Frank Chodorov, Educator
[Transcribed from the Libertarian Tradition podcast episode "Frank Chodorov, Educator"]
Frank Chodorov was an early-20th-century Georgist libertarian who devoted the last two decades of his life — basically the 1940s and '50s — to advocacy journalism. He was also a militant nonvoter. "A people can vote themselves into slavery," he wrote, "though they cannot vote themselves out of it." For "never has the vote been used to abolish privilege; it has always been used to demand new ones or to effect a change in the beneficiaries."
It was possible, he thought, that "social ostracism" might convince those politicians "whose self-respect ha[d] not dropped to the vanishing point [to] get out of the business and put themselves to honest work," leaving "the degenerates who remain … to get along on what they can pick up from a reluctant public." And such ostracism might be imposed on politicians, he supposed, by boycotting elections — by refusing to vote.
On the other hand, Chodorov considered it doubtful that concerned individuals could accomplish much by withholding their votes — beyond, perhaps, bolstering their own self-respect. For as soon as any very substantial number of people began boycotting the polls,
the politicians would most assuredly start a counterrevolution. Measures to enforce voting would be instituted; fines would be imposed for violations, and prison sentences would be meted out to repeaters. It is a necessity for political power, no matter how gained, to have the moral support of public approval, and suffrage is the most efficient scheme for registering it; notice how Hitler, Mussolini, and Stalin insisted on having ballots cast. In any republican government, even ours, only a fraction of the populace votes for the successful candidate, but that fraction is quantitatively impressive; it is this appearance of overwhelming sanction which supports him in the exercise of political power. Without it he would be lost.
There would also be
propaganda [in response to such] passive resistance to statism [as mass nonvoting would represent]; not only that put out by the politicians of all parties — the coalition would be as complete as it would be spontaneous — but also the more effective kind emanating from seemingly disinterested sources. All the monopolists, all the coupon-clipping foundations, all the tax-exempt eleemosynary institutions — in short, all the "respectables" — would join in a howling defense of the status quo.
Against this combination of political power and the organized propaganda of the officially respectable elements in society, how could the nonvoters expect to prevail? But if voting is pointless and nonvoting is a strategy that will never lead to any sort of victory over the forces of statism, what is left for a concerned individualist bent on improving society and steering it away from what Friedrich Hayek called the road to serfdom? If voting can't improve the situation, what can? Chodorov's reply was simple and direct: Don't vote; educate instead. But before you begin, rid your mind of some commonly held illusions about the need for individualist or libertarian education. First, get it through your head that "socialists are born, not made. (And so are individualists.)" Far too many people, as Chodorov saw it, believed that socialists were made by socialist teachers.
In fact, Chodorov maintained,
Education merely supplies the words and ideas that fit in with the primordial inclination of the socialist. He will accept at face value all the theories, all the figures and charts supporting his preconceived notions, and will reject offhand any arguments or data that support the idea of individual freedom. You cannot teach anybody anything that he does not in a real sense already know. A class of freshmen can be subjected to all the litanies of the socialistic creed; the majority will take in what they are taught for the purpose of getting a passing grade, but a minority will thrill to the instruction, while a still smaller minority will in their hearts reject it. Those who respond favorably to the instruction came intuitively prepared to do so, while those who find it repulsive were likewise instinctively opposed to it. On the other hand, give a course in classical economics, or teach a group the meaning of natural rights, and some, though they have absorbed all the words of freedom, will come away entirely unconvinced. Some emotional blocking prevents the ideas from taking root. And this is also true of all the collectivistic professors; they read all the books which the individualist holds most dear, but the reading leaves them cold to the ideas; they are collectivist because nature inclined them toward collectivism.
