Politics & Policy

A Question of Elbow Room

From the NR archives

EDITOR’S NOTE: The following article first appeared in the January 25, 1958, issue of NR.

Individuality is freedom lived.

When we use the word individuality we refer to a whole gamut of meanings. Starting from the meanings which pertain to the deepest recesses of private consciousness, these different meanings can be counted off one by one like the skins in the cross section of an onion, until we reach the everyday outer hide of meaning which crops up in common talk.

When we speak commonly, without exaggerated precision, of an individual don’t we mean a person who has grown up in an environment sufficiently free from outside pressures and restraints to develop his own private evaluations of men and events? He has been able to make himself enough elbow room in society to exhibit unashamed the little eccentricities and oddities that differentiate one man from another man. From within his separate hide he can look out at the world with that certain aloofness which we call dignity. No two men are alike any more than two snowflakes are alike. However a man develops, under conditions of freedom or conditions of servitude, he will still differ from other men. The man in jail will be different from his cellmates but his differences will tend to develop in frustration and hatred. Freedom to develop individuality is inseparable from the attainment of what all the traditions of the race have taught us to consider to be the true human stature.

Fifty years ago all this would have been the rankest platitude, but we live in an epoch where the official directors of opinion through the schools, pulpits and presses have leaned so far over backwards in their efforts to conform to what they fancy are the exigencies of society based on industrial mass production, that the defense of individuality has become a life and death matter.

It is a defense that a man takes on at his peril. The very word has become suspect. Even to mention individualism or individuality in circles dedicated to the fashionable ideas of the moment is to expose oneself to ridicule. “Listening to papers on individualism — how boring!” exclaimed a lady to whom I tried to explain over the phone what I was doing in Princeton.

The Founders on ‘Happiness’

When all the discussions of the position of man in the framework of government that had obsessed so many of the best minds of the century came to a focus in 1776, the chief preoccupation of the state-builders in America was to establish institutions in their new country which would allow each citizen enough elbow room to grow into in­dividuality. They differed greatly on how best to bring about that state of affairs but there was no disagreement on fundamental aims. Protection of the individual’s happiness — the assurance of the elbow room he needed to reach his full stature — was the reason for the state’s existence.

Thomas Jefferson and Gouverneur Morris held very differing views on the problems of government. Jefferson was an agrarian democrat who believed that every man was capable of taking some part in the government of the community; Morris was a city-bred aristocrat who believed that only men to whom wealth and position had given the advantage of a special education were capable of dealing with public affairs; but when Morris wrote George Washington his definition of statesmanship — “I mean politics in the great Sense, or that sublime Science which embraces for its Object the Happiness of Man­kind” — he meant the same thing by the word happiness as Jefferson did when he wrote it into the Declaration of Independence. To both men it meant elbow room. Elbow room is positive freedom.

Consult any sociologist today as to the meaning of happiness in the social context and he’ll be pretty sure to tell you it means adjustment. Adjustment, if it is freedom at all, is freedom of a very negative sort. It certainly is the opposite of elbow room.

The outstanding fact you learn from reading the letters of the men of 1776 was that none of them had any illusions about how men behaved in the political scheme. A radical idealist like Jefferson allowed for the self-interest (real or imagined) of the average voter, or for the vanity and ambition and greed of the officeholder, as much as a cynical con­servative like Gouverneur Morris.

Both parties understood the common man as well as any of the more desperate demagogues we have with us today. They allowed for his self-seeking, for his shortsightedness, his timidity, his abominable apathy, his only intermittent public spirit. The difference was that the statesmen of the early republic used that “sublime Science” in the service of their great statebuilding aims. Using men as they found them, they managed to set up the system of balanced self-government which made possible the exuberant growth of the United States.

In Jefferson’s day the average citizen had a fair understanding of most of the workings of the society he lived in. The years that stretch between us and the day of his death have seen the shape of industry transformed in rapid succession by steam power, electric power, the internal combustion engine, and now, by jet propulsion and the incredibly proliferating possibilities of power derived from nuclear fission and fusion. Any social system of necessity molds itself into shapes laid down by the daily occupations of the individual men who form its component parts. The mass-production methods of assembly-line industry have caused a society made up of individuals grouped in families to give way to a society made up of individuals grouped in factories and office buildings, for whom family life has been relegated to the leisure hours.

