The Decay of Self-Reliance


WE grew very intimate in the War Department in the long night hours while we waited, at our end of the cables, for messages about troop ships in the danger zone. I told the uneventful story of my own life and in return learned of long careers of service, in all parts of the world, as American officers went onward from cadetship at West Point to responsibilities as governors of alien peoples in the Antipodes. Through all these stories ran the same thread of duty, done simply and as a matter of course, but requiring resourcefulness, courage, and sturdiness of character which it seemed natural these Americans should have as the descendants of pioneers. General Gorgas, for instance, told me that from his youth he had loved the stories of heroic soldiers and adventuring civilians, men who met difficulties with persistent effort and relied on the promptings of character to guide them in unfamiliar crises. I knew exactly what he meant when, some years later, I presided at a memorial meeting in Washington to which every country in Central and South America had sent a representative to express national reverence for the memory of the man who had delivered them from the scourge of yellow fever. As their names were called, they each in turn told of their country’s annual death toll before Gorgas had eradicated the plague and then gave the number of years since the last case was known among them. I roughly calculated that the simple gentleman whose memory we were honoring had already saved more than fifteen million lives; the number will be countless as the years go on! It was the work of a pioneer, simple as all great things are simple, possible only to a self-reliant and dauntless man whose instinct was daring beyond the call of duty. What he did could not have been done by a mere cog in a social machine, revolving about a traditional axis and depending for power upon some aggregate inspiration.

The pioneer spirit has been the central factor in the making of the America we know, and of it may be said, as is said of Sir Christopher Wren in St. Paul’s Cathedral, ‘Si monumentum requiris, circumspice.’ It was the spirit of the discoverers and explorers, of the men who extended the frontiers and conquered the forests, of the men who have infinitely enlarged the empire of man over Nature by researches and inventions — one and all they did the unusual and achieved the unexpected. We are the heirs of their invention and of their courage, and in each significant case it was individual imagination and individual daring, based upon no report of an investigating committee and promoted by no legislative enactment.

It used to be an axiom that the whole purpose of social and political organization was to protect the individual and so, by freeing each to develop his highest capacity, multiply the varieties of men and capture for the common good the achievements of the most imaginative and valiant persons. Our children in their education passed quickly from fairy godmothers and the lives of magicians, like Aladdin, to the biographies of men who, like Daniel Boone, faced savage Nature alone and unafraid. Nor was it any part of our belief that the pioneer spirit could flourish only on a new and unconquered continent. It was rather the predicate of the pioneer spirit that every age and all conditions afforded opportunities for imagination, so that, however changed the material in which it worked, the spirit remained unchanged. It was the individual who counted, whether in Balboa when pressing onward to the Pacific or in Edison when circling the world with his thoughts from a laboratory in New Jersey. It may have been a bit vague, and yet somehow we all felt there was something intrinsically more noble and distinguished in being an individual than in being a member of anything whatsoever, and that, in addition to this intrinsic nobility, there was a superior promise of usefulness.


Have we changed all this, and if so, why and how? What new knowledge or new analogy has persuaded us that our old thought and our old standards were wrong? I cannot tell and I have no right to be dogmatic, but surely evidence multiplies against the persistence of the pioneer spirit and in favor of the substitution of something for it which at least is not yet justified by its achievements.

Not long ago a young man came into my office to ask me for a letter to the Canadian immigration authorities assuring them that if he were admitted into the Dominion he would not become a public charge. I knew enough of his family and their circumstances to feel quite sure that they were both able and willing to have such assurances given. He seemed a very simple, straightforward, and wholly unspectacular young man and I naturally inquired why he wanted to go to Canada. He replied that he wanted to spend the winter trapping fur-bearing animals on the scattered lands and waters just south of the Arctic Circle. I asked him whether he knew the conditions of that country, that for long periods of time the thermometer ranged from sixty to eighty degrees below zero, and that none of the dependences, much less the amenities, of civilization were at hand. My questions left him quite unmoved. Then I asked him if he had had any qualifying experience in such matters, to which he replied that he had spent two winters in northern Maine — rather successful winters — as a trapper. Then with a very quiet smile he said, half apologetically, ‘I suppose you think I am a little crazy, do you not?’ And quite impulsively I answered, ‘I wish I could tell you what I really think about you. I am wondering whether I do not see in you the last survivor of the pioneer. I wonder whether you are not in fact the last young man I shall ever see who is not afraid of the dark and of hardship, and wants to stand on his own feet and force his own way by the vigor of his own spirit and the strength of his own hands.’ I gave him the letter he wanted. Perhaps as I write these sentences he is setting his traps amid accumulating winter. In any case, I am thinking of him and remembering that of all the young men who have come to see me in the last two or three years he is unique. All the others, in one form or another, have come to ask me how to get the government, or some philanthropy, or somebody else either to direct them or to provide for them, in return for sheltered service, against the hazards of individual enterprise.

