Courtesy Reuters

THE GOOD SOCIETY. BY WALTER LIPPMANN. Boston: Little, Brown, 1937, 402 p.

THE present generation is rightly concerned, and concerned far more deeply than its immediate forbears ever were, in the ending or mending of the monstrous economic and social inequalities and iniquities which permit and even foster the distress we see about us in the midst of plenty. In sharp contrast with the older notions of an inevitable progressive development that had best be let alone, or even with the recent naïve belief that depressions were a thing of the past, there is a determination among men of the present day, particularly the younger ones, to do something about this; and some would even go so far as to threaten the very existence of plenty itself, in their hatred of the glaring unevenness of its distribution. There is a divine discontent in the air, a discontent which may lead us on to reform if it is wise, or to chaos if it is misdirected. Which shall it be? This is the burning practical question; and it must have an answer very soon, for we are now in the dangerous state of readiness to accept and to act on any suggestion whatever, bad or good, rather than not act at all. Unquestionably one cause of our confusion and bewilderment is the suddenness with which events have thrust this question upon us. We have been faced unexpectedly with the necessity of making a quick decision which may in all likelihood involve the fate of our race, and we have had no time to think the question through.

One thing is clear enough: the world in its present mood will never put up with a mere "muddling through" as an answer. The preservation of the status quo is a solution that can satisfy none but the contented; and just now most men are not contented. Whether the answer to be made shall be for reform or for annihilation of our institutions, that answer will be given by those who are dissatisfied with existing conditions. These are the ones whose decisions and actions will either mend or end the ingrown abuses of our present social and economic system, will make or mar any system replacing it; and these are the ones therefore to whom all arguments, to be effective, must be directed. The quietists and reactionaries, though they are always with us, have become, for the time at least, practically negligible. Meantime an increasing number of us have grown conscious that these imminent decisions and actions are likely to determine for us and our children no less a question than whether we shall be freemen or slaves in the times to come -- and times not far distant. We are becoming more and more concerned that no decision be made that could enslave us all, and, with the present state of Europe in mind, we fear that some present proposals might have that effect.

It is a principle of equity that he who seeks a remedy must come with clean hands. Now we "liberals," advocates of reform, but a constitutional reform, do not come with hands entirely clean. Among our fellows there are doubts of our sincerity, and not altogether without reason; so any cautions or suggestions that may come from us are likely to be received with some suspicion. Why did suspicion of this kind arise? Is it a justifiable suspicion? If not, can we do anything to remove it and thus get a fair hearing for warnings that we believe might, if heeded, save us all from disaster? These are some of the preliminary questions to which the liberal of today must make answer as best he can. I take it, the sum of all the answers, to be effective, will be a plea in confession and avoidance: a frank and full confession of wrongs and blunders past and present -- but the wrongs and blunders of liberals, not of liberalism.

If he believes this, it is the liberal's business -- or his duty rather -- to try to demonstrate it to a discontented, impatient, and hostile world; no easy task, for past mistakes have laid upon him a heavy burden of proof.

Liberals do not differ from others in their conception of the true end of the state, for to all parties at all times the end, actual or professed, has been the good life of the whole; the differences come in determining what is "good" and how this is to be attained. True liberalism can never countenance, even if some "liberals" have, the sacrifice of individual well-being to "reasons of state." There can be no good life for any state whose members live in wretchedness and misery, material or spiritual. National glory or national wealth at the cost of individual welfare is the mark of no true commonwealth, but of a tyranny. The well-being of any state -- the common weal -- can only be a weal that is common to all. For a state, in the only proper sense of the term, as Cicero said long ago, is not any chance aggregation of men but a multitude united in the common purpose of securing this common good, and that can mean nothing less than the individual good of all, not some, of its members.

But Cicero did not stop there, nor does liberalism stop there. He also said that this multitude must be joined together in consent to law (juris consensu), and by law he meant no mere fiat of government. These are his words, among the most memorable in political literature: "True law is right reason consonant with nature, diffused among all men, constant, eternal; which summons to duty by its command and hinders from fraud by its prohibition . . . . To make enactments infringing this law, religion forbids, neither may it be repealed even in part, nor have we power through Senate or people to free ourselves from it."