Chodorov acknowledged that
it is true that by far the majority of our educators are socialists. But this follows not from the fact that they were educated in the creed, but that most of those who go into the pedagogical business are by nature inclined toward it. Teaching is by general acclaim a noble profession, getting that reputation from the fact that its practitioners generously and without expectation of monetary rewards undertake to inculcate values in the young. But, it is also a profession that is removed from the disciplines of the market place and as such appeals to those who find these disciplines distasteful; they have no liking for the higgling and haggling of the market place, no inclination to enter the competitive field. Since our educational system is largely dominated by government, and is therefore monopolistically controlled, it attracts those who favor that kind of control; that is, it has a lure for the socialistically minded.
Chodorov confessed somewhat sorrowfully that he had "struggled … for many years" to understand why "some people [are] libertarians" while
others of equal learning and background [are] socialists. It isn't a matter of education. Once I attended the closing session of a course given by the noted laissez-faire economist Ludwig von Mises, and listened to the reactions of his students. It was a gabfest. Some gave distinct evidence of rejecting all they had learned from him in fifteen previous lectures, even what they had presumably read in his books. Others were enthusiastic exponents of his thesis. Why?
Chodorov rules out of consideration what he calls "the bureaucratic socialist," for whom "socialism is a job, not necessarily a conviction," and also "the professor whose job depends on his going along with the head of the department, or whose income is in part derived as a 'consultant' on government projects." Chodorov wants to understand why people buy into socialism even when they don't directly and immediately benefit from doing so — even, sometimes, when the implementation of socialism would directly and immediately harm them.
He notes that
neither education, background, nor income can explain either the socialist or the libertarian. Whenever you try any of these criteria you are faced with cases that refute your premise; you find that both types come from penthouses and slums, that they include Ph.D.'s and illiterates. You are driven to the conclusion that if there is a causative principle it must be found somewhere in the makeup of the person rather than in environmental influences. Psychology does not help, for it … seeks explanations for mental attitudes in conditioning and shies away from the realm of inherent traits or temperament.
And it is in the realm of inherent traits or temperament that Chodorov thinks the answer to his questions — "Why are some people libertarians? Why are others of equal learning and background socialists?" — is to be found. "The characteristic that invariably identifies socialists," he writes, "is an urgency to improve other people. It is a passion that blinds them to the fact of immutable individuality and leads to faith in the therapy of force. … In short, they are so constituted that they cannot let other people alone."
But does this analysis suggest a flaw in Chodorov's proposal that we individualists and libertarians focus our outreach efforts on education rather than supporting political candidates? Chodorov faces this question squarely. "If, then, the socialistic attitude — and, by implication, that of the libertarian — stems from an ingredient of personality," he writes,
why put so much stress on education? The libertarian is particularly concerned over the spread of socialistic doctrine in the schools and in the public press, and is most anxious to bring his own philosophy into opposition. On the face of it, this concern seems unwarranted, for an innate tendency toward freedom will not be changed by words into an acceptance of slavery.
Basically, this is true. But a character trait, like a seed, germinates best under proper cultivation, and the inclination toward freedom is strengthened by intellectual conviction. … There are many who … are instinctively repelled by government intervention but who crave intellectual support for their inclination. It is to them that the proponent of libertarianism must address himself; the socialist is beyond redemption. That is to say, the libertarian teaches not to "make" libertarians, but to find them.
Likewise, the socialist teacher does not make converts; he merely confirms the socialistic inclination of his willing students. And there the intellectual battle between the two schools of thought might rest.
But socialism is not an intellectual pursuit, it is primarily a drive for political power; and if its proponents succeed in enthroning themselves, the case for libertarian thought will be most difficult. Hence, the reason for seeking out the natural libertarians through education is to prevent, by constant and intelligent reiteration of its tenets, the suppression of the philosophy of freedom and the driving of its advocates underground.
It is worth noting, if only in passing, that Chodorov uses the term "libertarian" to describe what he also calls "the philosophy of freedom." He wrote in his last book, Out of Step: The Autobiography of an Individualist, that
the bottle is now labeled libertarianism. But its content is nothing new; it is what in the nineteenth century, and up to the time of Franklin Roosevelt, was called liberalism — the advocacy of limited government and a free economy. (If you think of it, you will see that there is a redundancy in this formula, for a government of limited powers would have little chance of interfering with the economy.) The liberals were robbed of their time-honored name by the unprincipled socialists and near socialists, whose avidity for prestige words knows no bounds. So, forced to look for another and distinctive label for their philosophy, they came up with libertarianism — good enough but somewhat difficult for the tongue.
