Totalitarians and the Democracies


By HUGH S. JOHNSON, Editorial Commentator for Scripps-Howard Newspapers and radio; formerly Administrator, National Industrial Recovery Administration; Member, War Industries Board Delivered at Institute of Public Affairs, University of Virginia, July 4, 1939

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. 5, pp. 628-32

IT takes a considerable impudence to come to this Jeffersonian shrine of the University of Virginia to speak on this particular day. I do so with deference and misgiving. I am acutely conscious of this honor—and of my inability to acquit myself of it adequately—as you are almost immediately to discover.

On the other hand, we must remain aware of the delusions of ancestor worship. No man ever more eloquently warned us about that than Thomas Jefferson himself. Our political struggle will always be a debate between those who would preserve the old order and those who insist on "bold experimentation." As in all other partly emotional arguments, the truth lies somewhere in between.

It was said by another great Virginian, that the lamp of experience is the only guide for our feet. But leaders in any generation, as did Thomas Jefferson in his, must apply old truths and natural laws in common sense and in sympathywith constantly shifting circumstance. Those laws may be used and adapted to our needs. But all except blind leaders of the blind will ever remember that while they may be adapted—they may never be violated or obstructed without disaster.

"The wind bloweth where it listeth," but men learned very early to use its shifting currents to tack and veer and carry their frail craft—not where it listed—but where they designed—even to the discovery of a new world. We used to say of the law of gravitation that "what goes up must come down." That will ever be true. Yet the whole science of aviation is based on a plan to lift weight up by using the natural force that pulls it down.

Thus there are few limits to the ingenuity of man in harnessing natural laws by obeying them. The danger in this business of "bold experimentation" comes when, instead of recognizing and using them, he begins to try to ignore or

repeal them. We can't make two and two anything but lour. We can't, by statute amend the mortality rates. We can't spend more than we earn without bankruptcy. Since Joshua, at least, there have been no miracles repealing the mathematical laws that keep the stars in their courses.

Mr. Jefferson knew this well. His Declaration of Independence neither promised nor pulled white rabbits out of any magic hat. It was a reasoned document. It asserted what they thought was a natural law as a principle of government. He said it later in a single sentence when he expressed his eternal hostility to any form of domination over the mind of man.

This is roost significant. In reading the words of Thomas Jefferson, and nearly all the other founders of our system, we find the emphasis——not on the word "democracy"—which, after all, is a tricky little noun describing a particular form of government that never really existed anywhere. They continually spoke of "liberty." They talked about it on its emotional side—but they also never forgot its material side—that it was the best natural path of human progress.

American independence wasn't just a single eruption away off on the edge of the world in the fringe of a howling wilderness. It was a symptom of something that was seething throughout the whole of Western civilization. It wasn't confined to politics. In the same year that Mr. Jefferson wrote his Declaration of Independence, Adam Smith published his "Wealth of Nations." The struggle for religious freedom had been going on for two hundred years. Mr. Jefferson's brief for political freedom was a companion piece with Adam Smith's insistence that if the human race, on the economic side, could be free of artificial restrictions and "economic planning," the whole world would go into the richest harvest of advancement that it had ever known. The theme of both great documents was liberty rather than any particular form of government. Both were symptoms of a great surge against any kind of "managing" of individual effort by some super-mind.

This revolution was then against a dogma called "the divine right of kings." Royalty wished to govern by mandate regardless of popular will—in the matter of people's religion as well as of their civic rights and, by royal charters, patents and edicts, in the matter also of their business and employment. The revolt was expressed in a principle—"As little government interference with daily living as is consent with the safety of the community."

The idea spread like wild-fire. Adam Smith's principles became as much a religion in business as did the principles of the American Revolution in politics. Either by bloody internal upheaval, as in France, or by violent secession, as in America, or by more orderly processes as in England, Germany, and Italy, there was a greater or lesser swing away from old ideas of personalized and dictatorial government.