This, of course, is an idealistic statement to which the sober facts of human life can never fully reach, yet reduced to the level of actual experience its central principle still holds good. It means that "what pleases the prince" may temporarily "have the force of law," but is not law; for the common good for which the state exists requires a stronger guarantee than the nod of any prince or any government. Now this is liberalism pure and simple. For, stripped of all its husks, liberalism is constitutionalism, "a government of laws and not of men," a common weal of individual rights that neither prince nor magistrate nor assembly has any authority to impair. In a word, liberalism means a common welfare with a constitutional guarantee. I maintain that not one part, but both parts of this definition -- in essence, Cicero's definition -- must be translated into working fact if we mean to live in a true commonwealth and hope to keep it in being. So-called liberals have ignored the first part of the definition and have fouled the nest by invoking the guarantee for privileges of their own, conducive only to the destruction of any true common weal. None have ever prated more of guarantees than these so-called liberals; but they have forgotten, if they ever believed, that these guarantees must secure the rights of all, not the selfish interests of a few. They are the traitors within the gates who have probably done more than all others to betray liberalism to its enemies and put it to its defense. Of all the errors of "liberals" theirs seems the worst; for it is largely the result of greed, and a principal cause of man's recent inhuman exploitation of man.

It is unlikely, however, that this exploitation could ever have reached the proportions it did without more protest, had really liberally minded men not been beguiled by the extreme doctrine of laissez-faire, surely one of the strangest fantasies that ever discredited human reason. Thus the self-seekers and the doctrinaires were drawn together into an alliance to maintain the status quo, and all its abuses and inequalities were made sacrosanct. This pseudo-liberalism usually exhibited itself in the ineffectiveness of legal guarantees for almost every human right except the right of property, and the acceptance of an unhistorical definition of contract under which the sanction of the law could be obtained for almost any enormity to which men could be induced to agree.

A contract is "an agreement" to do or not to do a particular thing, according to a definition once laid down by Chief Justice Marshall. According to the Roman jurists, a contract is a bond of the law (vinculum juris) which the state sees fit to attach to agreements of which it has no reason to disapprove. Between these two definitions the practical difference may not seem great, but in theory and emphasis it is profound.

Under laissez-faire and our distorted notions of contract, a lunatic may be protected against the results of his agreement, but of economic inequalities the law can never take notice -- De minimis non curat lex; there is little or no safeguard for the weak against the strong; protection of the public against an adulterated product would be unthinkable -- Caveat emptor.

Now this is a return toward Hobbes's "war of every man against every man," without the equality that Hobbes premised. Yet, we are told, the state cannot and should not do anything about it. State interference in such matters would be a violation of a sacred right. What a caricature of liberalism! Few illusions have been more disastrous than the one arising from an uncritical acceptance of Sir Henry Maine's sweeping generalization that human progress has been a development from status to contract.

No doubt conditions such as the ones mentioned above have long been accepted as "natural," or normal, or even desirable by liberals without number. It is equally true that this belief has often led to a callous indifference on their part to many forms of human misery. The indictment that might be drawn against them is a long one, though in fairness it ought to be remembered that this indictment would have been against the great majority of us all, if it had been drawn before the Great War and the awakening caused by that event. The number certainly included more than the justices of the Supreme Court of the United States.

Two wrongs do not make a right; no more do two errors make a truth. The question before us now, the decision we shall have to make before long, is whether we shall renounce these errors and remove these abuses that liberals have allowed to grow up, or whether, once and for all, we shall level with the ground all the bulwarks of our liberty, because some traitors have crept in behind them. This is what the decision we must make really means, for between constitutionalism and despotism there is no tenable middle ground. Of that the recent history of Europe leaves no reasonable doubt for any intelligent man who chooses to look into it.

The men in a hurry are trying to tell us that the only cure for economic inequality is political slavery. They would have us believe that regimentation is the only practical form of liberty. Stripped of all its idealistic phrases, their creed is a creed of pure despotism, and these dreamers could not believe in it if they had not persuaded themselves somehow -- honestly enough, no doubt -- that despotism will always be altruistic and never selfish. They are willing to entrust to a government without legal limits, and only imperfectly responsible, not only their own present welfare but their childrens' future fortunes. What a sublime faith in human benevolence! What an opportunity for an adventurer! Much of the bloodshed and misery that history records has been the direct result of this kind of honest, idealistic, but impractical, wishful thinking.

