William F. Buckley, Author, Editor and Lecturer
November 2, 1973
The Assault on the Free Market
A few weeks ago I listened attentively to Mr. John Kenneth Calbraith and Mr. Jean Francois Revel discussing the virtues and vices of America, mostly of the latter. Mr. Revel, some of you will recall, is the French philosopher who two or three years ago wrote a book tantalizingly entitled A FUTURE WITHOUT MARX OR JESUS. Parenthetically, I can understand a future without Marx, but it has always seemed to me that if our future is indeed to be without Jesus, the decision will likely be His, not ours. And that in any event, Jesus is not bound by the deliberations even of best-selling French philosophers. Not that He should disdain them. Jesus desires a good press, even in France. Though to be sure he is mostly ignored by the press. I have no doubt that the great religious revival in America will occur only after Jack Anderson reveals that on the third day in fact Christ arose.
Mr. Revel joined Mr. Galbraith in deploring economic assumptions in America, assumptions that would become the theme in due course, or had been the theme of George McGovern's campaign. But Mr. Revel said there is in America: "An increasing rejection of a society motivated by profit, dominated exclusively by economic considerations, ruled by the spirit of competition and subjected to the mutual aggressiveness of its members." This passage he concluded by saying that beneath every revolutionary idea, we find the conviction that man has become the tool of his tools, and that he must once more become an end and a value in himself.
Concerning these comments, a few observations:
1) I do not know of any society that is dominated exclusively by economic considerations. I think that what we have been seeing rather is the continuing disposition of many people to ascribe an economic motivation to every human transaction. It was after all only two years ago that an organization of militant ladies who called themselves Another Mother for Peace bombarded the Congress of the United States with 600,000 signatures of Americans who protested the Vietnam War, after having been advised by that committee that the war was actually being fought in behalf of the oil interests of America. And indeed it transpired that a report has been circulating to the effect that U.S. oil companies were poised to take 400 million barrels of oil per day out of the Indo-Chinese shelf beginning on the week that South Vietnam won its victory. To move on with the story, a Congressional committee discovered after patient investigation that a) 400 million barrels of oil per day is indisputably a lot of oil. In fact it is ten times as much oil as is taken daily out of the rest of the entire world combined, that b) the United States owned no concessions off Indo China, and c) no oil had been discovered off Indo China. But those clerical corrections, and others like them, did not significantly diminish the ranks of the true believers, who continued to contend that the principal motive of the United States in Southeast Asia has been economic.
2) Once we have fought our way through the lines of the orthodox economic determinists, whose arguments are soft and sloppily deployed, we come upon a superior force which is ethical in nature, suggested by Mr. Revel's contention that our society inasmuch as it is "motivated by profit" is therefore subjected to the mutual aggressiveness of its members. It is as you know widely suggested that it has been a reaction against such aggressiveness that caused the great upheavals of the past years. Yet during the most vociferous years in the late sixties and early seventies, there were student riots not only in Chicago and Berkeley, but in Paris and Madrid, Tokyo and Berlin, New Delhi and Mexico, not to say the whole of China. On and on they came, their geographical coordinates unpredictable, such that the taxonomists finally threw up their instruments in dismay after attempting unsuccessfully to correlate the dissatisfactions with private enterprise, or for that matter the Vietnam War, or racism which, if you throw in clitoral orgasm, constitute, I suppose a comprehensive list of the major student concerns of that decade. And they say the social convulsions, whose reality we cannot dispute, did not so greatly surprise observers whose Richter scales are less easily disturbed than those of the New York Times. Professors Christopher Dawson and David Riesman, a historian and a sociologist, to name only two of the scholars who come readily to mind, had long been aware among so many others of the phenomenon of what they called anomie, the great fault in human nature which like the geophysical faults that cause elemental disturbances beneath the surface of the earth, caused deracinated man to shudder with fright and loneliness and despair. Even so I think it is instructive to ask, why so often as in the works of Professor Revel and Galbraith, the thrust of their criticism is lodged against the free marketplace, against the institution of private property. What is it that they prefer?
Mr. Galbraith, whose most recent book was reviewed the other day in the New York Times, proclaims himself now I think belatedly as a socialist, no doubt in the book in which he spoke so enthusiastically about the People's Republic of China, he did so in part because he found Mao's China liberated from the afflictions of the free marketplace. Mind you, in the book he acknowledged the authoritarian character of the regime, but quickly he puts a gloss on it. "Dissidents," he writes, that is how he describes Chinese who want to read books they want to read, or who want to change their jobs or leave the country or practice their religion "dissidents are brought firmly into line in China, but one suspects with great politeness. It is a firmly authoritarian society," he says, "in which those in charge smile and say please." In Mr. Galbraith's book, Mao Tse-tung emerges as a sort of Rector of Justin.
But we focus now narrowly on the economic arrangements in China. Authoritarianism can indeed we all know work marvels, as Mr. Calbraith, ever the wistful former head of the Office of Price Administration during the second world war discerns, listen: "In any other country," Mr. Galbraith observes, "the difference between urban and rural incomes would set in motion a large movement of people to the cities, and in China it once did. This is not now happening. The reason is straight forward. The Chinese are assigned jobs and remain where they are assigned."
