2009 has seen the greatest proliferation in American government command and control in over half a century, together with its corresponding constriction in liberty. Power is increasingly being centralized in the federal government—at the expense of individuals and their voluntary associations — with the creation of multi-billion or trillion dollar new programs, massive bureaucracies and breathtaking income redistribution nowhere authorized in the Constitution.
While the current engorgement of our federal government already implemented or being proposed is unprecedented, it follows much the same path as earlier episodes, such as FDR’s New Deal. That is why there is wisdom to be found from those who understood and opposed that accumulation of social power in the hands of the government. Perhaps no one offers us more wisdom in this regard than Felix Morley, in his The Power in the People (1949).
Morley was a Rhodes Scholar, a Guggenheim Fellow, a Ph.D. from the Brookings Institution, a Pulitzer Prize winning editor of the Washington Post, President of Haverford College, and founder of Human Events, who has a journalism award named for him. According to James Person, he was “respected for his acumen and fairness by his peers across the political spectrum,” and reviewer Edith Hamilton termed The Power in the People “a remarkable book, nobly written and profoundly thought out.”
Morley’s key distinction The Power in the People was between self-government and coercive government. As Leonard Liggio summarized it,
Morley based his distinction between Society and State on the origins of the words. Society is derived from the Latin socius, a companion. Society and association are rooted in the voluntarism of companionship…Morley continues on to the word State, which is rooted in involuntary or forced association. He sees the absence of free choice and free contract as the basis of the word status, from which state is derived.
When a new edition of The Power in the People was produced in 1972, 23 years after its first publication, it was reprinted without change. A dozen years later still, Sydney Mayers concluded, “Nor is any change required currently.” Consider how much the same is true today.
This Republic is grounded on the belief that the individual can govern himself.
[A] political system designed to encourage people to govern themselves is increasingly distorted in order to subject them to remote administrative dictation.
The founders certainly believed, and frequently asserted, that the primary purpose of government is to secure private property.
The Constitution of the United States sets specific limits to the power of government so that the latter may not repress the individual characteristic of liberty.
[W]e may awaken to find that a government established to secure the blessings of liberty has actually produced…tyranny. Indeed, that…outcome is wholly probable whenever democratic processes place representative government in the hands of men willing to exploit ignorance in order to further the centralization of power…
[I]t is impossible to read even the bare text of the Constitution at all carefully without realizing that the American Republic was specifically designed to safeguard individual enterprise against the state.
[C]oncentrated political power is, and continuously should be, suspect by those whom it subjects.
[A]ny system of government cherishing the individual should make allowance for many conflicting viewpoints and should not impede their voluntary adjustment. The only workable alternative to a governmental system that encourages agreement is one that in encourages repression. And the latter, no matter how fair its initial pretense, is in nature, and will therefore eventually become in action, a system of tyranny.
Self-government is the very heart and core of the American way of life … the dominant emphasis was on self-government rather than on imposed government; on the development of Society, not on the aggrandizement of the State.
[T]he real sources of American strength…[rest] on the belief that the individual is at least potentially important, and that he fulfills himself through voluntary co-operation in a free society. This belief implies an instinctive hostility to the State—an agency created to discipline society and with a consequent tendency to assume the direction of all social functions.
[T]he issue stands out clearly. Shall man be subject to the authoritarian State or shall he restrain State powers to the minimum necessary for an orderly Society?
[I]n America the individual, retaining sovereignty, intended to fulfill his destiny through a free Society, holding the State in leash.
Although the democratic ideal encourages individualism, the actual operation of a democratic system produces a centralization of power hostile to self-reliance.
[A]rbitrary power in a democracy may be just as great a menace to liberty as the outright tyranny of a dictatorship.
[T]he survival of the Republic is not endangered by weakness in the central government, but by popular pressure for its aggrandizement.
The State, in short, subjects people; whereas Society associates them voluntarily.
Man…is now exchanging membership in Society for servitude to the State.
[T]he development of the State has been that of constant aggrandizement. Necessarily, that aggrandizement has been…at the expense of Society and of the individuals who create Society…
Power it has, and force, and techniques to make its commands effective…But since the State has no conscience, and is primarily a continuing mechanism of material power, the human welfare side of State activity should blind no thoughtful person to its underlying menace.
