Individualism After the War

‘A FEW weeks ago, we were, or at any rate seemed to be, a nation of individualists. In this morning’s papers, it is thought worthy of comment, but not of incredulity or even of surprise, that Congress is proposing to place all the necessities of the lives of a hundred millions of persons at the absolute discretion of the President.’

The phenomenon thus referred to in a private letter written early in May, by a keen and level-headed observer, must have similarly impressed the minds of thousands of thoughtful Americans; and not a few must be asking themselves the question whether the nonchalance with which the far-reaching economic war measures of the time are being regarded by the nation is, as the writer suggests, a sign that ‘we are definitely leaving a world to which we shall not soon return.’ No question, except the paramount one, what we must do to win the war, can be of greater interest.

To discuss the question, and discuss it profitably, does not, however, mean that one must attempt to answer it with a plain yea or nay. Indeed, it is quite possible that, not only as a matter of theory or speculation, but as a matter of practical effectiveness, — not only from the standpoint of truth but from the standpoint of utility, — the best thesis to maintain is, that the question cannot be answered. For according as we disseminate the belief that the question is settled or that the question is open, according as we strengthen or weaken the hold upon the general mind of the notion of ‘manifest destiny,’ we shall be assisting to bring about or to prevent the consummation of the change. It cannot be denied that history furnishes instances in which the forces making for a certain result were such that to a penetrating eye their insuperable potency might well have been manifest; but instances in which a fatalistic belief in such potency has attained great strength, and yet has proved to be quite unjustified, are certainly neither less numerous nor less important.

Two such instances of recent date are peculiarly apt in connection with the present subject. The thought of a whole generation of ‘ advanced thinkers’ was profoundly influenced by Karl Marx’s view of the inexorable trend of economic development to the increase of misery among the masses, as an inevitable accompaniment of the modern system of concentration and exploitation of capital. To-day, however, not only has belief in the fatalistic nature of this process been almost completely discarded, even by Socialists, but the underlying doctrine of the materialist interpretation of history, which had gained great headway even among nonSocialists, has fallen into similar discredit. Yet while the Marx doctrine retained its prestige it was perhaps the most powerful of all the forces making for the spread of Socialism throughout the world.

The other instance is less important and less striking, but no less instructive. During about a decade, the conviction was widespread in this country that the absorption of the great departments of industrial production by vast monopolistic consolidations or combinations was so clearly written in the book of fate that any attempt to impede the process was not only futile, but ignorant and childish; yet we have seen the process effectively arrested, and it is safe to say that if it ever is revived it will take a shape very different from that which it would have assumed had the fatalist view been accepted by the country in the heyday of the early and dazzling triumphs of our ‘captains of industry.’

Let us, then, look the present situation in the face, and endeavor to estimate the degree in which the readiness of the country to accept, upon its entry into the war, extreme measures of centralized economic power and regulation, is a sign of the definitive passing of that individualism which has hitherto been an essential part of our national life.

A distinction of cardinal importance must be noted first of all. The legislation conferring upon the President extraordinary powers over the economic concerns of the people, regarded as a departure from our national traditions, may be thought of in either of two quite distinct aspects. In clothing the President with the right to establish, if he thinks fit, almost every conceivable kind of regulation affecting t he production, the sale, and even the consumption of food, Congress not only turns over to the untrammeled discretion of the executive powers which, under the traditions of our government, would have to be exercised through the medium of general laws: it undertakes functions which under those traditions the government would not think of assuming at all. In so far as opposition to the programme has been manifested up to the present time, it has taken the shape chiefly of misgivings concerning the granting of dictatorial power to the executive; though something, too, has been heard upon the other head.

Neither in the one aspect nor in the other has the subject attracted wide or keen interest. But it is by no means clear that the absence of acute interest or grave apprehension should be regarded by conservatives as ominous of impending and momentous change. Indeed, this insensitiveness of public sentiment may be referred with about equal plausibility to either of two diametrically opposite reasons. One, and perhaps the most obvious, view of our easy-going attitude in the face of so novel a programme, is that the scheme which it embodies is typical of a state of things toward which we are drifting in any event, to which we do not object, and the mere acceleration of whose advent naturally produces no great commotion. But is not the showing somewhat too extreme to be convincing? Acquiescence in so profound a change can hardly be so nearly universal as to account for an almost total absence of protest; and it seems at least as reasonable to ascribe that absence neither to acquiescence nor to indifference, but to a general confidence that the measures adopted to grapple with the exigencies of the war will leave no permanent impress either on our political institutions or on our economic organization.

