Foes of Democracy


By MAX W, BALL, Consulting Petroleum Engineer, Denver, Colorado

Delivered before the Grand Rapids Rotary Club, Grand Rapids, Mich., July 6, 1944

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. X, pp. 728-731.

AVIAN'S foes shall be they of his own household." The gravest dangers to democracy do not stem from Berlin and Tokio; they emanate from Grand Rapids—yes, and from Rockford and Remus—and they focus on Lansing and Washington. Here and there through the centuries freedom has succumbed to assault from without; far more often it has succumbed to deterioration from within. Whenever man has come to prize life and ease and security above right, liberty, and self-reliance, there freedom has vanished.

Life and ease and security are precious material boons; to extend them to all men is a high and humanitarian objective. Insofar as they are extended without sacrifice of spiritual vitality democracy is strengthened, but when they are extended at the cost of courage and initiative democracy is undermined and imperiled. Here is one oi the great paradoxes of history: Most of the measures that have destroyed freedom have been moved by the humanitarian, seconded by the expedient, and carried by the selfish, the slothful, and the improvident. In this, as in so many things, history repeats itself. The foes of our own household are clad in high idealism, but their basic appeal is to self-seeking materialism.

The Materialistic Doctrine of Pacifism

The first foe I would name is pacifism. It is an especial danger because it wears a semblance of the ideal of democracy itself. Democracy exalts man, the individual. It proclaims his right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Of these three, life is tangible, material; liberty and the pursuit of happiness are intangible, things of the spirit. Pacifism seizes on the tangible thing and exalts it as the whole. It makes mans life and bis right to it the sole thing of importance. In pacifist theory, man should never be called upon to sacrifice or endanger his life for the sake of spiritual rights such as liberty and the pursuit of happiness, either his own or those of others. I submit that never in all history has there been a more materialistic philosophy, a doctrine that more clearly exalts bodily well-being above spiritual, values. Yet this doctrine, so definitely the negative of Christ's philosophy that "Whosoever would save his life must lose it," has lived intimately among us disguised as Christian idealism, the pet of our women's dubs, the favorite of our schools, and the darling of our churches.

We need not theorise about its dangers. We have only to look out over a world ablaze, because so many people thought it was wicked to have or use fire engines.

The pity of it is that no real war would have been necessary to prevent the present horror if our horror of war had not been so great. The watchman seldom has to shoot to prevent the store he guards from being robbed. He needs merely to be armed and prepared to shoot if necessary. If we, and by "we" I mean the believers in democracy, had not told ourselves that war was the only evil in God's sight, and in consequence let ourselves become too weak to fight, we should not have needed to fight. A strongly armed England or a strongly armed United States, ready to use her strength, could have kept Japan out of Manchuria without a war; Japan was not then ready for war and knew it. Italy would not have attacked Ethiopia if the British had been strong instead of weak. Germany would still be within her 1930 boundaries, with or without Hitler, if she had not been permitted to rearm and to re-occupy the Rhineland. Hitler would not have given battle; in those days he had nothing to give battle with.

We gain nothing by blaming England or the government then in power. The pacifist government of Britain when Hitler invaded the Rhineland was spirit of our spirit. We all feared war so much that we were unwilling to risk a little war to make a big one impossible. We might have taken to heart a sentence from Machiavelli, "We should never submit to an evil merely to avoid a war; in fact, we do not thereby avoid it, but only defer it to our great injury." But such common sense was out of fashion in those pacifistic years: we submitted to the evil, and we did not thereby avoid the war; we only deferred it to our great injury.

Pacifism, which proclaims the sacredness of human life, must answer for human lives in untold millions.

The Selfish Doctrine of Isolationism

Akin to pacifism, and as coldly selfish in its philosophy, is isolationism. Cain formulated it when he cried, "Am I my brother's keeper?" The priest and the Levite exemplified it when they passed by on the other side. Our Administration poisoned us with it for the first two and a half years of the other World War. It holds that no freedom but our own concerns us; that right is no affair of ours unless our rights are interfered with.

