Mises Daily

Coming Home

Karl Hess “I want the freedom to be responsible for my own actions.”

[Dear America (1975)]

At two of the first seminars I ever attended at the Institute for Policy Studies, I heard two points made that I have never forgotten and that stand for me as actual beacons in finding my way through complicated matters to simple truths.

At one, Milton Kotler remarked that every person preaching on behalf of social change should be willing to, should be able to, and should be required to state clearly, “What’s in it for me?” People who preach social change to help “the masses,” to aid “the poor,” to succor “the suffering,” and who say they have no other motive might be saints, but more regularly turn out to be social sinners, masking ambition behind nobility.

Marc Raskin, at another seminar, listened patiently while a colleague delivered a ponderous and pompous ultimatum on behalf of some then-current “cause” and then asked, “Would it be possible for you to speak as just a human being and not as a force of history?” People who preach social change as though they are mere messengers of fate, or fury, or history, or a messiah do not often seem content to remain mere messengers. They move to mastery as fast as they can.

Sometime later, one of our colleagues — a remnant of the Old Left and thus at constant odds with the generally libertarian spirit of the rest of the Institute — made an impassioned defense of concentrating power in the hands of a few to benefit the future of the many. Recalling the Kotler-Raskin formulations, I asked if the person would be willing to assume such power and to exercise it. “Of course,” was the reply. “Why you?” I asked. “Because I have studied and know what needs to be done.” “For everyone in the entire world?” I asked. “Of course,” was the reply. “Marxist-Leninism shows the correct way for everyone.”

There is nothing more healthy to a spirit of resistance than to see a monarch close up — to understand that under all the noble rhetoric of history and destiny there is a human brow itching for a crown. At that particular meeting I saw a brow itching on its left side. Previously I had seen so many itching on the right side. Briefly I had thought there might be a preference. I don’t think that any more.

No person is so grand or wise or perfect as to be the master of another person. Teacher, perhaps. Setter of good example, perhaps. Genius, perhaps. But master, no. There are times when a doctor or a carpenter, a musician or an artist, might lead you in a certain undertaking because of energy, skill, or information that you might not have. But that is temporary and special. It is, or should be, merely commonsense expedience and — of course — it should be possible because of your agreement, also in common sense. It is not mastery.

The carpenter does not retain leadership when the planks are all laid and the enterprise shifts to painting. The doctor is not a master to be consulted when a song is to be sung or a plant plucked. Commonplace leadership can be by virtue of skill, energy, or information that, although universally accessible, might not be universally sought. Mastery is by conferred or inherited power, by accumulation of privilege, by institutional support, and by the holding of information that is deliberately restricted in order to gain or hold power.

The difference is clear in our everyday lives. When it becomes clear that the same differences pertain in all human affairs, acts of liberation might truly be the most lasting and significant ever. Liberation would not mean to move from one set of masters to another, as is urged by the spirit of party. Liberation in its grandest meaning should be liberation from imposed authority and institutionalized hierarchy itself. Liberation merely from a tyrant is a temporary thing, as it has turned out. Liberation from tyranny is a more decent, more substantial goal.

There is a special variant of this concern that I must mention although it is happily of declining importance. For some time during the sixties and early seventies there were people who were regarded as both left wingers and as counter-cultural who said that the only way to liberate oneself was to be liberated from self altogether and to reject all authority, whether imposed or not. Thus, it was said that when a person’s sense of self disappeared, the person could be one with the universe. Thus, it was said that any knowledge was essentially elitist and essentially either trivial or evil. Such people even resented language, since it implied an intellectual activity. They wanted activity of “the whole person,” and in some bizarre way seemed to exempt the human mind from that whole. They wanted to obliterate the sense of self that — beyond any other feeling — seems to me to be the feeling that is most human, and which is, I feel, the only sensible definition for “human nature.”

Such people drifted to farms where they listened for inner voices rather than paying attention to sun and frost and rain. They wanted so to be a part of the universe that they forgot the nature of Earth. Many drifted even further, into eternally drugged somnolence — assuring with chemistry the incoherence they had sought spiritually. More grew through and out of it, retaining the gentle reverence for inexplicable “spirit,” but also decently in tune with the spirit of material skills and the material world, including the world of other human beings with whom they finally learned to communicate as human beings, with words, with music, with shared work, with love, rather than as they once tried, with cross-legged, ultimately detached and isolated “vibes.”

Such people are strong forces for social change today, diligently going about homely tasks in familiar settings. So are most people who, having held some strong position that they subjected to critical analysis and then changed, have moved from fanaticism to determination. People who have never really cared — who have served only whatever master was most near or convenient — are least likely to change or to support change. They will change masters easily enough, as in the way so many conservatives changed to liberal-like groupies for presidential power. They will change little else because they have little else to change — little to give but their loyalty. The same is true of partisan leftists who lose their minds to slogans and their actions first to demagogues, then to commissars, and finally to police sergeants.

