The Independent Man and the Transference Machine

Wriston, Walter B.


America used to be a place where every village square had a statue of some national hero, and there are many still standing. Sometimes they were cast in the likeness of a departed political leader or sometimes a military hero. One of the statues that I have always liked best represents neither a statesman nor a general, nor even an ordinary soldier in some past war. It stands atop the State House in Providence, Rhode Island. Contrary to what one might expect it is not a likeness of Roger Williams, George Washington, or some other colonial patriot. It is a statue identified only as "The Independent Man" and we are told that he was put in that position to watch over the affairs of state taking place under the dome of the State House beneath his feet.

Although it is a long way from here to Rhode Island, I like to think that if we look hard enough, we might see the Independent Man waving at us, trying to re-direct our attention to something we seem to have forgotten. I think he would like to explain why the people of little Rhode Island put him atop the State House. They did so because they understood the importance of the individual in a democratic society and they knew that a government of and by the people can be no better than the citizens themselves.

The importance of the Independent Man in our society has been obscured by a constant stream of data about our individual helplessness in the face of big government, big business, big institutions, and big media. This theme of individual helplessness is viewed as a modern phenomenon by people who apparently do not realize that it is only in the very recent history of mankind that the grip of feudalism was broken. Throughout most of the tenure of the human race on this planet, a feeling of individual helplessness has been the rule, not the exception. The miracle of modern communication not only keeps us painfully aware that we face problems in our society, but by its very existence suggests that those problems must be different not only in degree but in kind from those addressed by our forefathers.

There is little doubt that our days are troubled, that the world is large and complex, but this condition is not new. We are told in graphic terms of the specter of nuclear extinction for mankind, but few journalists remember and none write of the time in the 14th century when the black death killed at least one-third and some believe as much as half, of the population of Europe and Asia. No one had any idea how to halt its deadly spread, or any reason to believe that the human race would survive. Tens of thousands of European villages disappeared from the face of the earth and several centuries passed before Europe's population was restored. Barbara Tuchman recounts that "the sense of a vanishing future created a kind of dementia of despair...people felt in Walsingham's words that 'the world could never again regain its former prosperity.'" These words have the contemporary ring of the seven o'clock news.

The study of history has its uses, and one of them is to provide some measure of perspective, so lacking in our world today. But even those who cannot or will not learn from history might still profit from a more careful reading of the daily papers. All this current nonsense about the powerlessness of the individual floods over us at a moment in history when we are witnessing one man, Lech Walesa of Poland, take on the enormous might of the Soviet Union. It is a stunning achievement of enormous import. In our own country we have just elected new leaders who challenged not only an incumbent government, but the perceived political and economic wisdom of the last four decades. Many of those about to take office by vote of the people had been read out of the political race by the pundits and pollsters who "knew" what we as individuals wanted.

As we look around and take stock, we can perceive that even when the problems we face may be significantly different from those of yesterday, their solution or containment still rests upon individuals working the problem, and not upon some vague program constructed by others. And yet, almost imperceptibly we have been shifting not only the responsibility for a solution to someone else, but the blame for the problem itself. All of our troubles, we are told, are caused by the government or by institutions which are somehow separate and apart from you and me and which, therefore, have the responsibility to resolve them. John Stuart Mill never suffered from this illusion. "If we ask ourselves on what causes and conditions good government in all its senses...depends, we find...the one which transcends all others, is the qualities of the human beings comprising the society over which government is exercised." What have we been doing to these qualities of human beings--in short to our individual value systems? It takes more than a little study to find out because our attention has been directed away from the real problem. This is not unusual, because one of the fundamentals of stage show magic, demagogic politics, and good football is misdirection. By focusing attention on one hand, the other is left free to do its work unseen, or while most of the players flow to the right side, the ball carrier is running to the left. In magic and in sports, one has to sustain the illusion for only a moment to pull off the trick or the play. In politics and economics the time frame required to succeed with misdirection is longer, and by the time it is exposed, the clock may have run out for the nation.

The art of misdirection may also be applied to one's self. One does not have to look far to learn that an individual's moral behavior is increasingly proclaimed to be nobody else's business. We impose fewer and fewer restrictions on our own conduct as individuals, asserting everyone's right to a personal life style. Yet simultaneously we impose harsher and increasingly irrational restrictions on all of our institutions. We seem to feel that if we demand less of ourselves, the balance can be maintained by requiring more of corporate and government entities -- a sort of moral equivalent to the law of thermodynamics. The results are reflected in endless paradoxes. Irving Kristol has pointed out that it is now perfectly legal for a nineteen-year old girl to perform in a pornographic movie, but only if she is paid the minimum wage.

People's right to live as they please has been accompanied by the growing conviction that there are no honest men and women left in the world. Since no one can be required by law to have any principles, we conclude that no one does. Acting on that assumption, the Congress has passed the Ethics in Government Act which requires a listing of the income from any source and any conflict of interest, real or imagined, now or in the future. The only office in the United States Government that can now be filled from a profession schooled in that discipline without attracting comments about conflicts of interest is that of Attorney General-- perhaps because lawyers write the conflict-of-interest laws, and only lawyers become Attorneys General. No one who knows as much about energy as the Attorney General is supposed to know about law could be considered to run the Department of Energy -- a critical problem of our time. All this in the name of trying to assure ourselves that our institutions will display standards of morality higher than those we set for ourselves.