The danger of the doctrine, however, is not in its philosophy, but in its lack of realism. Isolationists live in a fairy-tale world of "once upon a time." Once upon a time a nation could live to itself alone. Once upon a time greatstruggles for liberty could be confined to the immediate protagonists. Once upon a time the economy of the United States was largely self-contained, and needed little contact with the rest of the world. Once upon a time an enemy would require weeks to reach our shores. Once upon a time, when Europe was months away, Washington advised us to avoid entangling alliances.

Therefore, say the isolationists, we should not concern ourselves with the rest of the world; we should build a Chinese wall around our borders and let no man venture out after dark. If others fight, for whatever cause, we should ostracize them. If the seas are dangerous, we should stay off them. If other lands are looted, ours will be the richer by comparison. If European freedom is raped, our own will still be unsullied.

And because, in this fairy-tale world, we shall never need to act, we have no need to arm. We can live and die, they say, in complete and cowlike isolation. But I ask you, my friends, what strong man or strong nation wants to live out life in an isolation ward?

Again we need not theorize about the results. "It can't happen here" has crippled us through two wars and the intervening peace. You know how unprepared we were in 1917. You know how weak we grew during the peace. You know how our efforts were hampered before Pearl Harbor. If the isolationists had had their way about arming, Hitler and Hirohito would have been picking our bones before now.

At the moment the isolationists are in eclipse, but make no mistake, they are not converted. Already they are vocal again, criticizing our comrades in arms, sowing distrust and dissension against the day of peace. Already they have lead both parties to say that the enforcement of peace must depend on forces voluntarily contributed and controlled by the individual nations. We are to have posses instead of police. That will leave the world precisely where the League of Nations' was when Mussolini invaded Ethiopia, subject to the caprice of those who may or may not choose to act.

When peace comes the isolationists will burst into full cry. Once again they will tell us how evil are the British and every other nation but our own. Once again they will sing of the isolation ward as the enchanted world of once upon a time.

Against their siren song we must be doubly on our guard. The snug world of isolated safety sickened with the birth the steamship and died with the birth of the airplane, e must live fully in the larger world in which we find ourselves, and shoulder our full share of its responsibilities, if we would escape the chaos of a world that can not be organized without us.

The Slothful Doctrine of Utopianism

Blood brother to pacifism and isolationism, appealing like them to love of ease and security, is utopianism. Its doctrine at the moment is planned economy. Men vested with authority, the planners tell us, can so order our economic lives that booms and depressions will be forgotten memories; we can live forever in complete economic security. We need give up nothing, they say, but our freedom of enterprise. Yet without freedom of enterprise, gentlemen, no other freedom has ever survived.

What is freedom of enterprise? Its essence is the right of every man, so far as he can bend circumstances to his will and so long as he does not transgress the rights of his neighbors, to choose his own calling, to devote to it such diligence as he may wish, to engage in such enterprises as to him seem promising, to incur such hazards therein as he cares to risk, and to reap the rewards and suffer the consequences of his choice. Denial of that right leads inevitably to tyranny.

Once more we need not theorize; history is full of examples. Man has tried repeatedly to improve his economic condition by restricting his economic activity. It looks like such an easy way, the substitution of edict for effort, of statute law for economic law. The oldest known written code, promulgated by Hammurabi in Babylon some 4,000 years ago, took a whirl at fixing prices and wages. The intervening centuries have seen a multitude of experiments in economic control. All of them have failed. The story of Rome, as clearly as any, shows the inevitable course.

In the early days of the Roman Republic the Roman citizen enjoyed economic and political rights unprecedented in the ancient world. Except when called to bear arms for his country, he was free to till his farm, to tend his shop, to go down to the sea in ships, or to hire himself out to whatever employer he might find. He had a vote, and a voice in the affairs of state. Then, in one of the lulls in Roman expansion, hard times came and the price of wheat went up. To relieve distress in the cities the government I bought wheat and sold it to the poor below the market price. Because this curtailed the free market for wheat the farmers were in distress. Many abandoned their farms and flocked to the cities. There they enlarged the pressure group demanding lower and lower prices for wheat, until at last the price was reduced to zero. Thereafter, until the inevi table collapse of the State, a sizeable and increasing proportion of the population lived on the dole. A time came when the dole was so fixed a privilege that the right to it was made hereditary, after which, if a man on the dole became prosperous, he and his descendants continued to receive the dole, despite their prosperity.

