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Libertarian Outsider Edgar Z. Friedenberg

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09/24/2010Jeff Riggenbach

[Transcribed from the Libertarian Tradition podcast episode "Edgar J. Friedenberg."]

As we all know, massive rebellions against duly constituted authority swept through American society during the 1960s — we refer to them today as the civil-rights movement, the antidraft and anti–Vietnam War movements, and the counterculture. In the following decade, the 1970s, scholars and intellectuals began looking into the often-neglected question of authority and how exactly obedience to authority related to the fundamental problems of political philosophy.

In one year, 1975, two libertarian scholars, James J. Martin and Murray N. Rothbard, issued competing editions of Etienne de La Boetie's 16th-century essay variously known as The Politics of Obedience: The Discourse of Voluntary Servitude and The Will to Bondage. La Boetie, of course, had posed the question: since the ruled always outnumber their rulers, why do they acquiesce in their own oppression? Why do they not withdraw their support from rulers who would be helpless without it?

A year earlier, in 1974, a social psychologist from the City University of New York, Stanley Milgram, had published a book on a series of experiments he had conducted in New Haven, Connecticut; Cambridge, Massachusetts; and New York — experiments that seemed to many to show that the average person was definitely attracted to a condition of servitude, bondage, obedience, taking orders from an authority and carrying them out without question.

Milgram proposed two theories to account for his results. The first, which I call the psychological explanation, states that people can and do choose to think of themselves, at least at certain times, as instruments of someone else's will and therefore no longer responsible for their own actions. Milgram's second theory, which I call the sociological explanation, holds that under certain circumstances most individuals abandon any attempt at independent thinking and simply conform to what they feel is expected of them — what they have absorbed, mostly unthinkingly, from the culture in which they have grown up and now live.

It was this sociological explanation that most appealed to Edgar Z. Friedenberg, a radical education professor who checked in at the very end of the 1970s with a book I consider mysteriously underrated by libertarians. It's called Deference to Authority: The Case of Canada, and it was first published in 1980.

Edgar Z. Friedenberg was born in New York in 1921 but grew up in Shreveport, Louisiana, where he later earned an undergraduate degree in chemistry at the tiny, local Centenary College. After completing a master's degree in chemistry at Stanford, Friedenberg served briefly in the Navy during World War II, then returned to his studies. He earned a PhD in education at the University of Chicago in the late 1940s, then embarked on a teaching career that took him from Hyde Park to Brooklyn College and from there to the University of California at Davis, then a sleepy agricultural community about 10 or 15 miles outside Sacramento. From there, Friedenberg went to Buffalo, New York, at the east end of Lake Erie, where he taught at the State University of New York.

By now it was the late 1960s, Friedenberg was in his late 40s, and the United States was embroiled in the Vietnam War. Friedenberg was among those who regarded US participation in that war as an abomination. He had begun expressing his outrage in print in the mid-'60s, though most of it was directed at American public schools rather than at American foreign policy. He had been writing for Commentary in the early years of Norman Podhoretz's editorship, and for the New York Review of Books. He had been reviewing books for Ramparts. He had established himself as an important voice on what soon came to be called the New Left. Then, in 1970, he decided he would not for another day pay taxes to support the government in Washington, DC. He moved to Canada and took a job teaching education at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia.

He became professor emeritus of education at Dalhousie in 1986, when he was 65. He continued in that position for the rest of the century, only "retiring" for good at the end of the spring term in the year 2000, when he died at the age of 79. Though he lived in Canada for half his adult life, he had found within the first ten years of his residence there that the cultural differences between Canada and the United States were larger than he had previously realized. He saw that what people absorb, albeit mostly unthinkingly, from the culture in which they have grown up and in which they now live is extremely influential in shaping, if not determining, the politics they will later advocate and countenance. It was for this reason that, in the late 1970s, from his new home in Nova Scotia, he wrote Deference to Authority: The Case of Canada.

