Maxwell Anderson (1888-1959) was a brilliant American playwright who is almost forgotten today. Lawrence Reed of the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE) is trying to change all that. If you are already familiar with Maxwell Anderson you know what he’s talking about. If you’re not familiar with Maxwell Anderson please stop what you’re doing and read his ideas on limited government, which he set forth in his brilliant essay, The Guaranteed Life (1950). It’s available at Amazon for $100. You’ll have to act quickly, there’s only one copy left.
If you don’t want to spend a $100 you can read it for free at FEE, Maxwell Anderson and “The Guaranteed Life”: Two Forgotten American Treasures.
Or you can read it here, with my comments added:
The Guaranteed Life (1950)
By Maxwell Anderson
“A government is a group of men organized to sell protection to the inhabitants of a limited area at monopolistic prices.” So said Peter Stuyvesant in Knickerbocker Holiday, and so I believe now. In other words, there’s no such thing as a “good” government; one and all they partake of the nature of rackets. But government is better than anarchy, and was invented as an insurance against anarchy.
And some kinds of government are far better than others. Specifically, our American experiment has worked so well that we can point to it as one of the most successful in the history of the world, if not the most successful.
In Knickerbocker Holiday I tried to remind the audience of the attitude toward government which was prevalent in this country at the time of the revolution of 1776 and throughout the early years of the republic. At that time it was generally believed, as I believe now, that the gravest and most constant danger to a man’s life, liberty, and happiness is the government under which he lives.
Balance of Selfish Interests
It was believed then that a civilization is a balance of selfish interests, and that a government is necessary as an arbiter among these interests, but that the government must never be trusted, must be constantly watched, and must be drastically limited in its scope, because it, too, is a selfish interest and will automatically become a monopoly in crime and devour the civilization over which it presides unless there are definite and positive checks on its activities.
The Constitution is a monument to our forefathers’ distrust of the state, and the division of powers among the legislative, judicial, and executive branches succeeded so well for more than a century in keeping the sovereign authority in its place that our government has become widely regarded as a naturally wise and benevolent institution, capable of assuming the whole burden of social and economic justice. But there was nothing natural or accidental about it. Our government has done so well because of the wary thinking that went into its making. [emphasis added]
The thinking behind our Constitution was dominated by such men as Franklin and Jefferson, men with a high regard for the rights of the individual, combined with a cold and realistic attitude toward the blessings of central authority. Knowing that government is a selfish interest, they treated it as such, and asked of it no more than a selfish interest can give.
But the coddled young reformer of our day, looking out on his [or her] world, finding merit often unrewarded and chicanery triumphant, throws prudence to the winds and grasps blindly at any weapon which seems to him [or her] likely to destroy the purse-proud haves and scatter their belongings among the deserving have-nots.
[How prescient was Maxwell Anderson, writing in 1950, to have anticipated the coddled and misguided Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Beto O’Rourke?]
Now he is right in believing that the accumulation of too much wealth and power in a few hands is a danger to his civilization and his liberty. But when the weapon he finds is economic planning, and when the law he enacts sets up bureaus to run the nation’s business, he is fighting a lesser evil by accepting a greater and more deadly one, and he should be aware of that fact.
Protection at Monopolistic Prices
A government is always “organized to sell protection to the inhabitants of a limited area at monopolistic prices.” The members of a government are not only in business, but in a business which is in continual danger of lapsing into pure gangsterism, pure terrorism, and plundering, buttered over at the top by a hypocritical pretense at patriotic unselfishness. [Were there equivalents of Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi in 1950?] The continent of Europe has seen too many such governments lately, and our own government is rapidly assuming economic and social responsibilities which take us in the same direction.
Whatever the motives behind a government-dominated economy, it can have but one result—a loss of individual liberty in thought, speech, and action. The greatest enemies of democracy, the most violent reactionaries, are those who have lost faith in the capacity of a free people to manage their own affairs.
A guaranteed life is not free. [emphasis added] Social Security is a step toward the abrogation of the individual and his absorption into that robot which he has invented to serve him—the paternal state.