Whether that confidence is well founded is, of course, quite another question. And it must be admitted that, in regard to both aspects of the matter, the other view — the view that we are drifting in the direction of these changes in any event — has much to be said for it. The power of the President, his influence over legislation, as well as the potency of his administrative control, has been steadily growing for a generation; and the functions of government have been likewise steadily expanding over a wider and wider area of human interests. That the war will somewhat accentuate both these processes may be regarded as almost certain; but in this there is no reason for any grave solicitude. The real question is, whether any extreme and sudden expansion, either of the functions of the government in general or of the powers of the executive in particular, introduced to meet the emergency, will become permanently fixed in our system.

As regards presidential power, one may answer this question with a confident negative. The departure is too clear-cut, our jealousy of personal power is too deep-seated, to permit in time of peace any such arbitrary exercise of executive discretion as we are sanctioning in the presence of the imperious needs of war. ‘The President,’ one Senator is quoted as saying, ‘can wield a despotic power over the very existence of the people under the food bill, and under the embargo clause he can, with one stroke of his pen, cut off all our commerce with all neutral countries.’ But it was not stated that this Senator will refuse to vote for the bill; and in any case the Senators and Representatives who will vote for it are as well aware as he of the ‘despotic power’ that it confers upon the President. The reason why they will consent to such legislation is that the very obviousness of its extreme character is a guaranty that it will utterly pass with the war; nobody would think of granting such powers for any other purpose than that of meeting the critical exigencies of the war with promptness and decision, as they arise. Moreover, it is a mistake to suppose that, taking into account the change of material conditions, this extension of presidential power is of any more significant character than that which took place, with or without legislation, during the Civil War. Whatever seemed necessary for the successful conduct of the war was done then; it is not that we are willing to do more now, but that more is necessary now. And as it was a half-century ago, so it will be again; with the passing of the necessity will go the passing of the President’s war powers.

But when we come to the broader question of the enlargement of governmental functions, we have a very different situation to deal with. The spread of regulation, whether legislative or administrative, over domains formerly free from governmental interposition, has been something more than a mere accompaniment of the increasing complexity of modern life. This factor has, indeed, been an important one; but while in the matter of the growing devolution of power upon the executive the increasing intricacy of the necessary machinery of government is of itself sufficient to account for the phenomenon, a factor of a quite different kind, and of far greater ultimate potentialities, has operated to promote the spread of governmental activity into domains formerly left to the play of individual activities. The phrase ‘social betterment,’ as usually employed, has reference to efforts designed to improve the lot of the poor; but if one may use the term in the broader sense which the words in themselves convey, the great force that is behind the steady trend of our time toward enlargement of the functions of government is such widespread interest in social betterment, and such effective realization of the possibilities of its achievement through governmental action, as has not been known in any previous stage of the world’s history. Thus we have here, not a mere automatic drift, but a deep and strong current of thought and feeling; and accordingly an advance once made, no matter through what adventitious circumstances, along the line of this current, is likely to find powerful forces enlisted for its retention.

But it by no means follows that these forces will prevail; for our attachment to the essentials of individualism is far more deep-seated than mere observation of the external facts of the drift of the time would indicate. Eight or ten years ago, it was the fashion to declare that the principle of competition as the prime regulator of business was obsolescent, if not obsolete; but it proved to have a vast amount of life in it, and that manner of speaking is, for the present at least, almost as obsolete as the competitive principle was supposed to be. It is true that the doctrine of laisser faire has completely, and, it is safe to say, permanently, lost that standing which it enjoyed half a century ago: not only the drift of political sentiment and action, but the attrition of rational discussion and the teachings of experience have steadily worn down its pretensions, until its position as a powerful dogma has been completely lost. But though laisser faire played for a considerable period the part of a chief citadel of individualism, the persistence of individualism is by no means to be measured by that of the laisser-faire doctrine.