No one’s personal experience is a broad enough basis for sweeping generalizations, but if anything like this is fairly general it is suggestive enough to deserve analysis. Before we proceed to analysis, it may be well to realize that the World War period has subjected us all to unusual strains and stresses. The reaction from a four years’ dedication of all the accumulated knowledge and powers of the race to destructive undertakings, the lost confidence in human institutions because of their failure to avert so overwhelming a catastrophe, and the losses of life and property which had to be faced, unsettled many things and most of them remain unsettled. Our own share in these shocks was notably less than that of most of the other participants, but we devised some extra ones for ourselves.

The moral disaster of the Eighteenth Amendment had two consequences which distort every effort to see the real working of the American mind. In the first place, it presented the spectacle of a constitutional amendment, the most solemn form we can give an expression of our collective will, which a large part of the educated and disciplined class of our citizens openly and unanimously decided to violate. This destroyed at one blow the integrity of the law-abiding spirit which in any society must be the chief reliance for the preservation of order. That spirit brooks no exceptions. People are either law-abiding and, therefore, spontaneously well behaved, or they are lawless and, therefore, spontaneously ill behaved. When law-abiding people begin to make exceptions and say that they are going to observe the law whenever it suits their convenience or does not obstruct their pleasures, they become unreliably law-abiding and, with adequate temptation, lawless.

The other shattering consequence of the Eighteenth Amendment was that it brought about a tolerated, if not an approved, criminal class. The bootlegger quickly became the racketeer, and racketeers as quickly became gangsters. It was, no doubt, the intention of those who approved the bootleggers to limit their approval to that particular phase of their lawlessness. The cloak of respectability and partial immunity from police control soon extended over a much wider field of operations, and gunmen, educated to protect rum running, extended their rackets into labor controversies so that the free bargaining between employer and employee, sought to be assured by recent federal legislation, has with increasing frequency become a conflict between the employer, denied police protection, and the employee represented, whether he wants to be or not, by determined men who have taken force into their own hands, violently destroying property and intimidating employer and employee alike as they cruise around from one place to another calling themselves the shock troops in the labor war.

It may be that the effects of these profound disturbances have the appearance of being a change in our political and social philosophy, when they are but temporary excesses of our wearied thoughtlessness. If this is all there is to it, the case is relatively simple. If, on the other hand, we have accepted a new objective and are training ourselves in a new philosophy, it may be worth while to ask toward what ideal we are really striving.


The conflict of creeds which seems to have exposed representative government to attacks from proletarian dictatorship on the one side, and personal dictatorship on the other, is a very simple matter at bottom. Democracy, working through representative institutions, requires confidence and security. The best of people, when overwhelmed by their fears, fly to any appearance of strength for refuge, and there is an appearance of strength in a dictator to eyes too wild to see that his crown really is made of pasteboard and will wilt in the rain. If our only concern was with these transient manifestations, we could afford to wait. Dictators rarely leave heirs. It seems to me, however, that there is something much deeper and more fundamental than these surface agitations.

On every hand we hear nowadays that the individual is nothing and that the State is all. A philosophy is growing up about this dogma known as ‘totalitarianism’ and we hear of the totalitarian state which embodies its ideal. This is very different from the hedonistic sacrifice about which Grant Allen used to write. The New Hedonists believed in the individual. They believed that it was the individual’s duty to seek his own pleasure, but, of course, the pleasures to be sought were the higher pleasures, the deeper satisfactions, and the enduring goods. Their doctrine was limited by the admission that situations inevitably arise in which individuals should sacrifice themselves for the common good. But these sacrifices were the exceptions, and the rule was that the highest common good was the resultant of individual growth and strength. The new dogma, if anything as old as the oldest tyrannies can be called new, is that the individual has no purpose except as he conforms his every quality to some equalizing standard and contributes his whole strength to an abstraction called the State. The State, which is thus his substitute for Rameses as a tyrant, is no longer a political contrivance for the preservation of order and the adjustment of political conflicts. Abstraction as it is, it has become in itself the highest, if not the only, good. In its service are found all possible satisfactions; for its advancement all personalities must be sacrificed; the evolution of higher types must yield so that there may arise a State perfect, as a chemically pure substance is perfect, because of the rigid equality of its atoms.

