Skip to main content

Liberty and the State

ISSUE:  Spring 1937

The New Deal. By the Editors of The London Economist. New York: Alfred A. Knopf Company. $1.50. The Future of Liberty. By George Soule. New York: The Macmillan Company. $2.00. The Blessings of Liberty. By Francis Pickens Miller. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press. $1.50. The Theory and Practice of Socialism. By John Strachey. New York: Ran,dom House. $3.00. The Philosophy of Fascism. By Mario Palmieri. Chicago: The Dante Alighicri Society. $2.50. “We or Thef; Two Worlds in Conflict. By Hamilton Fish Armstrong. New York: The Macmillan Company. $1.50.

For lucidity, brevity, competence, and dispassionate statement, there is hardly a better survey of the first three years of the Roosevelt administration than the series of essays by the editors of the London Economist entitled “The New Deal.” They have wisely eschewed the application of an absolute or uniform standard for the various measures comprised under the New Deal. They pay unstinted tribute to the admirable elasticity and the willingness to experiment with problems new to the United States, and to the high humanitarian spirit for the relief of the unemployed. In its practical administration, they regard the N. R. A. as “muddled and incoherent” in its basic theory. On the other hand, they praise the agricultural policy as a measure necessary to counteract the decline in the export markets so long as the agricultural prices were below parity. As to the deficits, they hold that the expenditures neither delayed “spontaneous” recovery nor created it, but that they filled the gaps until business recovery made its appearance. Furthermore, they believe that without going off the gold standard, recovery would have been “somewhat slower and more timid,” and that it may very well be that the other nations of the world, taking them as a whole, “have gained rather more from the greater elan of America’s recovery than they have lost from the undoubted currency aggression with which it began.” The defects of the New Deal were mainly due to the attempt to combine recovery and reform, and to the pressure for quick action and results, so that today, from the standpoint of reform, the great problems of the country have been hardly touched, and the political problem of how America is to construct “a socially responsible and socially regulated economy with her present Constitution has been shirked.” In conclusion, the editors of The Economist state: “If [the New Deal] be compared with either the performance or the promise of its rivals, it comes out well. If its achievements be compared with the situation which confronted it in March, 1933, it is a striking success. Mr. Roosevelt may have given the wrong answers to many of his problems. But he is at least the first President of modern America who has asked the right questions.”

The reconstruction of the economic order on the basis of material abundance, and its integration with large-scale production and personal freedom, is the special concern of Mr. George Soule’s “The Future of Liberty.” He rejects the classical definition of liberty as the absence of restraint, holding the conception to be negative, mechanical, self-contradictory, both for the individual and society. True liberty is indefinable except in terms of “a concrete and embracing social purpose” for certain specific social ends, expressing itself in feasible measures “in order that it may be decided whose liberty to do what has the right of way in any given situation.” He regards social planning as a condition of personal freedom and a way out of the present anarchy of uncontrolled capitalism, which cannot be saved by punitive systems of enforced competition, discriminatory taxation, or anti-trust legislation. If the people should prefer a system of security that goes with abundance, they must then consciously plan for it—for the co-ordination of decisions in regard to production, prices, and wages in accordance with planning schedules, and for the control of the state by the masses of the people whose needs would determine the major objectives of the system. Democracy would not be in danger, for democracy inheres primarily in the control of the state by the majority, in the extension of the administrative functions of government, and not in the police functions of government. This view is shared by Mr. Francis P. Miller, in “The Blessings of Liberty,” whose central thesis is that economic forces must be made subservient to democratic ends, and that our modern problem is to co-ordinate in the interests of liberty the forces whose actions, when left unrelated, limit or destroy the security and freedom of society; this problem is the first obligation of government. We need a freedom for the wider and nobler social life, a common moral purpose that can be stated in terms of social justice; and this, he observes, must depend upon the success of our courts in clearly distinguishing between the rights of persons and the rights of corporations.

Mr. John Strachey would hardly dissent from the general aspirations for industrial democracy and planned economy as propounded by Mr. Soule, but he would enter a disclaimer that for action we need a knowledge of the science of social change, that there is no use taking out the revolutionary sting from a social movement of large social aims, and that it is folly to believe that a dominant class will allow itself to be superseded without resorting to unrestrained violence. We cannot rely upon the stars in their courses to fight for a planned social order. “The Theory and Practice of Socialism” is a work undertaken for the purpose of popularizing Marxian socialism, and while it is uneven in its critical treatment of the various topics, it is a book incisive and vigorous in style, and particularly penetrating in the sections dealing with the realities and possibilities of production and distribution, Mr. Strachey emphasizes at length the historical mission of capitalism as the organizer of the technical productive forces of the world. His general conclusion is that the science of social change reveals the determinate curve of capitalist development on a world scale, and so gives us the assurance that in the end socialism will enthrone itself in the field of production and distribution.

Incidentally, all the authors whose books are here reviewed agree that the solution of the social problem cannot be divorced from the problem of war and peace; that if nations cannot learn to exchange goods, reduce armaments, and organize the world to remove the abuses of war, the dream of the new order will disintegrate in social chaos. Economic nationalism derives its strength from the fact that it combines the motives of self-interest with irrational interests that inspire patriotism. An emphasis on national organization tends to increase tension between nations and the hazards of war, and while the danger of war is a constant terror, freedom within the state is felt to be dangerous. Hence the contemporary issue between the free democratic states and the authoritarian states. Dr. Mario Palmieri’s “The Philosophy of Fascism” is a glorification of the “True Reality,” the fascist gospel with its imperative command to merge the individual in the larger social whole. “Fascism considered as idea, doctrine and philosophy is universal; if it is Italian in its particular institutions, it is universal in its spirit.” We have here a statement of an Absolute in time and space. Dr. Palmieri draws heavily upon the whole genealogical tree of the Italian Spirit to show that it is imperative for man to entrust himself to the care of a regime which will protect him, to become “the integral cell of the moral universe.” History is conceived in terms of Great Men, and America is called upon to “give back to our leaders the right and possibility of leadership resting satisfied with the role which Nature has assigned to us.” But the astonishing part of this invocation to submission is the statement that nothing great was ever accomplished by the logical dispassionate mind of man, and that only “a frenzy of the Spirit can arouse the souls of men . . . and unleash the daemonic forces which can transform and vivify the life of mankind.” This is the philosophy of the political efficacy of Unreason, clothed in the language of mystical idealism. As a myth it admits of no further discussion as soon as it is recognized as the essential instrument of government and spiritual dominion; as a myth it demands unlimited expansion, acclaims itself absolute and universal. But as a philosopher, the author does not seem to be aware that this myth is chiefly the creation of the nineteenth century, a form of national self-admiration, and that while the national ideal is a noble sentiment, it becomes a powerful instrument of violence and destruction when transformed into a sentiment of exclusive national power.

In “We or They,” Mr. Hamilton Fish Armstrong maintains that exclusive nationalism is the chief obstacle today between democratic and authoritarian states. International friendship has become “the hollowest sort of sham” when imposed on the one side from above as part of a dictator’s system of diplomatic maneuver and blackmail. The world stage is today being set for a struggle between two broad conceptions of organized life, under one of which men seek progressive emancipation of the human personality, while under the other men relinquish freedom of thought and enterprise to the state and renounce the human being as an independent entity. Mr. Anmstrong strongly doubts whether the liberal states will survive the wartime curbs and the consequent social disorders. He therefore calls upon democratic states for a general mobilization against authoritarian conceptions and practices at home and abroad, for an increase in the sense of interdependence between free peoples and for better adaptation of our technique of government to the changing requirements of life.


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

Recommended Reading