The period we are considering was not a short one; it began before the birth of Christ and covered nearly 400 years. The rising scale of relief threw all other business askew. Those who had remained on the farms and those who were in business found themselves helplessly in debt. Buying power shrank and continued to shrink; the result was a surplus of goods and a surplus of merchants. To meet these evils laws and more laws were passed. They included the prototypes of almost all of our own so-called "curative" legislation. Most of them were restrictive, designed to create scarcity instead of abundance. There were rural credits and resettlement projects and crop restrictions; there were price laws and wage laws; there were restrictions on the kind and the amount of business that a man might do. The currency was depreciated again and again until it was about one fiftieth of its original value. Enormous sums were spent on public works in attempts to provide employment. The government went more and more into business in competition with its citizens. Pressure groups grew in numbers and insistence.

Finally there came the famous Decree of Diocletian that fixed a maximum price on practically every article known to commerce, including labor and services.

Diocletian and his O.P.A, were nothing if not thorough. The list included everything from wheat to radish seeds: beer and vinegar, sow's udder and liver of swine fed on figs, wild turtle-doves and turtle-doves in good condition, dormice and truffles, hobnailed boots and women's gilded slippers, polishing a sword and driving a camel, tailoring a shirt and cleaning a sewer. A lawyer got a certain sum for opening a case; the lawyer who pleaded it got four times as much. A teacher of rhetoric got 250 denarius a month, but a teacher of architecture got only 100. As for the law's teeth, the penalty for a transaction above the decreed price was death for both buyer and seller. No penalty was fixed for a second offense. They were rough on black marketers in those days.

The results were what you would expect. Initiative was killed and enterprise was in a straight-jacket. Business practically ceased. Food riots became common. The barbarians who invaded the Empire were received apathetically if not joyfully by the suffering common people; defense of the Empire was left to mercenaries. The proud citizen whose fathers had borne the eagles of Rome from the Tigris to the Clyde made little or no resistance to the invader. He had nothing to lose, and, who knew? The economic order of the barbarian might be an improvement.

What happened meanwhile to political rights? Step by inevitable step, as economic rights were restricted political liberties were lost. One of the agricultural adjustment acts, for example, bound the farmer to the soil, he and his sons and his sons' sons through all generations. The once independent Roman farmer had become a serf. Coincident with the Decree of Diocletian all civil liberties were at an end. The Emperor assumed the powers of an oriental despot and the state became completely totalitarian. Thus died Roman liberty, which could not survive freedom of enterprise.

And here is the significant thing: Practically all of Rome's restrictive laws were enacted with benevolent intent. In the main there was no desire to curtail civil liberties; the purpose was to alleviate distress and cure economic disorders. As much is true today. Those who cry the old panaceas in new bottles have no wish to destroy democracy; they think they are saving it from itself. They are humanitarians, generous men, and in their generosity they may give away a precious possession, a possession bought with the blood and tears of generations.

For freedom of enterprise, remember, has not come to the common man as a gracious gift. He has won it, through centuries of struggle, against the exactions of absolutism, feudalism, autocracy, and state monopoly. In winning it he has won democracy, almost as an after-thought. Most great social movements have been born in desire for economic betterment; political liberty, in the main, has been less an end than a means to that end. The peasants of France, for example, wanted freedom from arbitrary and confiscatory taxation, freedom from economic regimentation. They wanted bread, with or without cake. They wanted, at the beginning, economic liberty rather than political liberty. Eventually they sensed, as their leaders had sensed from the start, that the two are parts of a single whole and that neither can live without the other. Today that great truth is in danger of being forgotten. Man has learned that he can not have economic liberty without political liberty; now he is being told that he can keep political liberty while surrendering economic liberty, and that in exchange for economic liberty he may have complete social security. We are in danger of selling our birthright of freedom for a mess of Utopian pottage.