Change will be made around such people — a swirling process which, although it may never move many people from the center at any particular time, will always be unsettling them around the edges of their existence, finally eroding away their protective shells and, in the best of circumstances, showing the possibility of change rather than commanding it.

$45 $43

“Of course. Marxist-Leninism shows the correct way for everyone.”

But what is in it for me? And can I work for change without posing as or seeming to be a force of history? Can I do it as a person among many people, a self among many selves, a neighbor among neighbors, in a neighborhood among neighborhoods, in a world that is a real and particular point in a real and at least recognizable universe?

When I was very young, I most wanted to be a scientist, isolated and brilliant, probing and illuminating mysteries, a pure soul floating in a laboratory universe, detached, cool, exalted. Then I wanted to be famous and a bit rich, noted for having political power without the mess of political responsibility, a speech-writing ghost but still a sort of pure soul floating in a marble-halled universe — detached, cool, and celebrated.

What I want now is different. It requires nothing but space and time and work. It does not float; it walks in the neighborhood. It is not detached; it is a mosaic of meetings, friendships, tasks, and celebrations (without celebrity). It still includes science but it knows science as the most social of human actions, a shared heritage, an age-long persistence of reason, something that floats beautifully in the head — not in outer space — an occasion for the pleasures of creativity more than the ploddings of pride. For honor it substitutes, simply, honesty; and for loyalty it certainly substitutes friendship.

What I want from social change is freedom from all those institutional chains that in the past have bound us to the purposes and projects of others, without consent and without real recourse. I want the freedom to be responsible for my own actions, and I want my actions to be judged by those whom those actions affect. I want my citizenship in a community to be a nondelegable aspect of my life, reflecting my place in the community and respecting yours. I want to live in a community where people are so sure of themselves as human beings that they can respect differences in others without being deferential to difference, or frightened by it, or cowed by it.

I want to join in the applause for a neighbor’s task superbly done, but I do not want to be enlisted in a fan club. I want to live in a community where, no matter any other skills, decent human beings all will practice those skills which all may possess in common: truthfulness, consideration of others, a sense of proportion in undertakings and in ambitions, and the various human traits associated with deep love of another and an abiding respectful sense of self.

In practical terms, as it turns out, it means living very much as I live today. For me and for many people I know, social change has been made, even though we know it has been made within institutional spaces that could close at a moment’s notice. Changes have been made. They have not been secured.

To secure such change does not mean that everybody in the world must act the same way or agree to the same cultures, to the same work, to the same patterns of community or social life or civic interaction. But it does mean, so far as I can see, that practices which permit a few to lord it over many would have to be resisted and eventually abolished. So long as the purposes of power are placed ahead of the purposes of people generally, free communities and self-reliant people will never be secured or general.

The purposes of power are to control most people by the decisions of a few people. The general language is that it is done for “their own good.” The reality is that people who are controlled — even if by the most benevolent prince, lord, or god — are mere puppets. They dangle on strings held by others, never to dance their own steps or to hold another hand except by permission of the strings on their own hands.

Perhaps this is the area in which ultimately (even as passionate a lover of reason as I am) I must admit that mere belief rules. I simply believe that freedom is a better and more desirable condition for human beings. If pressed to prove it, I could go no further than to say that humans have the tool to conceive and to live in freedom: the human mind. That mind, that tool of thought and conception and even idealization, would seem to have no function of importance if it did not urge and press people toward that freedom. If freedom were not a desirable human condition, then why has the urge to it persisted through the millennial attempts to supplant it with mystery, mysticism, despotism, authority, legality, regimentation, and regulation?

$25 $15

Freedom is functionally appropriate to human beings. Freedom is a persistent idea among human beings even though it has never been a globally dominant fact. Even when the earliest humans roamed in what might seem freedom, they were of course bound to harsh necessity and could exercise only fairly feeble choices, choosing rarely, even if brilliantly, to decorate a cave; choosing painfully to make a tool a bit better than the one made before it; and so forth.

But beyond that, again, I will admit that the idea must ultimately be defended as a belief, a belief that it is better to live self-realized and self-responsible than to live dominated, to live with a sense of self only as defined by others, and to live on the end of strings that — called destiny, history, or national politics — are actually pulled or cut by other human beings wearing the masks of power.

[bio] See [AuthorName]’s [AuthorArchive].

This article is excerpted from the final chapter of Karl Hess’s Dear America (New York: William Morrow & Company, 1975).

Comment on the blog.

You can subscribe to future articles by [AuthorName] via this [RSSfeed].

All Rights Reserved ©
What is the Mises Institute?

The Mises Institute is a non-profit organization that exists to promote teaching and research in the Austrian School of economics, individual freedom, honest history, and international peace, in the tradition of Ludwig von Mises and Murray N. Rothbard. 

Non-political, non-partisan, and non-PC, we advocate a radical shift in the intellectual climate, away from statism and toward a private property order. We believe that our foundational ideas are of permanent value, and oppose all efforts at compromise, sellout, and amalgamation of these ideas with fashionable political, cultural, and social doctrines inimical to their spirit.

Become a Member
Mises Institute