Modern Political Apathy

Life in our drastically changing industrial world has become so cut up into specialized departments and vocabularies, and has become so hard to understand and to see as a whole, that most people won’t even try. Even people of first-rate intelligence, at work in various segregated segments of our economy, tend to get so walled up in the particular work they are doing that they never look outside of it. Even if they remember that every man has a duty to give some of his time and some of his energy to the general good, they don’t know how to go about it.

Enormously complicated political institutions have grown up in response to the exigencies of the industrial framework. Instead of the farming communities which Jefferson expected to be the foundation of self-government we have a population concentrated in cities and suburbs. Instead of living under the least possible government, most of the American people are living under an accumulation of often conflicting sovereignties.

A man working for General Motors in Detroit, for an example, is subject to the management of his corporation, and to the often arbitrary government of the United Auto Workers. He is subject to the traffic police on the road on his way to and from work, to the taxes and regulations of the town where he lives, to the taxes and regulations of the state of Michigan and to the ever-expanding authority of the federal government. Each of these sovereignties has the power to make itself extremely disagreeable if he crosses its bureaucratic will. To hold his end up against this panoply of disciplinary powers, the man has only the precarious right to hold up his hand in the meeting of his union local, and the right to put his cross on the ballot in an occasional election, opposite the name of some politician he has perhaps only heard of in the confusion of electoral ballyhoo.

Is it surprising that the common man is hard to coax out of the shell of political apathy he has grown to protect himself from the knowledge of his own helplessness? The first step towards restoring to this man a sense of citizenship would be to explain his situation to him in terms which have reference to the observable facts of his daily life. A fresh political vocabulary is needed before we can try to reset the individual cogs so that they mesh into the wheels of government.

None of this means that Thomas Jefferson’s or John Adams’ aspirations, to build a state which would afford the greatest possible amount of elbow room to the greatest number of its citizens, are obsolete. Their “sublime Science” was based on an understanding of factors in human behavior which have not changed since the beginnings of recorded history. Newton’s basic principle of gravitation has not been superseded. It has been amended and amplified by Einstein’s formulae. Newton’s still remains one of the explanations through which mathematicians cope with the observable facts of physics. In a somewhat similar way, if men could be found to apply to political problems the sort of first-rate rigorous thinking which we have seen applied to physics in our lifetime, and if the study of the science of state-building should thus come into its own again, the great formulations of the generation of 1776 would still be found valid.

Buried Treasure

If there were to grow up in this country a generation of young men and women who felt that the most important thing in life was to restore elbow room to the people of the United States, they would find in the records of the founders of the Republic a storehouse of the skills and mental attitudes they would need in their work. They would find that every word which was spoken or written on the art of politics between 1775 and 1801 would take on a new urgency.

By a reapplication of the vocabulary of freedom they might find some formula through which to apply the basic tenets of individualism as directly to our daily lives as Jefferson and his friends applied them to the everyday world they knew. Lord knows for the last twenty years we have done enough talking about democracy in this country. Maybe the reason why the talk doesn’t turn into useful action is because the terms don’t apply to our lives as we live them.

Jefferson’s ideas are particularly cogent to us now because among the leaders of the American Revolution he led the radical wing which was in favor of more popular rule rather than less. He was the chief leader of the tendency which led us to universal adult suffrage. In a letter he wrote a few days before his death, refusing on account of the state of his health an invitation to spend the very Fourth of July which was destined to be his last with a group of admirers in Washington City, he spoke happily of the blessings of self-government and of “the free right to the unbounded exercise of reason and freedom of opinion,” and rephrased the basic conviction of his life with characteristic vehemence: “The general spread of the light of science has already laid open to every view the palpable truth that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred ready to ride them legitimately by the grace of God.”