There was at least one term, however, that Chodorov did not regard as "good enough" when it came to describing the philosophy of freedom — "conservatism." In a 1956 letter to the editor published in William F. Buckley, Jr.'s then recently established National Review, he wrote, "I will punch anyone who calls me a conservative in the nose. I am a radical."
So he was. And so dedicated was he to education as the proper strategy for libertarians — education to seek out the natural libertarians among us and provide them with some much needed intellectual support, some proper cultivation to strengthen their inclination toward freedom — that you might say he died in the classroom. He was just beginning a lecture in a class at Robert LeFevre's Freedom School in rural Colorado in the summer of 1961, when he suffered a massive stroke and was left unable to continue his remarks. LeFevre, in his autobiography, recalls having "to pry his fingers loose" from the lectern where Chodorov had been standing at the front of the classroom, so that he could "lead him back to his chair … take charge of the meeting," and give Chodorov's lecture for him. Chodorov lived another five years, but his mind never recovered: he never wrote or taught again.
Frank Chodorov always cautioned those who expressed an interest in his education strategy that it would be pointless to expect wide public acceptance of such educational efforts. "The average person," he wrote, "is not the least bit interested in any ideology, being content to get along as best he can under any conditions imposed on him." The fundamental obstacle to the achievement of a free society, in fact, was the simple truism that "very few know what freedom is and … still fewer want it."
Chodorov was convinced that
When people want freedom they will get it. When the desire of the business man for "free enterprise" is so strong that he will risk bankruptcy for it, he cannot be denied. When youth prefers prison to the barracks, when a job in the bureaucracy is considered leprous, when the tax-collector is stamped a legalized thief, when handouts from the politician are contemptuously rejected, when work on a government project is considered degrading, when, in short, the State is recognized to be the enemy of society, then only will freedom come, and the citadel of Power collapse.
Looking around him and looking back from the perspective of seven decades of living, learning, and teaching, Chodorov concluded that most people are "unprepared for freedom [and] incapable of understanding what it is." For
in spite of the aphorism that "all men are born equal," nature very specifically abhors uniformity. It is obvious that there are some men who, regardless of their backgrounds and environments, are more plentifully endowed with intellectual curiosity than others [and] that the proportion of this unexplainable "intellectual elite" to the number who are content to grub along is small.
What hope is there for a stateless society? If by an accident of nature this "remnant" does run up as a proportion of the population, it may make its influence felt. Maybe a complete collapse of our civilization, brought about by the crushing weight of statism, will throw the "intellectual elite" into the ascendancy, as a last resort, and some good will come of it. In the meantime, the only thing anyone can "do" is to go to work on the one unit he can improve, the only one he has a right to tackle — himself.
Chodorov was well aware that his educational strategy for the libertarian movement was "a long-term project." He knew that anyone inclined to try to carry it out would first have to "seek minds capable of absorbing" the libertarian message and then, for some years, "console [him]self with the quality of [his] few recruits" until "in time [he finally had] a roster respectable enough to make its influence felt." And to anyone who balked at this prospect, Chodorov had this to say:
What's your hurry? You have only a few years to live and cannot hope to remake society in so short a time. Nobody now living will see a free society in America. But, in fighting for it one can have a lot of fun. Consider the effort as a legacy to your great-grandchildren. What else can you bequeath them? You know that confiscatory taxation will increase, not diminish. You will leave your children part of what you have accumulated. Have you any doubt that your grandchildren will get a smaller part, or that their children will get nothing? In the circumstances, what better heritage could you bestow than some understanding of the principles of freedom and, perhaps, a will for freedom?
Note: The views expressed on Mises.org are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.