That it should crop up again in this twentieth century is one of the disastrous results of our unfortunate divorce of history and politics. Our public men and even our professed students of government are woefully ignorant -- shall I say "blissfully" ignorant? -- of the historical "struggle for law," and what it has meant; and they seem equally blind to what it means now. Almost any day they might read in the newspapers of confiscations and banishments and concentration camps and castor oil, of blood-purges and "liquidations" (what a polite term!), of the imprisonment of religious leaders and the beheading of "traitors." But these every-day horrors slip over their minds like water over a duck's back. Terrible as the crimes of liberals have been, are they as bad as these? "You must trust me," this is the whole sum of the "constitution" under a dictatorship. And we are now asked to accept it in place of our bills of rights! With the past and the present before us, dare we then accept as our guides men who thus show that they are unable or unwilling to face the ugly facts, in human nature, in history, and in our world today?

An acceptance might, of course, be not quite irrevocable. History shows cases where such despotic governments have been finally overthrown. But seldom has it been done without distress and bloodshed following a period of intolerable oppression. Would the cost of redressing the wrongs of liberals be likely to be as great as this?

If we look at our present situation, its most ominous aspect is in the cross purposes, the divisions, and even the conflicts we find among those who ought to be presenting a solid front against the forces of reaction. The faults of our liberals and the blindness of our reformers have thus broken up the historic alliance of reformer and constitutionalist through which alone we have gained and kept what little of liberty we still enjoy. And we underrate the present strength of the forces of greed, corruption, and the lust for power, if we think we can hold what we have won from them, to say nothing of winning more, while our own forces are thus divided and weakened. Before we advance to new positions we must secure the ground already won; we must consolidate our gains, and to do it we must restore the old winning combination of reformer and constitutionalist. In the past the reformer may have made these gains, but the constitutionalist enabled him to hold them. The economic and political rights wrested from oppressors have been rendered secure by making them legal or constitutional rights, by adding to them the sanction of the law. Only one of two other sanctions is ever possible: physical force, or the acquiescence of the government. The former amounts to a permanent state of civil war, or at best, of armed peace; the latter is a benevolent despotism. Can we then, dare we, exchange our constitutionalism for either of these?

Constitutionalism is more a method than a principle. It is the method of law as contrasted with force or with will. If this law has perpetuated some abuses, it has also preserved all our liberties. The abuses are eradicable and in no way essential to it; without it, the liberties are ours only on sufferance. The moral seems to be that we should guard our legal rights, but see to it that they shall never be economic wrongs. To strip of legal sanction all such wrongs as still exist, to add this sanction to all reforms our times require, this is a program that should enlist the support of every forward-looking man; not half this program, but the whole of it. Before such a program can be realized we must scrap much of the current nonsense about "popular sovereignty." We must discard our traditional notions of sovereignty itself, derived from Hobbes and Austin, and substitute sounder ones. We must strike at the corruption that is eating at the vitals of our body politic. We must modify some of our so-called "checks" that only enfeeble government and that make it responsible to selfish minority groups instead of to all the people. But in it all, and above all, we must retain those legal limits of governmental action which now exist in our bills of rights to protect the personal as well as the proprietary rights of the humblest and even the most hated of our citizens. Not only must we retain them; we must revive and revise, we must clarify and even extend them, for only so can we ever hope to give permanence to our needed reforms themselves. If they are to last, these reforms must have a better guarantee than the passing whim of any dictator; and the only guarantee that men have ever been able to devise, short of actual physical force, is the guarantee of constitutional limitations.

Much of our thinking on these points has been confused, and this has been and is one of the greatest obstacles to sound practical progress. Among the confusions is our conception of what we choose to call "popular sovereignty."

We live under a government in which the "sovereign" is limited by a superior law, a constituent law, made directly by the whole people themselves, not made and not alterable by the "sovereign" who exists only by virtue of that same constituent law. This is the system which the founders of our state deliberately established and this we think we are trying to preserve. And yet there are many among us today who would emasculate that system by destroying the only means by which it can work or endure, namely, a judicial review which makes sure that no act of the "sovereign" shall exceed the legal authority conferred upon it by the people in the constituent law, or constitution.