It is one of the magnificent ironies of history that the zealots for total bureaucratic rule, whose dogma provides them with boots and spurs to ride the mass of mankind, justify themselves by the same political phraseology which the men of Jefferson’s day hoped would make forever impossible the regimentation of the many by the few. Unfortunately, the practice of the demagogic dictatorships abroad is not so far from our own as we would like to think. The redeeming feature of our bureaucratic government is that the machinery still subsists within it by which the popular will can effect its transformation in any conceivable direction. All we need is the wit and the will.

The Rise of Conformity

It is always well to remember that the commonest practice of mankind is that a few shall impose authority and the majority shall submit. Watch any bunch of children playing during a school recess. It is the habit of individual liberty which is the exception. The liberties we enjoy today, freedom to express our ideas if we have any, freedom to jump in a car and drive any place we want to on the highway, freedom to choose the trade or profession we want to make our living by, are the survivors of the many liberties won by the struggles and pains of generations of English-speaking people who somehow had resistance to authority in their blood. Their passion for individuality instead of conformity was unique in the world. What the generation of 1776 did was to organize those traditions into a new system.

When the British troops marched out of Yorktown to surrender to Washington’s army one of their bands played a tune called “The World Turned Upside Down.” In the long run the people of the United States have managed to make the promise of that tune come true. Underdog has come mighty near to becoming topdog. The other side of that medal is that the cult of the lowest common denominator has caused brains, originality of mind, quality of thought to be dangerously disparaged. Conformity has been more prized than individuality. All the same, we can write in the credit column that there has never been a society where so many men and women have shared a fellow feeling for so many other men and women. With every change in economic organization new class lines and stratifications have appeared, but they have hardly outlasted a generation or two. The old saying about three generations from shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves has turned out profoundly true. Compared to the rest of mankind, we have come nearest to producing a classless society. Ask any recent immigrant.

Nine times out of ten lie will tell you that what struck him first in the United States was that feeling of the world turned upside down. The question today is whether, for all its wide distribution of material goods, this classless society offers the individual enough elbow room to make his life worth living.

Right from the beginning the wise men have said that democracy would end in the destruction of liberty. Washington in his last years, and John Adams and the whole Federalist faction, thought universal suffrage would end in demagoguery and despotism. Their reasoning was the basis of the lamentations of the school of Brooks Adams and Henry Adams at the beginning of this century. Hamilton’s “your people is a great beast” was echoed by Justice Holmes in his explosion to Carl Becker: “Goddamn them all, I say.” Since the earliest days only a small minority have at any time really believed in the privacy of their own consciences that American democracy would work.

Man is an institution-building animal. The shape of his institutions is continually remolding his life.

Every new process for the production of food and goods, or for their distribution, changes the social structure. Careers are tailored to fit each new process. People’s lives become intertwined with the complicated structures of vested interests. With every institutional change adaptations are demanded. Adaptation is slow and difficult and painful. The symptoms of insufficient adaptation are maladjustment, frustration and apathy. The bureaucratic social structure that has grown up around the present type of industrial production has developed so fast that we are finding it hard, perhaps harder than we realize, to operate the system of checks and balances against inordinate power which the English-speaking people built up through centuries of resistance to authority.

It was Jefferson’s sarcastic young friend from Orange County, little James Madison, who set down, in the often-quoted Number 51 of the Federalist, the basic hardheaded rule on which all the men of the generation of 1776, radical and conservative alike, based their political theories: “In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this; you must first enable the government to control the governed and in the next place oblige it to control itself.”

The first problem which men will face, when they try to make elbow room for themselves and for their fellows in the new type of society now coming into being, will be the problem of bureaucracy. Bureaucracy has become dominant in government, in industry and in the organizations of labor. The first interest of these bureaucracies, as of all human institutions, is in their own survival. If these bureaucratic hierarchies, which seem unavoidable in a mass society, can be harnessed to the dynamic needs of self-government, the task of reversing the trend towards individual serfdom into a trend towards individual liberty may not be as hard as it seems at the first glance.

— John Dos Passos was a novelist, playwright, poet, and early contributor to National Review. This article appeared in the January 25, 1958, issue of National Review.

Members of the National Review editorial and operational teams are included under the umbrella “NR Staff.”

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