The result was astonishing. In the Nineteenth Century alone, the human race made perhaps a greater advance than in all the previous ages since man began to walk on his hind legs.

It seems almost incredible, after a little more than a century and a half of such progress, that, as a dog returneth to his vomit and a fool to his folly, the swing across the whole world seems clearly back to precisely the system of personalized government and goose-stepped humanity that existed in the years before Thomas Jefferson, Adam Smith and all their contemporary or precendent leaders of liberal thought and action.

Yet so it is beyond question or doubt. Something scarcely distinguishable from the old dictatorial system in politics and the mercantile system in economics has returned in the greater part of Europe and Asia and in more than twentygovernments of the Western Hemisphere. Nobody can sincerely deny that there has been a great sweep in the same direction in our own country. With us the sickening aspect of this reactionary recession is that the leaders of it call it "liberalism" and have the cool crass nerve to refer to Thomas Jefferson as the father of their faith.

It was natural that the Eighteenth Century rebellion against regimentation should have exploded first in this country. Few of our early colonists came here because these barren and dangerous coasts were the easiest way out of the difficulties of their lives. They came notwithstanding that it was the hardest way. Religious rebels against a dictated form of worship—political rebels against a smug control they no longer could abide—economic rebels against a system that smothered and submerged individual advancement—gentlemen adventurers, tight-lipped Puritans, ticket-of-leave men and indentured servants—they were attracted by the bright face of danger and braved it to escape the little tyrants of their daily lives. It continued for nearly 300 years. From the settlement of Jamestown to the turn of the last century, the great Westward surge was in part an escape to freedom by men who preferred it under great hardship to a more secure life under great restraint.

It was the best sifting system that the world has seen. Gregor Mendel, culling his sweet peas, evolved no more effective way to produce a particular strain than this hard process of natural selection. As some one has said: "The weak perished. The timid never came." Without too easy a generalization, this continent was first settled by a people skimmed off the more complacent of all races, who so resented the intrusions of government that they were willing to fight and suffer to escape them.

For a time they did escape it. They began to build here governments in their own image—only to find within a few generations that the system from which they had fled was following them across the ocean and threatening to appropriate everything that they had gained to uses of its own.

When that was clear they revolted and, by that revolt, they started in motion a movement which was eventually in greater or less degree to reform the Western world. It was a great natural principle. It replaced the idea that human progress and welfare may be best conserved and more quickly advanced by a single all-highest or any enlightened steering committee—any oligarchy of the self-anointed sacrosanct— any palace janissariat of the best, the wisest and the most beneficent.

Can there be the slightest doubt, upon any review of the entire history of the American Commonwealth, that its whole purpose and its very essence was to decentralize government? It was to rely for progress on releasing the unhampered inventiveness and ingenuity of millions, rather than to plan and direct those energies by any governmental Camorra. It was a charter of maximum individual liberty and minimum governmental steering before it was anything else—and it is doubtful if it either imagined or was designed to permit anything else.

Now, as I said in the beginning, it is important for us to avoid any blind idolatry of the mere form of these principles—or any idea of a sort of Papal infallibility in our ancestors who laid them down. It is our duty in common sense to adapt them to our needs and our changing circumstance as science has adapted other natural laws. But we must never forget that we actually are inescapably dealing here with a natural law. We can adapt it—but on our experience and on that of the whole of history, we are mad if we attempt to repeal or obstruct it. This is that law. "The unleashed energies of millions playing freely over the field of our boundless resources—with only so much direction and restraint as are necessary, is more effective to produce an infinitely greater result in human welfare, than any return to the regimented economic, political and religious dogmas of the Middle-ages."

If it is not fair to say that we discovered that law, we at least were certainly the first to apply it broadly and to create a form of government based upon it. It would be much less than fair not to say that that form of government peopled a whole continent, and created in this country the best culture, the greatest wealth, the highest standard of human living in the shortest space of time in the recorded whole of human history.