He began by pointing out the differences, not necessarily evident to the quickly glancing eye, between the political systems of the United States and Canada. In the beginning, he wrote, it was necessary to understand that "the parliamentary system as such provides no specific safeguards to liberty whatever apart from the promise of elections at specified intervals. This is a necessary, but not a sufficient condition of political liberty." Yet "it is all Canadians really have." It was true, Friedenberg acknowledged, that "since 1960 there has been a Canadian Bill of Rights, but it is not a part of the Constitution. It is merely statute law and can be repealed in whole or in part at any session of Parliament."

Moreover, "the Bill of Rights has done nothing to limit the extraordinary powers of search and seizure possessed by the Crown, which remain much as they were at the time the American Founding Fathers sought to insure, by means of the Fourth Amendment, that authorities in the United States would never possess such powers."

Nor did a survey of the Canadian government's powers of search and seizure exhaust Friedenberg's case. "The Crown," he wrote,

can … appeal against any acquittal if it can find a point of law to hang the appeal on, and there always is one; no judge is a perfect legal technician. If it wins, the defendant will not be summarily convicted — if he was acquitted by a jury rather than a judge — but he is forced to submit to a new trial; if he is again acquitted, the process can continue ad infinitum. The Crown has infinite resources; the defendant is usually poor. The pressure on the defendant to bargain for a lower sentence rather than defend himself in court, which is usually great, becomes insupportable.

Then there was the Official Secrets Act.

Like Great Britain, and unlike the United States, Canada has an Official Secrets Act making it an offense to transmit secret information to persons unauthorized to receive it, or to receive such information without authorization. The Official Secrets Act does not apply only, or even especially, to secrets allegedly related to national security. It applies to any information the government wishes to restrict.

Friedenberg found that Canadians themselves were well aware of these differences. He noted, for example, that

many Canadians … have become disturbed about the infiltration of Canadian culture by American TV shows; and one of the complaints I have heard voiced most frequently concerns the fact that these programs subvert peace, order, and discipline among the young by leading Canadian kids to believe they have constitutional rights.

The problem was, Canadians told Friedenberg, that

American television police programs, though usually fanatically supportive of law 'n' order, still showed that bad guys, deplorable as this might be, had certain established rights: the right to be informed by the arresting officer at the time of arrest of the charges under which the arrest is being made; the right to make a phone call and obtain legal counsel before being interrogated; and later, should the case come to trial, the right to decline to answer on the grounds that the answers might be self-incriminating.

Friedenberg found that the Canadians who spoke with him on this subject "were distressed because young Canadians who watched American television were being misled into thinking they had such rights." They were not "at all disturbed because [the young people] didn't have these rights; they objected only to the fact that Canadian youth were being instilled with an alien and misleading view of social reality."

It might be argued that these distinctions Friedenberg lists don't actually make that much difference in the daily lives of ordinary individuals. And, up to a point, Friedenberg himself is willing to agree. "In practice," he wrote in the late 1970s, "Canadians enjoy most of the same rights Americans do, though in lesser degree." But — and this is the clincher as far as Friedenberg is concerned — "those rights are not guaranteed in Canada. Under the system of parliamentary supremacy, they cannot be; for not only is Parliament permitted to intrude into any area it chooses, there exists at present no legal instrumentality by which it might be forbidden to do so."

And it is important to understand that, as Friedenberg put it,

Canadians do not lack entrenched civil liberties because their form of government makes it difficult to provide them; they accept a governmental structure under which liberty cannot be guaranteed because they are highly ambivalent about personal freedom and because they genuinely believe that government is designed to be an instrument for advancing the general welfare, and is not, in principle, anything to fear.

For "what is clearly absent from Canadian political consciousness, though salient in the American, is the conviction that the state and its apparatus are the natural enemies of freedom." The plain fact is that

unlike Americans — and, for that matter, unlike the British, who have had their share of rebellions and revolutions, some of them glorious — Canadians as such have no tradition identifying government as the source of oppression. They resisted the temptation to join the American Revolution; and their loyalty to the Crown was … reinforced by the flight of loyalists northward from the revolting colonies.

Canadian society is ideologically committed to "peace, order, and good government" as higher values than life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. [But p]eace, order, and good government in Canada depend ultimately on the deep acquiescence of the people in the idea that they have no inalienable rights … [and that the public has] no right to ask questions that probe into matters it has been told are not its concern."

