The Roots of Concord and Discord
In Abraham Lincoln’s June 16, 1858, speech upon being chosen as Illinois’ Republican nominee for U.S. Senate against Stephen Douglas, he cited Jesus’ words in the Bible that “a house divided against itself cannot stand.”
Today, that principle is once again an ominous portent for America. We have piles of politicians who claim they will unify us, protecting us from division (e.g., President Biden’s promise to be a leader who “seeks not to divide, but to unify”), but the only unity they really offer is the creation of slight and unstable majorities who wish to benefit themselves at others’ expense. Such unity is really tyranny.
That is why we also could benefit from remembering Lincoln’s reason for his house divided language: “I want to use some universally known figure, expressed in simple language as universally known, that it may strike home to the minds of men in order to rouse them to the peril of the times.”
Leonard Read, creator of the Foundation for Economic Education, also echoed that house divided language and the seriousness of the problem it highlighted for America, in his “The Roots of Concord and Discord,” Chapter 8 in his 1975 The Love of Liberty. The reason? It was abundantly clear to him that our house was seriously divided.
The house we call America is divided against itself, as is evident to anyone who has eyes to see and ears to hear. Discord is rampant…If our house is to stand, concord must replace discord and, if this is to be accomplished, we must practice the way of life that leads to harmony.
What is the essence of the contrasting roads to discord and concord that Read recognized? Dictocratic determination versus free markets.
What road are we now treading? It’s the road to serfdom. Day by day and in nearly every way, we move nearer to omnipotent government, the totalitarian state--dictocrats by the millions telling us how to live our lives.
When discord is rampant, we’re on the wrong road; when concord prevails, we’re on the right one.
What is the road in the opposite direction? It is the free market, private ownership, limited government way of life. Not a single dictocrat [with] those in government confined to invoking a common justice and keeping the peace…no man-concocted restraints standing against the release of creative human energy.
Read then evaluates dictocratic determination and the discord--disunity in more modern terms--that results. That discord is created by attempts to coerce people into conformity with dictocrat wishes against their will.
Why does the road featured by dictocrats lead to discord? And why does the road in the opposite direction, featured by a free and self-responsible people, lead to concord?
The road to serfdom--socialism, the planned economy, the welfare state, call it what you will--is featured by millions of dictocrats…each trying to make over society in his image.
In view of their dissimilarities, it is instructive to reflect on what dictocrats have in common…no doubt that were he to direct the whole economy it would be improved…politically applied know-it-all-ness.
Note the mess we’re in--the failures more apparent each day. And the discord! With millions of dictocrats advancing as many or more panaceas--all at odds--how could it be otherwise!
All that the dictocrats can possibly do to modify their mistakes…is to attempt something less bad. But not so bad is error still!
The seed is socialism; the fruit has to be discord!
Each individual of the…dictocrats…assesses himself as the focal point of wisdom….[But] every assumed focal point of wisdom [is] at odds one with the other. Discord!
The ability of individuals to freely choose for themselves with their own resources is what converts the discord created by dictocrats into concord. All parties whose rights are involved must agree to the arrangements made, rather than some uniting with one another to violate others’ rights.
What then is the way of life that leads to harmony? It is every man pursuing his legitimate--intelligent--self-interest, that is, acting any way he pleases so long as his way does not impair the rights of others to be their creative selves.
This reflects the importance of understanding that in a world where agreement on who should get how much of what is beyond our potential--because in a world of scarcity, more for me at your expense, which is the vast majority of political determination, will seldom achieve your voluntary agreement. There is no real unity in that direction.
However, despite our disagreement on myriad aspects of who should get what, we share far greater unity about what we do not want to happen to us. None of us wants what John Locke called our “lives, liberties and estates” violated. Each of us wants our rights and property defended against invasion. That protection expands our joint freedom to peacefully pursue our goals.
As Lord Acton put it, “liberty is the only object which benefits all alike, and provokes no sincere opposition,” because freedom to choose for ourselves is always the primary means to our ultimate ends. That is why the traditional functions of government are to protect us from abuse, which Acton recognized as requiring “the limitation of the public authority,” because creating added rights and privileges for some at the expense of others’ rights--the mainstay of dictocrats--makes government itself the most dangerous predator.
Well-established property rights and the voluntary market arrangements they enable let individuals decide for themselves, limiting each of us to persuasion rather than coercion. And since we all want persuasion rather than coercion used when it comes to ourselves, the kind of unity that is impossible in allocating “who gets what” becomes possible when it comes to “rules of the game” we all prefer for ourselves.
Reflect on…how we may switch from the kind of actions that produce discord to the way of life that leads to concord…[where] liberty is a blessing to everyone.
Coercion in every instance [is] the root of discord…Is it any wonder that discord rather than concord is dominant!
These people who exercise coercion see only the “advantages” of their special privilege, of their coercion.
The remedy is nothing less than an eye-opening performance…the seeing at once of a delusion and of a truth.
The delusion?...that the dictocrats’ coercive tactics are responsible for life being as good as it still is. That which is seen! The truth? That the free flowing of creative energy--liberty--is the source of human welfare. That which is not seen!
Leonard Read thus saw that the transition from the discord we know to the concord we could have involved expanding people’s ability to choose for themselves, under private property rights, rather than dictocrat coercion into different choices. That requires better protection for our rights than we receive today. And while that would not eliminate our disagreements on many things, it would stop them from threatening our society.
Concord can replace discord. It is only a matter of seeing. When seen, our house will no longer be divided against itself.