Do you know, by the way, how to attain perfect social security? The formula is simple: Pick a jurisdiction that has no capital punishment and kill a policeman in cold blood. You will achieve food, doming, and shelter for the rest of your natural life, and may God have mercy on your soul! Also you will learn a great truth, that the price of complete social security is complete loss of freedom. It can be bought in no other com.

The free man wants no such security. His is Badger Clark's song of the stout heart:

"I dream no dreams of a nursemaid state
That shall spoon me out my food;
A stout heart sings in the fray with fate,
And the shock and sweat are good."

When men cry for a nursemaid state and the shock and sweat are no longer good, then democracy will go to herlong home and the mourners will go about the streets.

One word here. Nothing I have said applies to the temporary surrender of liberties under stress of war. I am not one who cries dictatorship when democracy conscripts some of my rights in order to defend them. She is welcome to them all, for if her defense fails I shall have none of them. But when the emergency is over I want them back. Don't you?

The Cynical Doctrine of Derogation

The foes of democracy have a common wet nurse from whom they derive their sustenance: the derogation of our ideals and our accomplishments. We have a positive and malign genius for it. The word for it is cynicism. Let me cite two examples:

Consider these United States. Never has the world seen such a high standard of living, such wide diffusion of wealth. Never has the common man enjoyed such material abundance, such mental independence, such opportunities for his sons. Even in the depths of the depression, the very man on relief, for all his misfortune, ate better food, wore better dothes, sent his children to better schools, saw more movies, and heard more music than the fully employed workman of any non-democratic country. With war on the heels of depression, the country has shown a productive vigor that has amazed its friends and dismayed its enemies. The United States has not yet attained a perfect social order, but she has gone farther toward perfection than any great nation has ever gone before.

Yet for twenty years between the Wars our prophets cried, "Woe, woe, woe!" The farmer was a serf, the workman was a slave, the day of opportunity was past, our economy had become mature if not senile, decadence was at hand, and democracy was a failure. It was smart to be cynical, to deride our institutions, to decry our ideals, and to deny our accomplishments. If Karl Marx had written our text books he could scarcely have undermined our faith more effectively.

One more example: Twenty-odd years ago we fought a righteous war and made a reasonably just peace, but have we told our children so? You know we have not. Did we say that the war was fought against aggression and in defense of the sacredness of treaties; that the peace terms were among the mildest ever extended to a beaten aggressor? Oh, no! We must be cycnical at all costs. We must say that the war was purely selfish, fought by England to keep Germany from her place in the sun, that England drew us into it to pull her chestnuts out of the fire, that we fought at the behest of our international bankers and munitions makers, that the peace treaty was unjust and vengeful, that it both caused and justified the rise of Hitler. If Dr. Goebbels had dictated our literature he could scarcely have presented his version more effectively.

The most common cry has been that the war should not have been fought and democracy was a failure because they failed to establish a perfect world order and a permanent world peace. What an absurdity of crooked logic I No human effort has ever brought a perfect order or a permanent peace, yet shall we say that the Greeks should not have fought at Marathon, that John Hunyadi should have left Europe open to the Turks, or that we should have let our War of Independence go by default? Liberty itself is not yet perfect, but did Pericles and William Tell and Sir Francis Drake and Robert Bruce and Cromwell and Washington and Lincoln and Gladstone accomplish nothing? If every effort must achieve perfection in order to justify itself, then indeed all striving is folly and even Christ died in vain.

The Brave New World

Hear, then, the conclusion of the whole matter. If we let these foes become the rulers of our household, our country may go the way of Rome and Athens, which were born of freedom and died of decay. If, on the contrary, we put our faith in virility and self-reliance, then our land, please God, may go on to greater glory, and the brave new world of which we dream, in God's good time may come to pass.