It was, no doubt, apparent to the philosophers who made the slogan of the French Revolution that liberty and equality, in any other sense than equality of opportunity and political rights, were not Siamese twins, but are rather incompatible associates. Either grows, if at all, at the expense of the other. The more of either you insist upon having, the less of the other you must necessarily put up with. The liberal movement throughout the world devoted itself to an effort to preserve liberty against the encroachments of equality. This it sought to accomplish, not by artificial restraint upon equality, but by resisting every unnecessary restraint upon liberty. We have, therefore, had a society in which liberty was recognized as the highest good, and concessions from its completeness, recognized by occasional necessity, were required to be rigidly necessary before they were admitted. This we now are invited to reverse by making our main objective equality, and being content with such liberty only as for the moment does not appear to obstruct the completeness of the equalizing process.

Illustrations from other parts of the animal kingdom are suggestive. Man and a few other animals are tame, but most other animals are ferae naturae — that is to say, they are still subjected to the evolutionary process inherent in the action of unregulated natural forces. Certain groups, however, have developed among themselves laws based upon experience, and there is a law, merciless but apparently definite, of the jungle. Ants have perfected the most highly socialized form of life. Among them the individual lives only for society. Rigid and inflexible rules limit the interests and activities of all the members. By stern judgments, the colony applies the Marxian maxim exacting from each according to his ability and returning to each according to his need. In the process of evolution, through more generations than are in the background of any human group, the best has been worked out for the society, and individualism is regarded as so dangerous that, so far as we know, no variations whatever from the usual and accepted type are tolerated. Perhaps we do not know enough to be quite sure that such a certain and orderly life does not provide individual satisfactions, but certainly from an outside view it seems dull and unimaginative. Yes, that is exactly what is the matter with it. It lacks imagination. The individual is denied the highest of all satisfactions, the privilege of being different.


Among present-day human societies which are attempting actually to apply this totalitarian theory and its equalizing corollary, the Russians are working on the largest canvas and with the freest art, but it is perhaps too soon to assess their experiment. Indeed, it is all so muddled and confused that each day brings us some modification of their experiment which seems to be forced upon them by experience. Perhaps the greatest danger of the Russian experiment to the rest of the world is that we shall be found continuing to imitate their alluring absolutes after they themselves have abandoned them because they have now for the first time had experience which we had long ago but have forgotten.

In its only useful and growing sense, life is struggle. We learn to walk not by being carried, and when our guides go beyond protecting us against artificial hazards and the pitfalls of inexperience they enfeeble rather than strengthen us. How susceptible man is to this sort of thing is illustrated to us daily in our personal experiences. Only yesterday, a woman who had long served as a domestic in the family of one of my friends presented her resignation and explained it by saying that she and her husband had decided to visit the World’s Fair in Chicago and on their return to go on relief! Grover Cleveland, in vetoing a pension bill, once said that it was the duty of the citizen to support the State and not the duty of the State to support the citizen. When we reverse that philosophy, as we are now doing under the coercion of a compelling necessity, we encounter a whole train of ills. After being on relief for a while, people have less and less willingness to make their living by trapping for furs under the Arctic Circle. The experience in England and among ourselves is that when people who have long been on relief are offered employment many make nice calculations as to whether the wages offered are as desirable, in view of the work involved in getting them, as the relief dispensations which involve no work at all and are the proceeds of a job which a man cannot lose.

Of the various forms of relief, obviously governmental or official relief is the most dangerous and debilitating. It becomes at once a right, and those to whom it is given, both individually and collectively, devote themselves to preserving and extending the right. As a consequence, in every city of the United States, groups are already formed to bring pressure to bear upon governments to enlarge the distributions. The groups formulate programmes, sometimes demanding the distribution of money rather than necessities, and sometimes drawing up bride’s budgets of the things deemed indispensable in a satisfactory relief scheme. It is not part of my purpose to criticize these pathetic outbursts. Their maximum demands are not above the level of a very plain and restricted provision, but the point is that the people who formulate them are devoting their time and ingenuity to ways of bringing pressure to bear to get, without effort, the things they obviously ought to have, and are correspondingly withdrawing their efforts to devise ways of getting them by working for them. The pressures such groups seek to bring are at the outset political. They rapidly degenerate into violence, and exhibitions of sturdy truculence and sometimes of actual violence to attendants in relief stations are increasingly frequent. The rapidity with which the benefits of an unearned increment become vested and sacred rights has long been the complaint of those who, so often rightly, call themselves the unprivileged. Our present desperate case is leading us to experiment with that possibility on a nation-wide scale, and, so long as political pressure is permitted to succeed as a substitute for effort and ingenuity, the injury to self-reliance will continue to be inflicted.

