Photo from National Archives and Record Administration
Last week I published a review of The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. I received a note from one of our guest writers, FJ Rocca, that included this piece.
Conservatives ought to read the biographies of Frederick Douglass. He wrote three, all of them masterful and articulate to explain, not racism, but the true meaning of freedom. Exemplary is his explanation of the importance of individual self-reliance and self-development, as opposed to the collectivist tendency to rely on others for one’s sustenance, in the case of the slaves, their “masters,” trading in exchange their eternal labors in the chains of a system that denied them the fundamental right to own their bodies and minds. Douglass eloquently describes his path to freedom, which begins when he realizes and develops a deep belief in his own right of self-ownership, exemplified in his teaching himself to read as the door opener to greater self-education, because, as he says, “Once you learn to read, you will be forever free.”
A keen observer of reality and a keener abstractor of the truth, Douglass analyses the tactics of owners to keep their slaves in check. One method, he observes, is to give slaves a holiday from Christmas to New Year’s Day every year, encouraging them to remain drunk the whole time by supplying them with booze. Thus, through their limited pleasure, the slaves were disaffected with the notion of freedom, which would mean that they would have to pay for their own pleasure. The slaves failed to realize that they were indeed paying for their holiday’s pleasure by slaving for the rest of the year. The psychology behind this inducement is undeniable. The more dependent one becomes on a thing, the less he is willing to break away from it, even if it provides only short-term gains, and costs much more in the long term.
On the surface, the holiday granted by slave owners might seem like a positive benefit. But, as Douglass makes clear, the so-called generosity of slave owners is false and deceptive. In reality, it is a tactic slaveholders use to distract slaves from any notions of freedom and thus to keep them from desiring their freedom so much that they do not rebel. On this, Douglass says, “If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet depreciate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground. They want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. This struggle may be a moral one; or it may be a physical one; or it may be both moral and physical; but it must be a struggle.”
The intentions of the welfare state can be accurately compared with the intentions of the slave owners of Frederick Douglass’s day. They pose as generous benefactors by offering what seem like benefits. The psychology behind this inducement is undeniable as was that of the slave owners Douglass describes. The more dependent one becomes on a thing, the less likely he is to exert the effort to break away from it, even if it provides only short-term gains, and costs much more in the long term. Likewise, the welfare state offers its generosity in exchange for support of their programs, hence their power.
The slaves’ Christmas holiday was brief, only a week. But slaves were kept in ignorance. They were mostly illiterate, and were certainly inexperienced with true freedom, hence Douglass’s complaint is that they bought the short term benefit and paid the long price. He says, “I have found that, to make a contented slave, it is necessary to make a thoughtless one. It is necessary to darken his moral and mental vision, and, as far as possible, to annihilate the power of reason.”
Modern Americans are not so quick to trade their long term freedoms, freedoms they have experienced for most of their lives, for short term gains, or so they think. But instead of demanding freedom over government-conferred benefits, they now seem to demand longer term benefits to trade for their freedom. The welfare state overcomes the pesky demand by extending the free “slaves’” holiday to every day, thus providing the enduring motive to support the state, i.e. the government who provides the welfare. They do not take account of the reality that these benefits must be paid for out of the pockets of people who do not receive them. But the State would like us not to realize this. Thus, the government would like to keep us in ignorance, as well. Douglass’s words may be easily applied to the state of American citizens’ awareness. Of the slaves’ ignorance, Douglas says, “He must be able to detect no inconsistencies in slavery; he must be made to feel that slavery is right; and he can be brought to that only when he ceased to be a man.”
A couple of sayings come to mind. One, a Marxist maxim, says “from each man according to his ability, to each man according to his need.” There is another, curiously contradictory Marxist maxim that says, “He who does not work, shall not eat.” That one is never spoken openly at first, but it comes out after the money runs out. And the money WILL run out. The saying that comes to mind thereafter is, “There is no such thing as a free lunch” and that one is true, because the free lunch will last only as long as productive people who provide the wealth seized by the state are willing to produce that wealth. The Soviet Union is a good example of this. In Russia and other USSR states, long lines of people waiting to receive a measured allotment of eggs, bread or meat was the norm. It should be noted that bureaucrats and politicians in the Soviet Union had special stores in which to obtain these goodies without the requisite waiting in queues. The state never denies itself what it imposes on its citizens.
Slaves appreciated the free drunken holiday while disappreciating the requisite labor of the rest of their year, even though a like effort at seizing their freedom would have yielded REAL benefits that would have existed in perpetuity, because they would be self-perpetuating. Likewise, too many Americans are willing to appreciate the falsely free gifts of the state while disappreciating the freedom to pursue their own fortunes, even if such pursuit led to far greater gains than a welfare check could possibly ever provide. But the government hopes to keep its citizens from realizing this, because, as is said, truth, once realized, can and almost always will, set people free, because, as Frederick Douglass says, “Knowledge makes a man unfit to be a slave.”
This brings up perhaps the most appropriate of Douglass’s quotations for the purpose of expressing the importance of recalling the freedoms once readily and easily enjoyed by American citizens, but endangered by the encroachments of government. “I have observed this in my experience of slavery, – that whenever my condition was improved, instead of its increasing my contentment, it only increased my desire to be free, and set me to thinking of plans to gain my freedom.” Please, my fellow citizens, let us make plans.
FJ Rocca is an independent, conservative writer/blogger of fiction and non-fiction, most interested in the philosophy of American conservatism. Clarity is more important than eloquence, but truth is vital to human discourse.