Until quite recently, nobody here ever seriously questioned that system or its essential principles. But it is being questioned now. By such authorities as Mr. Hitler and Mr. Mussolini, it is being more than questioned. It is being sneered at and scorned. "It isn't working," they say. "You have ten million unemployed and your economic organization is moving in two-thirds time. Look at us. We have no unemployment. A single mind plans. A single mind executes. You say that the individual is everything and the state is merely his servant. We say that the state is everything and the individual is nothing. Because we have power to tell every individual what he must do, all are employed and we have become far more powerful than ever. You can't progress because, in your plan of individual liberty, decisions are too slow and action is too feeble. Your system has failed. We—not you—have solved the riddle of post-war paralysis. We have discovered the rule of ideal government."

That is a daily preachment that has beguiled millions in Europe. It is being broadcast over the whole world to sow a crop of dragons' teeth and to threaten human liberty everywhere. The present lag of recovery in such countries as our own waters and fertilizes it and—shocking as it is to admit—it has sprouted and borne some fruit even in our own country where a precisely contrary doctrine used to be our religion.

Well, of course, this new rule of so-called ideal government in Europe is no newer than the pre-Jeffersonian despotisms. It is a throw back to Louis XIV and Peter the Great. It is a denial and a negation of principles that peopled this country and created everything we have and are. It may be true that there is no unemployment in Germany. Neither is there in any penitentiary. The standards of living in those countries have been degraded to about half of ours. Their free wages are less than our doles. There is utterly no freedom of thought, action, religion or expression. The countries are themselves externally bankrupt. Their people are living on a rationed and dictated diet at a bare subsistence level.

Even if there were under these systems, perfect prosperity —which there is not—it would still be for such a people as ours to decide whether they are willing to escape hardship— or even to attain security—by giving up any part or all of their liberty. If they are, there is sore decline in the American breed and they are no sons of their fathers—whose single guiding principle was that no danger or deprivation was too great to keep from them their independence—regardless of their comfort or their social security.

Patrick Henry was not merely being rhetorical. He was expressing the political and economic religion of a new people and a new age when he said: "Give me liberty or give me death."

Mr. Hitler's philosophy is a precise reversal of that. He says: "Bondage is preferable to liberty for the individual— because only through the totalitarian state and its all powerful governor can the welfare of individuals be advanced."

There could be no clearer issue than that on which the whole world is being divided today. On one side stands a governmental system of which ours is—or used to be—theoriginal and perfect model. On the other, stand the Europeanisms—Fascism, Nazism, Communism—all alike as two peas—and all the diametrical opposite of ours at every principal point.

The basic difference is that their's is designed exclusively to centralize both political and economic control completely in a single federal government—nay more—in a single federal governor. The avowed and boasted purpose of this is to plan and direct all individual effort with no more consent, consultation, or choice than exists in a penitentiary chain gang of convicted felons.

Our form of government is precisely the reverse of this in every single detail and in its avowed and boasted purposes. Our purpose is to maintain the utmost of human liberty— not merely for the dignity and spiritual satisfaction of the individual—but also because we believe that it is the quickest and surest way to the material welfare, comfort, advancement and success of individuals separately and of our country and the whole human race collectively.

To this end our system is designed at every point, to decentralize government and to prevent more power than is necessary to make a nation from being concentrated in any federal government—much less in any federal governor.

For that purpose powers in our central government are divided and balanced as between the Congress, the Courts and the Executive. To the end of the maximum control of our people over their local affairs, the states have been preserved. We are irrevocably pledged to local self-government. It is the only principle on which a nation of continental extent with the widest variety of racial and religious institutions and of climate and conditions can be kept under one flag. Nothing could be imagined that would be as irreconcilably dissimilar at every point that the American form and purpose of government and the form and purpose of the dictatorships.