After the Johnstown flood in 1889, a committee headed by Governor Beaver of Pennsylvania was formed to receive contributions from people throughout the country to relieve the fearful distress and loss of the people overwhelmed by the flood. A good many millions of dollars were contributed, and the committee made a plan by which all the destroyed public works and utilities were first restored. Then each family affected was rehabilitated, its house rebuilt, and the family’s status reëstablished by allotments for members of the family who had been swept away, these payments being graduated to accord with the economic contribution to the family welfare the lost members had made. When all the money that could be wisely and justly expended had been spent, there remained about a million dollars in the hands of the committee. The people in the town gave themselves over to the occupation of devising further claims to be pressed upon the committee. Tom L. Johnson, then operating a steel mill in Johnstown, was a member of the committee. He proposed that the unexpended balance be put in silver dollars in an open cart in the public square and that everybody be allowed to scramble for them and carry off whatever they could get. As this fantastic proposal called for an explanation, he said, ‘I want to start my steel mill. So long as this money lies around to be gotten by some other process than working, I can get nobody to go to work in the mill. If it is distributed, no matter how, and everybody knows that it is all gone, they will all go to work again and it will be better for them and for Johnstown.’


Men’s mental and spiritual preoccupations ultimately formulate their social philosophy. For this reason it is not possible to look without grave concern even upon the multiplied individual instances of enfeeblement. Even more alarming, however, are the sectional and group tendencies to look to the State as the source of well-being. The formation of coherent and vocal organizations to maintain lobbies in Washington in the interest of legislative relief for veterans, farmers, bank depositors, home owners, and others, illustrates how far we have departed from our old beliefs.

Of course, it is not new that governmental action should favor or oppress a class or a section. Those who have read Mr. Molyneaux’s pamphlet, What Economic Nationalism Means to the South, are only too well aware that through a long period in our history we nursed the ambition of industrial supremacy for America at the expense of causing agricultural and cultural disintegration throughout a whole vast section of the nation. But the present manifestation of this dependence upon the State is far more grave. Each maladjustment of more than local reach generates a group which not only seeks special relief, but approaches its problem with the premise that it is the duty of the State to provide the relief — a duty which the group is prepared to enforce by political and, if necessary, by radical action. This is well illustrated by the demand for government loans to industry. As Dr. H. Parker Willis recently pointed out, our whole banking and credit theory in the United States has undergone a revolutionary change, the government having stepped into the shoes of the bankers and undertaken to supply credit for overbuilt and ill-managed industries, thus preventing the natural readjustments of value which used to make credit depend upon initiative and ability and reasonable prospect of success.

It is, of course, obvious that in the utter dislocation of all our economic arrangements which came with the world-wide depression we must assume and carry the burden of preventing the destitution and disintegration which would result from letting the consequences fall upon the vicarious victims who are suddenly thrown out of employment. Personally, I do not question that it has been necessary for the Federal Government to supplement the inadequate public and private local resources to meet this burden, but I point out that the spirit in which this governmental intervention is received is one evidence among many others that our whole view is gradually changing, and that we are coming more and more to regard the State as a legitimate and responsible carrier of all individual, group, and class burdens.

It is not possible in this complex world to be all for liberty and none for equality. Equally, it is not possible to be all for equality and none for liberty. These conflicting objectives must be reconciled, but surely one or the other of them must be selected as our ideal. We must be headed for the perfection of one or the other of these and make only the necessary concessions to the one which we do not regard as the chief objective of human effort.

For a very long time, liberty was our aspiration, and I cannot help thinking that in the long run individuals will be both happier and of a higher order, and that the common welfare will be better served, if liberty remains the great ideal. Perhaps it is a bit oldfashioned to be so difficult to reconcile to equality as an ideal, but I do find it very difficult. When I try to construct for myself a society in which equality has triumphed over liberty, I find it difficult to imagine its atmosphere elevated or inspiring. It seems to me that it necessarily suppresses the highest impulses and the finest sacrifices which in the past have purified and strengthened the race. It is for such reasons that I am concerned at the evidences which seem to show that as individuals we are becoming less self-reliant; that we are willing to surrender the adventure of striving, and are willing to be content to accept, as the best we can get, a sort of secure equality in a State which does all our planning and thinking and providing for us. The pioneer spirit must needs be adapted to changing conditions. We could not permit Daniel Boone the free use of his long-range squirrel rifle in the crowded streets of a great city, but we ought not to destroy that spirit. Indeed, we were in a fair way of modifying it, and much that we called the triumph of modern civilization is the fruit of that spirit in successive transformations. For my part, I am not able to imagine what equalitarianism has to substitute for it, and I cannot help praying that life may continue an adventure full of charm and novelty, with wide spiritual spaces for the minds and hearts of the valiant, and room beyond all horizons for imagination and aspiration.