It would be idle to deny that the spirit of individualism has suffered a certain amount of impairment in the last two or three decades; but that impairment is far from being commensurate with the enlargement of governmental interposition. Indeed, it would hardly be going too far to say that, for the most part, the progress of that enlargement has been so great and so comparatively unresisted precisely because it has become evident, in instance after instance, that what was, at first blush, opposed on the ground that it ran counter to the spirit of individualism was presently seen to involve no genuine — or at least no serious — offense to that spirit. Thus the movement for workmen’s compensation laws required only general familiarity with the facts of the case to secure for it that speedy acceptance, in state after state of the Union, which has been one of the most striking phenomena of our recent legislative history; and, novel as the institution is, it already seems as natural and normal as public-health departments, public hospitals, public playgrounds, and, one feels almost tempted to add, public schools. The publicschool system constituted, in point of fact, a far more serious invasion of the domain of individualism than anything that has come since; and, indeed, the time has been, within the memory of men not old, when it was still held by some highly intelligent and even publicspirited persons that the maintenance of the public-school system was an indefensible violation of the individualist principle. But the individualism of the nation is not a doctrinaire individualism of this kind; it may shy at a novelty on abstract grounds, but the things that it will resist stoutly are those that palpably interfere in the concrete with individual freedom in the interests and activities of daily life.

It is true that upon this freedom, too, there has been a certain amount of encroachment; but it has come by slow degrees and usually in the face of strong resistance. By far the most notable instance of such encroachment is to be found in the progress of the prohibition movement; but prohibition stands in a class by itself, involving, as it does, a multitude of elements which have no analogue in the economic questions with which we are here chiefly concerned. Comprehensive interference with the freedom of the individual in the ordinary processes of economic life will have to justify itself far more signally than there is any reason to expect that it will actually do, if our experience of it during the war is to result in its becoming imbedded in our permanent policy. One hears, indeed, an occasional word of sanguine welcome for the new régime. Thus a New York newspaper, speaking of a prospective ‘conscription of food agencies’ to create the supplies which are so vital to the prosecution of the war, and which the shortage of farmlabor threatens to leave unprovided, asks whether we are not to have like armies of conscripted food-producers in time of peace. ‘ Will the country,’ it exclaims, ‘go back to the old, haphazard system of to-day, with the young men flocking from the farms once more and the rich fields lying idle? Or will Bellamy’s dream be realized and an army of peace forever chase off the phantom of famine and high prices by raising crops sufficient for all?’

To prophesy is always hazardous, and never more so than to-day; but without saying that a thing will not happen, one may point out some of the reasons why it is not so likely to happen as a person preoccupied with a single phase of the question may imagine. One great trouble about ‘forever chasing the phantom of famine and high prices’ is that the phantom of overabundance and low prices is quite as troublesome a visitor, and indeed has been known to make even more serious trouble. It was the long-continued low price of wheat and other agricultural staples that was the main cause of the great ground-swell of discontent which came near landing Mr. Bryan in the presidency; and upon a smaller scale we have more recently seen intense and widespread hardship in a large section of the country, caused by a sharp decline in the price of cotton. Farmers are not miracles of economic insight; but they know enough to resent, and have power enough to defeat, any scheme under which, in time of peace, the government would conscript forces to insure the consumer against under-supply, unless it undertakes also to insure the producer against over-supply.

It might indeed be retorted that there is no reason why this latter undertaking should not also be permanently assumed; but it is hardly worth while to enter into any discussion of the difficulties that this would involve. Suffice it to say that, however difficult the problem actually before us, — that of promoting and conserving the food-supply needed during the war, — it is of elementary simplicity in comparison with that of controlling all the adjustments of supply and demand under the varying conditions of ordinary times. Mr. Hoover will encounter difficulties enough in all conscience, but at least his objective is absolutely simple — to make production as abundant, and consumption as thrifty, as possible. The machinery that serves this purpose may be, not only not superior, but infinitely inferior, to that of the ordinary operation of supply and demand in meeting the manifold variations constantly arising out of the vicissitudes of nature and of human affairs.