Americans have…largely ceased to reflect upon the implications of the unconditional surrender of power to political government…wholly contrary to the principles of the Republic …
Power in the hands of the State is less inhibited morally and more destructive physically than in Society.
State power, no matter how well disguised by seductive words, is in the last analysis always coercive physical power…As we come to recognize that the State is the repository of coercive power, and by its nature works ceaselessly to enlarge that power, much that seems shameful and senseless in the world today becomes intelligible…
A person who maintains that the State should solve, by necessarily coercive methods, any problem that individuals are capable of solving voluntarily, is…the very opposite of a liberal. The essence of tyranny is reliance on external, as opposed to internal, compulsion.
[R]emember that true liberalism insists on protecting the individual from tyranny of every variety, and that tyrannies are almost always imposed…by democratic means.
As State controls become more plausible, more far-reaching and more effective, the tendency of democracy is to succumb to the demagogue becomes ever more pronounced.
The American tradition is of course completely opposed to authoritarian government … The American conviction is that the ‘Safety and Happiness’ of the governed takes precedence over every governmental prerogative and that deference is not necessarily owing to those temporarily in a position of political command.
Encroachment on the rights of others is not prevented by withdrawing the power to encroach from individual hands and vesting it in government bureaus.
The American theory is that every man has within him the potential to make a significant contribution of some kind to human welfare. Therefore every minority…must be protected against the ever-possible tyranny of mass opinion.
[E]xalting the State is steadily to augment its physical power at the expense of Society. The more that power can be concentrated, the more perfect the State becomes as an instrumentality of suppression in the hands of those who believe in suppression…
Only one form of government can nurture liberty, and that is personal self-government.
The distinguishing characteristic of American civilization is the subordination of centralized power in behalf of individual liberty.
The market does not become more humane under the direction of the amoral institution that we have seen the State to be.
To transfer power to the State…serves only to monopolize power in wholly irresponsible hands…
[T]he tendency of the American people to turn to political authority for the solution of their economic problems was tragic…because there is no solution…in this fancied remedy…once a people are lost in the recesses of this blind alley, they will learn that it is almost impossible to find a way out.
Enlargement of the area of State authority therefore does not enlarge, but definitely contracts, the condition of economic freedom…this false god over every form of social organism is enormous and devastating.
One should not require personal experience with ration cards and queues and bureaucratic bungling to appreciate the practical superiority of the free enterprise system over any form of State-directed economic planning.
[S]ocial legislation is a sign of retrogression, not progress. It should be obvious that there has been widespread individual failure if humanitarianism has to be enforced by disciplinary governmental action.
Social strength can be diminished by a constant centralization and enlargement of governmental functions, the great majority of which are unproductive and…weaken the economic basis by the cumulative effects of regulation and taxation.
[T]here are many Americans who attest their willingness to accept political dictatorship, if the State will only furnish them with periodic handouts and otherwise show continuous benevolence in the ordering of their lives.
The reformer…is usually disposed to believe that improvement can be imposed by government fiat…placing great confidence in the coercive power of the State.
[T]he one enduring political folly is to concentrate in the hands of ambitious men power that they do not have the restraint to exercise wisely.
Nothing that advances the power of the State over Society, thereby subjecting the individual to the State, can properly be called liberal.
[T]he most that any government can do is set people ‘at liberty.’ The State can stabilize the condition of freedom, and that is its sole excuse for being…men must develop their liberty from within. It cannot be doled out by government agencies.
60 years ago, Felix Morley could say that “The worth and validity of American political principles are now being aggressively challenged by the philosophy of government planning.” That challenge is vastly greater today. According to Joseph Stromberg, “Felix Morley… understood the old republic, the constitution, peace, and free markets, as well as their opposites, empire, lawless rule, war and generalized statism.” That is the understanding Americans need to rediscover to defend our liberty. And doing so by reading The Power in the People brings with it what Sydney Mayers called “an unusual privilege, the rare experience of enjoying brilliant literary style whilst absorbing education thanks to the author’s keen mind and dexterous pen.”