Looking at recent history, I would submit that we came close to our political nadir a few years ago in the Senate confirmation hearings of Nelson Rockefeller as Vice President of the United States. Whether one admires his record or does not is immaterial. Here was a man who in his words, "never wanted to be vice president of anything", but agreed to step into the breach at a time when we were rapidly approaching a grave constitutional crisis. No one in the Senate seemed interested that the man had repeatedly been elected to high office by the people of his own state, or that he had served many presidents of both parties, over several decades. Instead, the hearings turned into a financial peep show -- a media event which almost totally ignored our national crisis which was the cause of the hearings. Can anyone really believe that those who conducted the protracted hearings were motivated by the fear that something might still lie hidden in Nelson Rockefeller's highly public past that should disqualify him for high office? The fact that he was confirmed, and served with distinction, does not excuse the excesses of those hearings any more than the fact that real communists exist could excuse the witch hunts of Appleton's late Senator Joe McCarthy.

Most of the people present at our Constitutional Convention were landed, educated men with personal perspectives and problems. Yet they forged a document that balanced the power between various sections of the country and the society in a way that has stood the test of time. Had they been obliged to pass the conflict-of-interest test, it is doubtful that many of them could have gotten through the door.

Perhaps it is time to examine this phenomenon -- not the law so much as the philosophy which created it. A great teacher once told me that every time you read a new book, you should also go back and read an old one. It is not a bad prescription if we want to regain some perspective. There are many old books that deserve an occasional visit. One was written by a man called Smith who saw the world clear and had few illusions about human nature. He understood the relationship between the individual and society. Adam Smith, like John Stuart Mill, knew that society and the individuals who make it up are one and the same thing. Smith believed in a strong national defense which depends on government. But he also argued that a strong defense is impossible without a strong economy and that the strength of the economy in turn depends on individual effort. The reason that I cite Adam Smith, here on the campus of a great university, is that Smith's emphasis on the individual is relevant not only to economics but also to the fact that education is an individual experience. There is no such thing as an institutional education because buildings do not learn. No one has ever heard of state morality, or state freedom. Like the intellectual virtues, these are the exclusive province of the individual. No one ever educated a state or an institution. Only individuals learn. The great American transference machine which has attempted to transfer to institutions traits that only individuals can possess, like morality and honesty, and at the same time set up a clatter which suggests that there are no honest men and women, only clean institutions, is an intellectual cul-de-sac. When the virtue leaves the individual, it has no place to go. I think it is time to say so with clarity and vigor. The case was put succinctly by Edward Norman: "The moral authority of the individualism, which in the past sustained freedom, is being sapped by the growing moralism of the advocates of collectivism...we need to be more aware than we are that freedom has no built-in presumptives of its own."

If you would look to another old book written by a man who understood much about America, the words of de Tocqueville come to mind:

"It would seem as if the rulers over time sought only to use men in order to make things great. I wish... that they would never forget that a nation cannot long remain strong when every man belonging to it is individually weak; and that no form or combination of social policy has yet been devised to make an energetic people out of community of pusillanimous and enfeebled citizens."

This town of Appleton, where I grew up, had, when I was a boy, a police force, a school system, a mayor and a jail -- and they were all busy. We did not think of individuals who broke the law, or ignored the mores of the time, as a reflection on the town. They were a reflection on no one but themselves. We did not speak of Appleton's morality or intone about the ethics of the town. Even today we have not transferred individual traits to towns to quite the same extent that we have to some governments and private institutions, perhaps because the absurdity is just too obvious. This was what Edmund Burke had in mind at the time of our American Revolution when he said: "I do not know the method of drawing up an indictment against an whole people."

Yet the transference machine operates today across the whole spectrum of society, from explanations of why Johnny can't read to the high cost of health care. A recent foundation study came to the remarkable conclusion that good individual teachers have a marked effect on how much students learn. If the report were not so solemn it would be hilarious. No one denies the enormous cost of health care in America which now amounts to about 10 percent of our GNP. What we do not want to come to grips with is the enormous cost of self-inflicted disease which inflates hospital costs. The leading cause of admission in many hospitals is alcoholism. The link between cigarette smoking and several diseases is too close to be ignored. Whether we eat too much, smoke too much, or drink too much is an individual choice and is not controlled by big government or big institutions or big media, or caused by the system. Yet somehow it is always "the country" which has a drinking problem, or an obesity problem, or a health problem, and only "the government" which ought to be doing something about it.

There is still time in America to respond to that independent man who cries to us from a rooftop in Rhode Island. We should be wary of any group which asserts that it alone has discovered what social morality ought to be, no less than we should guard against any group that would combine political and economic power, enforced by the rule of law. We must take great care not to render unto Caesar the things that are not his, for the long history of man shows that when you do, Caesar ends up with everything. The independent man is not waving at the "system" he is beckoning to you and me; to choose, to play our part. He is calling to us to participate in a process, to go where no government can lead us. In the words of the Nobel laureate F. A. Hayek: "... The prime public concern must be directed not towards particular known needs but towards the conditions for the preservation of a spontaneous order which enables the individuals to provide for their needs in a manner not known to authorities..." It is a good prescription for preserving liberty and the independent man. In fact, it is the only one.

  • This document is created from the speech, "The Independent Man and the Transference Machine," written by Walter B. Wriston for Lawrence University on 15 January 1981. The original document is located in MS134.001.004.00024.
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