In the main, this destructive attitude is not a reasoned one, but in so far as it has any basis at all in thought or theory it seems to come from the common acceptance of the delusion of "popular sovereignty." Popular sovereignty, at bottom, is an identification, contrary to fact, of the government and the people. Now "We the people" do not govern ourselves; we have established a government to do it, and it does it. If the people really governed, it would, of course, be both absurd and impossible to try to limit governmental action by any law. The notion that our government is the people, therefore naturally leads to the conclusion that the government has no limits. The logic is sound, the premise is utterly untrue. This unwarranted belief, necessarily destructive of all constitutionalism and of all bills of rights, has been fostered by a strange unhistorical conception of "sovereignty." We are only able to accept "popular" sovereignty, because of our peculiar notions of what sovereignty itself is. Blind followers of the blind have persuaded us -- mostly lawyers who have taken Blackstone literally and uncritically -- that sovereignty is might, not right, and that this might could not conceivably be the might of any true sovereign if it had any legal limits whatsoever. These men have hopelessly confused authority with power, and apparently have been entirely oblivious of the fact that their conception of political supremacy, fathered by Hobbes and nurtured by John Austin, is completely subversive of the constitutional system under which we all live and to which they themselves have usually paid the most extravagant lip-service.

This is not the place to try to expose the fallacy of Austinianism and its incompatibility with past constitutional development or with the present safeguarding of minority and individual rights, but I do believe that this kind of crooked and dangerous political thinking, though the extent of its influence is hard to estimate, has been one potent cause of our "present discontents."

The generation now at the height of their political activity have been called by Mr. Walter Lippmann "the lost generation." They certainly have no monopoly of the errors and confusions that I have tried to outline above, but it is true that upon them in a peculiar sense has fallen the accumulated burden of these traditional abuses, prejudices, and heresies. They are truly a "lost generation." And not the least interesting aspect of Mr. Lippmann's remarkable book, to a student of contemporary politics, is its autobiographical character. It is nothing less than an apologia pro vita sua, the life story of one of the most thoughtful members of this lost generation; an idealist, perplexed and appalled by the present outcome, so sadly different from his earlier confident hopes and expectations, groping for an explanation of this debacle, and finally finding it, not in the defects inherent in liberalism, as some other present-day idealist reformers have, but in the perturbations which have thrown liberalism out of its only true orbit, the fulfilment of the "good life" for all.

The brief summary which I have given above does not follow Mr. Lippmann's discussions very closely, but I hope it contains the gist of his political arguments and conclusions. On the other hand, it conveys no idea whatever of his treatment of the economic aspects of his subject. Much of his book deals with the economic side of the degradation of liberalism and the economic aspect of the changes necessary to restore its integrity. To assess the value of this important part of Mr. Lippmann's work would require the knowledge of a trained economist, to the possession of which I lay no claim. The general inference seems to be that the recrudescence of authoritarianism in our time comes in large part from the belief "that the new machine technology requires the control of an omnipotent state," a belief based on the prior assumption that the concentration of control in modern industry is the result of technical change. The history of industry, however, completely disproves this assumption. "Concentration has its origin in privilege and not in technology." It is "a creation of the state through its laws." As for the rights with which legislatures and courts have gradually invested the modern business corporation, they are conditional only and are subject to alteration by the state. "There is no reason whatever for the assumption, made both by individualists and by collectivists, that corporations must either be allowed to enjoy all their present rights or be taken over and administered by the state." "There is only one purpose to which a whole society can be directed by a deliberate plan. That purpose is war, and there is no other." Hence, "a directed society must be bellicose and poor. If it is not both bellicose and poor, it cannot be directed. . . . A prosperous and peaceable society must be free. If it is not free, it cannot be prosperous and peaceable."

For reactionaries whose liberalism is only protective coloring, there will be scant comfort in this book. It is addressed to sincerely forward-looking men. If these remain deaf to the appeal presented here with such telling force, then the victory of autocracy over liberty seems assured. And let the reformer bear in mind that a victory for autocracy is in the end a victory for reaction.

  • C. H. MCILWAIN, Eaton Professor of the Science of Government in Harvard University; former President of the American Historical Association; author of "The American Revolution," "The Growth of Political Thought in the West" and other works.
  • More By C. H. McIlwain