And then Professor Galbraith, perhaps the leading cultural critic in America of the free market, gets quite specific. After all, he was in China as an economist, indeed as President of the American Economics Association, and he was traveling there with the two predecessor presidents of the Association. And so in one chapter the great economist strips for action and becomes all professional, like Charles Darwin whipping out his magnifying glass. "While the higher authority decides what prices are to be," writes Professor Galbraith about the workings of a municipal market place in Peking, "such authority is intelligently susceptible to suggestions as to when abundance requires reduction and scarcity an increase. The keeper of the apple stall whom I consulted informally told me that of course apples were reduced in price as the autumn advanced and the supply became more abundant." Leaping Lizards! The socialist alternative to the free marketplace. Reduce the price of apples when they are abundant, increase the price of apples when they are scarce. Score one more thought for Chairman Mao.
Now granted "higher authority," that is the term they use in China isn't always finely tuned to the vagaries of human nature, to such things as harvest yields and fluctuating tastes and reallocations of still higher authority, and when the highest authority himself makes wrong decisions, well Professor Tobin, writes Mr. Galbraith about his traveling companion, a former head of the American Economics Association and economics advisor to the late George McGovern Professor Tobin observes that there are no dogs or cats in China, the reason Mr. Galbraith explains is presumably economic. If food has been scarce and rationed, affection for a participating pet must diminish. This seems especially probable, he concludes, if the pet is itself edible. Let me tell you something, Professor Galbraith, and Professors Revel and Tobin and anyone else who wants to hear it. The reason for eating one's pet dog isn't economic, it is biological. It is the assertion of biological need over economic choice, and it is to such biological compulsions that the Chinese were recently driven by higher authority and when higher authority, assuming the mantle of the marketplace, makes miscalculations so serious that not even great politeness serves to bring dissidents into line, why then the muzzle of a gun becomes the only relevant article in the marketplace and the supply of guns in China never fluctuates with the seasons.
By that time Mr. Galbraith has finished his brief passage in China and is back now in America, preaching the anachronism of the free marketplace and the price system and dealing with his own dissenters not always with great politeness.
Perhaps Samuel Johnson went too far when he remarked 200 years ago that man is seldom so innocently engaged as when in pursuit of profit. But I confess to being more shaken by the complementary suggestion that the free marketplace introduces mutual aggressiveness. Surely that, not Johnson's, is the climactic effrontery. The notion that it is an act of aggression to lay before the individual a choice whether of canned soups or of economic textbooks or of newspapers, by that token it is an act of aggression to write another song, or paint a canvas or set down a verse or write a judicial opinion, on the grounds that by doing so we muscle into territory already spoken for. The ethical case against the free marketplace retreats but leaves us facing the entrenched positions of the critics of our society whose complaint is against the dehumanization of Western economic arrangements as summarized by Professor Revel's conclusion that over here, man has become the tool of his tools, ceasing to be an end and a value in himself, and reminding us that the search of our revolutionist is for the restoration of the individual as once again an end and a value in himself.
I myself view the mechanization of the individual as the principal commitment of American secularism, who have lost hold of the metaphysical arguments, leaving them with a philosophy of positivism to which they now can enjoin with great facility, the phenomenological opportunism.
I remember it was ten years ago the analysis touching on the quick of the problem done by a stylish young intellectual who put it this way: Once upon a time, he told the audience, it was worth the risk of dying for two reasons. The first was that heroism was rewarded in another world. The second was that heroism was rewarded in the memory of man, who built the foundations of freedom upon the sacrifices of others. But now, he said, now that we know from the scientific evidence that there is in fact no other world, no future world, no transcendent heaven, and now that we have invented weapons that are capable of destroying all of mankind and therefore all of human memory along with it, what is the reason left for heroism, for war, or even for the risk of war, he asks.
One can see that the cutting edges of the argument nowadays stress, you have noticed, not so much as they did ten years ago the nuclear war that would abolish mankind, as they do the senselessness of any war. The senselessness even of the threat of war. Indeed derivatively the senselessness of a convincing army, navy and air force. Tools of our tools. Why, then ask in effect, what is the justifying point of an armed service in a nuclear age? It seems to me, finding oneself in a polemical corner, that one had merely to reach into one's arsenal as Patrick Henry did and pull out the arrow that has freedom written on it, and touch it down on the skeptic and he would waste away like the witch come in contact with water. You will have noticed it doesn't work any more. Freedom is increasingly accepted as a condition describable only by subjective postulation.
