Department of Philosophy
Los Angeles Valley College
5800 Fulton Ave.
Van Nuys, CA 91401-4096
19 September 1993
Joseph Epstein and The Editors
The American Scholar
1811 Q Street, N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20009
re: Liberty: "One Very Simple Principle"? by Gertrude Himmelfarb, The American Scholar, Autumn 1993
Gertrude Himmelfarb's critique of John Stuart Mill's "One Very Simple Principle" of Liberty calls for the same response that Frederic Bastiat made to the socialists of 1850 in his classic The Law:
Socialism, like the ancient ideas from which it springs, confuses the distinction between government and society. As a result of this, every time we object to a thing being done by government, the socialists conclude that we object to its being done at all.
We disapprove of state education. Then the socialists say that we are opposed to any education. We object to a state religion. Then the socialists say that we want no religion at all. We object to a state-enforced equality. Then they say that we are against equality. And so on, and so on. It is as if the socialists were to accuse us of not wanting persons to eat because we do not want the state to raise grain.
Thus Dr. Himmelfarb appears to say that because Mill's principle of political liberty does not mention social, cultural, and moral virtue, its inevitable meaning is to disparage or dismiss such virtue. Mill perhaps confuses this by speaking of the power of "society" over the individual, instead of just the state; but Himmelfarb at the same time admits that there is the "other Mill" who is fully aware of the role of virtue in society. The two Mills are a puzzle for her, but they need not be a puzzle for us, if we are aware of such a distinction as Bastiat's. What, after all is Dr. Himmelfarb proposing? Is government now to get into the business of promoting religion and private morality? That would hardly be constant with the principles of the Founders of the American republic. Certainly not Paine and Jefferson. If Dr. Himmelfarb does wish to promote the role of the state in morally restoring the people, it is not an accident that we can quote against her Bastiat's response to the statist socialists.
The truth is that our failure of virtue is not so much a private, social, and moral one, manifest in pornography, etc., but in fact a political failure, just as the likes of Paine, Jefferson, and Madison feared it would be. This Dr. Himmelfarb does not notice. Our failure of political virtue comes in our supine accommodation to the growing tyrannies and thieveries of government. Few of the particulars with which the Declaration of Independence charged King George III could not now be made against American government at all levels. The letter and the spirit of the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and the Common Law are constantly and increasingly being violated, and despotic authorities are continually being proposed, created, and enlarged. The power of the Federal Government long ago spilled over the boundaries set for it by the Constitution. If the present level of Federal taxation and the present degree of Federal regulation and interference in the daily conduct of business and in the private lives of all Americans were made known to the people of Jefferson's generation, there would have been instantaneous and universal rebellion in every single one of the Thirteen Colonies. What we have now is so far the opposite of what was ever intended for the Government of the United States, that our Founders would feel nothing but shame for the state to which we have brought ourselves and nothing but contempt for the ease with which we accept our serfdom. I dare say they would have felt more admiration for David Koresh than for most of today's Americans.
The connection between the failure of political virtue and the failure of social and moral virtue is not far to seek or hard to find. The corrosive effect of the Welfare State on the qualities that make for productivity, stability, and the growth of private wealth and welfare have now been well documented by the likes of Charles Murray (Losing Ground) and Thomas Sowell (Ethnic America, etc.). The peonization of the American people proceeds apace; and our state of abject dependence on the paternalistic protection of government is what degrades all the moral virtues of prudence, responsibility, and self-reliance that Jefferson contemplated in his nation of independent yeoman farmers.
[(Cut by American Scholar editor:) Dr. Himmelfarb herself provides an excellent example: "the photograph of a crucifix immersed in urine can be exhibited in a public school, but a crucifix not immersed in urine cannot be exhibited." And then we add that the "art" of the crucifix in urine was paid for, and thus actively promoted, by public funds. The state, indeed, has no business sponsoring religion in the public schools--if there are to be public schools (big if). But it also certainly has no business promoting the denigration of religion by artists who can be contemptuous of the sensibilities of the American people and, probably, of the free market sources of American well being, even as they are sustained at the taxpayer's expense.]
The solution is clearly to restore our political virtue first, for its lapse is the true source of the decay. That done, those whose private moral virtues fail will have to reckon with the consequences of that failure, as they did in all of American history right down to the point where we decided that the government owes everyone a decent living, regardless of their actions, abilities, or character. It is not for the state to begin promoting virtue, but for it to cease promoting vice. If virtue is not robbed of its reward and if vice is not compensated for its penalties, then the natural incentives to private virtue will begin operating again.
Kelley L. Ross, Ph.D.