There is no danger of a dictator here—at least on the European model. If any strutting heiling mountebank in a monkey-jacket began seriously posturing and bellowing here, the country would laugh itself to death before he could get a hearing. That is not our danger. Our peril is the more insidious argument that we should take not all—but something—out of the book of the personalized governments.

It is said that the executive powers should be much enlarged—that both Congress and the Courts should be more subservient to the will of the President—that the states are outmoded—that their vestige of sovereignty is a clog on progress—that they should become more nearly like federal provinces responsive to the national will and less like semi-sovereignties responsible in their local affairs to the local will. In the past six years there has been a gradual trend in this direction and since January 1937 a determined effort, step-by-step and bit-by-bit to make almost a silent revolutionary change in this direction.

There is no time here to discuss the details of this. Certain modifications of old administrative and even organizational practice were plainly necessary. Surely we had lagged behind the world in social legislation. But in order to make these adjustments and improvements—to attain these worthy objects—is it necessary to change our governmental forms long established and of proved adequacy for attaining these and all other objectives? Worse still, is it necessary to change the very essence of our governmental philosophy—the very basic principle which our form of government was planned to protect and of which it is itself but a reflection and an image? No that is an infernal idea. To use the attainment of worthy objects as an excuse and a shield, slyly to revolutionize the worthiest government the world has even seen, is a contemptible piece of Machiavellian subtlety.

Let us not delude ourselves by trusting that exactly such asubtle process hat not been, at least since Mr. Roosevelt's stcond inauguration, a principal purpose—if not consciously of his own—then surely of some of his most trusted advisers. Some have said that we must concentrate power not merely in the federal government but in its executive, as they put it "to make democracy work." It is equivalent to saying that we must dilute democracy with a little dictatorship to make democracy work—and that is a contradiction in terms. It is like saying that we must add water to fire to make fire burn.

Others say boldly that our system is not working because our government is not strong enough—and these people say they are the heirs of Thomas Jefferson! Here is what Mr. Jefferson said in his first inaugural on exactly that subject:

"I know, indeed, that some honest men fear that a republican government cannot be strong; that this government is not strong enough. But would the honest patriot, in the full tide of successful experiment, abandon a government which has so far kept us free and firm, on the theoretic and visionary fear, that this government, the world's best hope, may, by possibility, want energy to preserve itself? I trust not. I believe this, on the contrary, the strongest government on earth. . . . Sometimes it is said, that man cannot be trusted with the government of himself. Can he then be trusted with the government of others? Or have we found angels in the form of kings, to govern him? Let history answer this question."

The essential evil of what is going on in our country today is that you can't mix the idea of dictatorial control with our plan of minimum regimentation and maximum individual freedom. They will no more blend than oil and water. They cannot lie down together until Isaiah's miraculous day when the wolf shall dwell with the lamb—and the weaned child shall put his hand on the cockatrice den." But on that day, according to the Prophet, not a dictator—not even a President with enlarged powers—but "a little child—shall lead

These two antagonistic systems will not mix for the simplest of reasons. Both are designed to activate the economy of a nation. But each proposes a diametrically different way. The European system depends absolutely on the fear of punishment to compel human effort. Our system depends absolutely on the hope of reward to persuade human effort.

Hope of reward is no incentive to free effort if it is accompanied by constant castigation, abuse and a standing threat of conscription, confiscation or regimentation through the governmental powers of taxation, regulation and punishment. On the other hand, the fear of punishment is not enough to activate a free economy if there remains even a pretense that men are free to use their own devices and adventure as they will. A contigent and qualified hope of reward is no hope. A mollified fear of punishment is no fear.

We can have either of these systems. But we can't have both at the same time. Hitler's produces now at least the appearance of activity. Ours is lagging and limping. If we want Hitler's system, we can try that—but it is folly to try it only in part. It won't work unless you swallow it hook, line and sinker.