Professor Ross Terrill of Harvard, author of the two most influential articles that have appeared in our time on the subject of Red China, articles that were avidly read by the President of the United States and all the press who accompanied him to Peking two years ago, is to be distinguished from the famous apologists for Stalin's Russia who made their way by simply denying the crimes imputed to Stalin during the thirties and forties. Terrill denies nothing. He doesn't disguise the condition of life in China today, not for a minute. After informing us that in China there is no freedom to practice religion, nor to vote, nor to express oneself freely, nor to read books or periodicals one desires to read, nor to join a labor union nor to change one's job nor to travel to another city or another country, he notes ingenuously: people ask me, is China free? He answers with great difficulty: "depends what you mean by freedom," he says. Freedom is always defined with reference to the limitations of the relevant entity, and whereas the operative entity in the west is the individual, in China it happens to be the whole state, and he illustrates. Consider the writer Ku Mojo. In the thirties he wrote books for a mere four or five or at most eight thousand people. Now, he is required by the state to write books that will appeal to 20-30 million people. Is that wrong, the Harvard professor asks? Then there is the researcher at Peking University whose affinity had been for abstract science, but who was recently directed to concentrate all of his time on pest control. Is that wrong, Terrill asks, once again. And I think we begin to understand the phenomenon.
The ideological egalitarianism that rushes in after practical diplomacy, such that Richard Nixon who went to China to establish a dialogue with Mao Tse-tung, ended by likening Mao's revolution to America's revolution, ended by proclaiming that we would have a "long march together" as if to say that Mao too is entitled to his Via Dolorosa, why should we not ecumenically share our own with him. Where is Vatican Three? And there is Mr. Nixon, seated next to Madame Mao Tse-tung, watching resignedly in the little chamber ballet become agitprop, a violation of art as well as of manners. It was as though we had invited the Presidents of the black African republics to the White House there to show them a ballet on the theme of Little Black Sambo, and Mr. Nixon returning to the United States, proclaiming at Andrews Air Force Base the great enthusiasm the Chinese people feel for their government. Indeed the Chinese have done much to illustrate ways of generating enthusiasm for their government and no doubt Mr. Nixon is professionally fascinated by them. But we see through him the movement of western opinion.
What really is so bad about Red China? Their ways are not our ways to be sure. But is it seriously proposed that we should be prepared to die if necessary in order to avoid living by their word rather than by our own, which is in any case corrupt, racist, decadent, and above all materialist? The ongoing search for a new American revolution that would restore meaning to the individual is up against the most conspicuous precedents of this century. Two great revolutions whose extirpative passion however proved to be the elimination of the individual. And indeed we note that the revolutionary rhetoric of the day pays only formalistic attention to the individual, preferring to appeal to "the people." Indeed metaphysical defenses of man are somehow just a little embarrassing, irrelevant. Even Whittaker Chambers, the ardent counter-revolutionist, would make gentle scorn of the inflexible defenders of the individual. The late Mr. Frank Meyer, for instance, whose implacable book which he called IN DEFENSE OF FREEDOM, was current when the Republicans suffered their great Congressional defeat of 1958. If the Republican Party does not find a way to appeal to the mass of the people, Chambers wrote me at that time, it will find itself voted into singularity. It will become then something like the little shop you see in the crowded parts of great cities, in which no business is done or expected. You enter it and find an old man in the rear fingering for his own pleasure oddments of cloth, caring not at all if he sells any. As your eyes become accustomed to the gaslights, you are only faintly surprised to discover that the old man is Frank Meyer.
I submit to the critics of American society that if they are truly concerned about the survival of the individual, they should focus on him and on his needs. Focus on those oddments of cloth, by a familiarity with which a few men and women know to hesitate not at all when someone asks the question, is it wrong for the state to tell the writer what to write? Is it wrong for the state to tell the scientist what to study? Those few who do not hesitate to answer, yes, it is wrong, it was always wrong, it is now wrong, and will forever be wrong. The old man with the oddment of cloth is fingering some of the great truths that enable us to penetrate the sophistries by which we are somehow dissuaded that we can serve the individual by moving against the principal institution through which the individual asserts what freedom of movement our modern architects have left him with, or that we can make a profitable beginning by revolutionary renouncing religion which tells us in the words of Ecclesiastes that God has made man upright.
The subject is strangely, quietly saddening, as we meet here to defend the free market. In Russia the people crowd to the only free market left. It is the black market, and they pay their 80 rubles, a month's wages, for a single novel by Solzhenitsyn. And there in Russia, whose rulers denounced the marketplace fifty years ago with a blaze of trumpets and a rain of bullets aimed righteously at the temples of teenage girls and a hemophiliac boy in a cellar in central Asia, there in Russia fifty years after the advent of socialism, there are old men and old women and young men and young women who transcribe by hand not for profit from Radio Liberty, risking prison by the very act of listening to it, the latest novel of Solzhenitsyn, word after word, sentence after sentence, page after page. A process that takes them months to complete. Resulting not in thousands, let alone millions of copies, but a few dozen or perhaps a few hundred, the oddments of cloth. But it is worth it. Worth everything to preserve those oddments. To make them available to those who are graced with a thirst for them. The books of Solzhenitsyn accumulate even as the disdain for the institutions for freedom perversely accumulates. For an understanding of which paradox we find no help at all in the modern Utopian gospels, but considerable help in Christ, whose servant Paul observed that though our outward man perish, yet the inward man is renewed, day by day.