown instead of groping helplessly?

In the same issue of the Nation from which we have quoted, is an editorial comment on the New York rent-laws which have been upheld by the Court of Appeals, laws described by our contemporary as perhaps the most socialistic legislation in the history of the Commonwealth. Justice Pound's decision, exalting the powers of government at the expense of individual rights, the Nation accepts as "a much needed and encouraging assertion of the supremacy of human rights over those of property." This view is in line with the Nation's earlier suggestion that the government should commandeer and operate the houses to meet the emergency, and it illustrates the tendency of the liberal to drift into socialism because of his confusion of ideas regarding individual rights.

The liberal apparently sees no difference between the private ownership of the land on which the population must perforce live, and of houses which are the result of human exertion; there seems to be no clear distinction in his mind between private and public income; he is, therefore, unable to perceive that if the land laws remain unchanged, "co-operation assisted by public capital, or direct construction for sale or lease by the government is not a solution of the housing-problem on lines of sound principles based on human rights, but a confusion of morals and a postponement of the problem.

If the Nation would apply to this question the test of "democracy, justice, and Christianity" it might discover that democracy demands equality of opportunity in the use of land, that justice would apportion ground-rent to the community and house rent to the individual owner, while Christianity would applaud the attempt to limit Csar to his proper resources. But the liberal mind is still ruled by political ideas designed to postpone the economic emancipation.


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