Or we can stick to our own—the system that made this country the greatest in the world. But it is also folly to try that only in part. It won't work either unless you swallow it hook, line and sinker.

Right here, I think we are at the very heart of the cause of the inordinate and awful prolongation of this destructive depression. Here, I believe, is the precise reason why the richest and best economic system the world has ever seen stands half-paralyzed when for many reasons, it should be now producing our greatest period of prosperity. We have in some measure choked, restricted and reduced all the old incentives to furious activity.

We have gone headlong in the direction of threats of regulation, inordinate taxation, menacing fiscal policies and apparent suspicion or hatred of individual progress beyond a certain point. We are openly preaching forms of collectivism and practicing powerful forms of regimentation. We are trying to level our economy. In an effort of what we call distributing our wealth," we are destroying our wealth and distributing only a greater and greater poverty. I think there is only one reason why democracy and the capitalist system aren't working. It is that these new plans and their authors won't let them work. They have diluted the democratic gas that makes our engine go with too much dictatorial essence which has denatured it by half.

We are making the mistake of taking leaves out of the European books and attempting to mix their principles with ours which clash with them at every point. We are getting the best out of neither and the worst out of both to a point where we already seem to have dulled even the promise of progress.

I'll tell you one point where both our people and our leaders could well afford to copy the European peoples and their leaders. They don't try to mix any antagonistic systems. They don't because they believe in their systems as completely and unquestionably as we—God help us—used to believe in ours. They have faith in their purposes, plans and actions approaching religious zeal.

We once had such a faith too. We had it to a greater depth and intensity than almost any other people. That and that alone is what built this nation in so short a time. That faith was what sustained George Washington and the soldiers of the revolution at Valley Forge and throughout seven years of civil war. In that unfailing trust the pioneers streamed into the Indian country against dangers and handicaps inconceivable to us—for they had no other resource or reliance. That faith alone explains the unprecedented daring of the Declaration of Independence and the patient tenacity of Abraham Lincoln in the deadliest years this nation ever knew. Through greater dangers much more prolonged they never faltered as some of us are faltering now. In the system and the principles that were first proved and adopted here they trusted as they trusted in nothing else but God. No matter how dark the years, or how great the burden and the sorrow, they believed as they believed in the coming of dawn, that it was bound to pull us through the night and into the brilliant glory of some new sunrise.

In no suspicion of their own—no lack of confidence in their country—did they seek the comforting of strange gods. Never did they attempt to dilute with foreign panaceas the essential philosophy of the Constitution and the even more important immemorial institutions then deep in the hearts and minds of the American people.

My friends, there is only one word in the English language for that kind of faith and trust. It is "Patriotism" and without exactly such faith and trust there is no such thing as the kind of "patriotism" that created and preserved this nation.

We had it in the hours of our greatest need. We have it still and, as always, it will arise to restore us to the confidence and happiness which we deserve. But in this dark day, when the institutions of liberty and democracy are so much hurt in so wide a part of the world—there are some of us who question those institutions which are of our very essence, and without which we are nothing. There are some of us who falter. It has always been so of some of us. But the great body of the American people has never faltered, once the choice was made clear and inescapable between the principles of this nation and any perversion of them. They have always in the end resented the counsels of false prophets and have thrust them forth and filled their mouths with dust.

This is a very critical time for our principles throughout the world—and even here. It is not time to modify or compromise them. It is a time to reject the semi-demi patriots. It is a time to reassert those principles as plainly and as courageously as they were first uttered by Thomas Jefferson 163 years ago.

Abraham Lincoln spoke in part in another great crisis and danger to these principles. He spoke of a nation "conceived in liberty"—and of a test of "whether that nation or any nation so conceived and dedicated can long endure." He called for no compromise with those principles. As we should again call on this significant day, he asked rather for a re-dedication of our whole people to those institutions and— "that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—and that this nation under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people and for the people shall not perish from the earth."