This matter of food-control is but an example, though the most conspicuous and important example, of the state of things presented in quite as marked a degree in all directions. All along the line, the efficiency of the governmental substitute for individual initiative and individual responsibility remains to be demonstrated. That efficiency will, we may be sure, be sharply challenged even as regards its operation in wartime; much more will it be exposed to criticism as to its adaptation to the requirements of normal conditions and the promotion of normal progress. But even supposing the question of efficiency to be settled in favor of the new order, there stands beyond it the question of the predilections of men in matters which they refuse to ignore at the mere behest of the efficiency propagandist. How effective the protest, both conscious and unconscious, against the unmitigated gospel of efficiency may prove to be, will depend on many things; but above all on the nature of the peace upon which the world will enter at the close of its war with the German military colossus. If that peace shall have the character of a mere breathing-spell, if the world is to be haunted day and night by the spectre of another such unspeakable horror, there will manifestly be little strength in any purpose save that of securing the maximum of strictly material efficiency. To be armed to the teeth for war will mean, after the awful lesson of this struggle, nothing less than to be so organized, in every department of production and of business, as to be able, at a moment’s notice, to turn to the uses of war the greatest possible volume of everything that serves to sustain life among ourselves and our friends, as well as of everything that serves to destroy life among our enemies. In a word, if militarism of the Prussian type is to pervade the world, social regimentation of a more than Prussian type will be its necessary accompaniment.

But we none of us look forward to so monstrous a future for the human race. The one thing that from the beginning has been inflexibly declared to be the object of the nations allied against Germany is the destruction of Prussian militarism, the freeing of the world from the horrible necessity of being permanently armed against a recurrence of the calamity which is now desolating it. To the complete accomplishment of this purpose our own country in particular is most deeply pledged. No American can waver in his confidence that the purpose will be fulfilled. It is of a world going about its affairs, guided by the normal influences of peace, not coerced by the abnormal demands of war, that we feel we have a right to think when we contemplate the future. And in such a world the desire for efficiency is but one of many factors that determine the course of human affairs, and the love of individual freedom is a factor at least as much to be reckoned with.

It must be acknowledged, however, that it is not militarism alone that in these modern days makes for the enthronement of efficiency. The identification of material with moral good has been going on in the past decade or two at a remarkable rate. However beneficent this identification is in some of its manifestations, —as regarding certain fundamental requirements of decent living for the poor, — one need not be a pessimist, or even a reactionary, to see that it has a bad side which, in the long run, may work quite as great injury to the finer aspects of human life in general as its good side has worked benefit in the more primary concerns of the ‘submerged tenth.’ Be this as it may, the raising of physical and economic betterment to a plane of moral respect which in former times was reserved for aspirations in the domain of the spirit rather than the body, necessarily gives powerful aid to the cult of efficiency and correspondingly lowers the resisting power of individualist ideas. What with the prestige that Germany has given — even apart from her military prowess — to relentlessly systematized efficiency, and what with this change that has taken place in our valuation of material progress, it seems plain that, for some time to come, individualism will have hard work to hold its own.

To admit this, however, is something very different from admitting that we are confronted with the prospect of any radical or even deeply marked change as the result of our war experience. Indeed, it is by no means impossible that — always supposing Germany to be defeated and the incubus of Prussian militarism lifted from the earth — we shall witness a powerful reaction against the cult of materialist efficiency. Released from the grinding pressure and the terrible tension of the war, the minds of men may instinctively turn for refreshment and reinvigoration to the pursuit of those objects which are not dictated by the imperious call of external necessity, but which in all ages have attracted for their own sake the intellectual and spiritual energies of mankind. Such a reaction, though perhaps palpably represented by only a small and elect minority, would be sure to filter down and exercise a powerful influence upon the temper of whole nations. A splendid revival of literature, of pure science, and of art, the result of sheer longing for what is most removed from the dire preoccupations of these years of dread, would be a by no means surprising development of a period closely following the war. And this would inevitably bring with it powerful reinforcement to the cause of individualism all along the line. Meanwhile we shall be sure to hear much, and loudly, from the soothsayers of manifest destiny, certain beyond peradventure that the war has made an end of the old individualism for good and all. It is for those who neither welcome such a change, nor believe that it need come unless men choose that it shall, stoutly to deny the validity of the prophecy. Similar prophecies without end have failed of fulfillment; and if this one is to be fulfilled many of us will feel that no small part of what they have dreaded in the threatened hegemony of Germany will have come about in spite of her defeat.