[If only Anderson had lived to see Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society” and The War on Poverty, or Obamacare]
When I have said this to some of the youthful proponents of guaranteed existence, I have been met with the argument that men must live, and that when the economic machinery breaks down, men must be cared for lest they starve or revolt. This is quite true and nobody is opposed to helping his fellow man. But the greatest enemies of democracy, the most violent reactionaries, are those who have lost faith in the capacity of a free people to manage their own affairs and wish to set up the government as a political and social guardian, running their business and making their decisions for them. This is statism, or Stalinism, no matter who advocates it, and it’s plain treason to freedom.
Wards of the State
And life is infinitely less important than freedom. [think about that!] A free man has a value to himself and perhaps to his time; [although in a living body] a ward of the state is useless to himself—useful only as so many foot-pounds of energy serving those who manage to set themselves above him.
A people which has lost its freedom might better be dead, for it has no importance in the scheme of things except as an evil power behind a dictator. In our hearts we all despise the man who wishes the state to take care of him, who would not rather live meagerly as he pleases than suffer a fat and regimented existence.
Those who are not willing to sacrifice their lives for their liberty have never been worth saving. [!] Throughout remembered time every self-respecting man has been willing to defend his liberty with his life. If our country goes totalitarian out of a soft-headed humanitarian impulse [emphasis added] to make life easy for the many, we shall get what we vote for and what we deserve, for the choice is still before us, [Anderson didn’t live to see Democrat party voter fraud steal our choice from us] but we shall have betrayed the race of men, and among them the very have-nots whom we subsidize.
Our Western continent still has the opportunity to resist the government-led rush of barbarism which is taking Europe back toward Attila, but we can only do it by running our government, and by refusing to let it run us.
If the millions of workingmen in this country who are patiently paying their social security dues could glimpse the bureaucratic absolutism which that act presages for themselves and their children, they would repudiate the whole monstrous and dishonest business overnight. When a government takes over a people’s economic life, it becomes absolute, and when it has become absolute, it destroys the hearts, the minds, the liberties, and the meaning of the people it governs.
It is not an accident that Germany, the first paternalistic state of modern Europe, was seized by an uncontrollable dictator who brought on the second world war; not an accident that Russia, adopting a centrally administered economy for humanitarian reasons, has arrived at a tyranny bloodier and more absolute than that of the Czars. And if England does not turn back soon, she will go this same way. Men who are fed by their government will soon be driven down to the status of slaves or cattle.
All these dangers were foreseen by the political leaders who put our Constitution together after the revolution against England. The Constitution is so built that while we adhere to it, we cannot be governed by one man or one faction, and when we have made mistakes, we reserve the right to change our minds. The division of powers and the rotation of offices was designed to protect us against dictatorship and arbitrary authority.
The fact that there are three branches of government makes for a salutary delay and a blessed inefficiency, the elective rotation makes for a government not by cynical professionals, but by normally honest and fairly incompetent amateurs. That was exactly what the wary old Founding Fathers wanted, and if we are wise we shall keep it, for no scheme in the history of the world has succeeded so well in maintaining the delicate balance between personal liberty and the minimum of authority which is necessary for the free growth of ideas in a tolerant society.
But we shall not keep our Constitution, our freedom, nor our free elections, if we let our government slide gradually into the hands of economic planners who bribe one class of men after another with a state-administered dole.
Since Knickerbocker Holiday was written, the power of government in the United States has grown like a fungus in wet weather; price supports and unemployment benefits and farm subsidies are the rule, not the exception, and our government has turned into a giant give-away pro gram, offering far more for votes than was ever paid by the most dishonest ward-heeler in the days of Mark Hanna. We march steadily toward the prefabricated state…The guaranteed life turns out to be not only not free—it’s not safe. [emphasis added] Do we want a gangster government? That’s what we’re going toward.
Maxwell Anderson wrote this essay in 1950. What does it say to us today? Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose?
Here’s a message to all the coddled brats in America who think they know better than that special group of remarkable and masculine men who wrote the U.S. Constitution 230 years ago. It’s from Roger Scruton, Conservatism — An Invitation to the Great Tradition, Page 36:
“The American Founders were serious people, educated in political and constitutional thinking, who created one of the most important documents in modern history — the first attempt to provide a constitution that both specified the powers of government, and also insisted that these were the only powers, adding a Bill of Rights to emphasize the point.”