Canadian society, Friedenberg complained,

assumes that respect for the law is a Good Thing and that there cannot be too much of it. But Canadians already have too much of it, and to lose some would probably do the country good.

Canadian society is deficient, not in respect for law but in respect for liberty.

And just how much respect for liberty did Friedenberg believe Canadian society ought to have?

The administration of authority can be useful; in limited emergencies it may be crucial to survival. … But authority is a powerful depressant and extremely addictive. Like other tranquilizers, authority is prescribed to solve problems that have been mistakenly diagnosed and whose real roots it cannot touch and serves, in fact, to obscure.

People, Friedenberg believed, whether they were citizens of the United States or citizens of Canada, should be brutally realistic with themselves about the true nature and potential of the force wielded by government. As he put it in one place in Deference to Authority,

there is, or should be, nothing shocking about discovering that police have abused civil liberties and that their responsible superiors have helped them conceal their misdeeds. It is no more shocking than the discovery that the family dog has messed on the rug; it can't be permitted to continue, and you may have to smack the animal with a newspaper to teach it to quit, or get rid of it if it simply can't be trained. But the disclosure of the mess and how it happened does not bring discredit on the household; indeed, this is the only way to get it cleaned up. Sweeping it under the rug and accepting it as evidence that the dog is zealous in defending the security of the home will, however, soon make the house uninhabitable. The householders may also help to forestall such domestic tragedies if they learn to detect, by its usually stiff and pompous gait, when the creature is really full of [expletive], and turn it out before it gets a chance to do further damage.

Edgar Z. Friedenberg is probably best understood by people of our sort as a libertarian outsider, one of those independent intellectuals who, usually through a career-long obsession with one particular social or political issue, eventually reason themselves into a version of libertarianism. Once they do it, it's not always clear whether they realize just what it is they've done.

Certainly, many of the outsiders never describe themselves publicly as libertarian or otherwise give evidence that they grasp what their thinking has led them to. Friedenberg never really did. He did say, in a letter dated December 12, 1967, replying to a request from the Wilson Library Bulletin, that "I hope I might have something to say to libertarians but at the moment I don't have time to say it."

And it's likely that in late 1967, Friedenberg did have a fairly clear understanding of what a libertarian was. He had been in Port Huron, Michigan, at the founding convention of Students for a Democratic Society in 1962. He knew Carl Oglesby, the Rothbardian libertarian who presided over SDS during school year 1965/66. But exactly what he believed he had to say to libertarians remains unclear, unless it's the pretty consistently libertarian observations I've quoted from Deference to Authority, published 13 years later.

As of this writing, in late August 2010, Deference to Authority is out of print. All of Friedenberg's books, with the exception of one he edited in 1971, are out of print. He doesn't even have a Wikipedia article. Effectively, he's forgotten. Yet, like Stanley Milgram, he added a little something to Etienne de La Boetie's observations of nearly half a millennium ago on the politics of obedience, the will to bondage; and, in the process, he ensured a small place for himself in the libertarian tradition. He ought to be remembered — especially by libertarians.

Author's Note

Robert Bushkin, Tucson attorney and longtime Edgar Z. Friedenberg enthusiast, provided indispensable assistance with the research for this article. Any errors of interpretation with regard to the facts of Friedenberg's life or the implications of his works are entirely my own.


Jeff Riggenbach

Jeff Riggenbach was a journalist, author, editor, broadcaster, and educator. A member of the Organization of American Historians and a senior fellow at the Randolph Bourne Institute, he wrote for such newspapers as the New York Times, USA Today, the Los Angeles Times, and the San Francisco Chronicle; such magazines as Reason, Inquiry, and Liberty; and such websites as LewRockwell.com, AntiWar.com, and RationalReview.com. His books include In Praise of Decadence (1998), Why American History Is Not What They Say: An Introduction to Revisionism (2009), and Persuaded by Reason: Joan Kennedy Taylor & the Rebirth of American Individualism (2014). Drawing on vocal skills he honed in classical and all-news radio in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Houston, Riggenbach also narrated the audiobook versions of numerous libertarian works, many of them available on Mises.org.