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Defending Classical Liberalism

More wisdom from Machen and Zappa.

by James Leroy Wilson
May 14, 2009

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Defending Classical Liberalism

Three weeks ago I introduced you to J. Gresham Machen and Frank Zappa. But I didn't say all I wanted to say about them.

In 1926, Machen testified before a Congressional Committee considering the creation of a federal Department of Education. Machen was a scholar at Princeton Seminary. He was opposed to a Department of Education on Constitutional and philosophical grounds. To summarize his point:

"The aim in the making of Ford cars is to make every one just as much like every other one as possible; but the aim in education is to make human beings just as much unlike one another as possible. . . .I do not believe that the personal, free, individual character of education can be preserved when you have a Federal department laying down standards of education which become more or less mandatory to the whole country."

In Machen's view even the state education systems were regrettable, and should face free and open competition from the private sector.

His Congressional inquisitors sought to expose Machen's extremism. Machen would also oppose federal aid for roads, commerce, labor, and agriculture, wouldn't he? Machen agreed, but said the problem of getting rid of a federal program once established was harder than preventing it in the first place. And in any case, his purpose was to talk about education, not these other spheres.

He was continued to be pressed on other subjects. You see, to the extent public schools existed, Machen even opposed the teaching of morality! He thought school days should be short enough that kids could have time for such instruction at home or at church, with no state scrutiny at all.

I think it would be fair to say that Machen's position was similar to Ludwig von Mises. As I've noted before, Gil Guillory wrote:

"These are some of the same problems that Mises cited in Human Action. Once you get past reading, writing, basic arithmetic, and, perhaps, teaching a working knowledge of what the laws of the country are, teaching children becomes a form of indoctrination. That is, all of the good stuff is value-laden, and necessarily must advocate a worldview, which for the religious, is a religious one."

Machen believed morality came from the will of God as revealed by God. And this was a religious belief. There was no permanent basis for morality based on experience alone. His view, in the long run, was that a "good" person must also be a "Godly" one.

In any case, Machen's position on the Department of Education carried the day. The federal government did not substantially increase its role in education for over four decades, and the Department of Education was itself not created until the late 1970's. Machen helped prevent the dumbing down of two generations. But his most powerful statement before the Committee was also somewhat ironic:

"I belong to what is often called a very strict sect, the Presbyterian Church, but it is a sect which has always been devoted to the principles of liberty; and I am unlike a great many of my fellow citizens — tolerance to me means not only tolerance for that with which I am agreed, but it means also tolerance for that to which I am most violently opposed."

One wonders what he means by "violently." Probably "angrily." Things which would make him quarrel, or shout from the rooftops. But not so violently opposed as to believe such that laws should be passed and people should be arrested.

I don't know if Machen was always consistent in his political beliefs, but he did oppose Prohibition, a politically incorrect stance among Protestant Christians of the time.

Machen believed in liberty and respected the Constitution, and could come to no other conclusion but that in a society of various sects, religions, and philosophies the government must be very, very limited. If he believed it should have the power to impose his beliefs and morals on others, the likely outcome would be that his own faith would be persecuted. Far from wanting a "theocracy," Machen wanted the government to leave him and his faith alone.

This Crossfire debate involving Frank Zappa reminds me of what Machen faced. Zappa rails against the "fascist theocracy" long before anyone heard of George W. Bush.  Zappa came to oppose the censorship of rock album lyrics. Both the "left" host (Tom Braden) and the "right" host (Robert Novak) had no real disagreement with Zappa's First Amendment stance. So aside from tolerating the hysterics of pro-censorship newspaperman John Lofton, they had to change the subject. Zappa would be questioned not just on rock lyrics, but videos as well. He would be pressed on whether he personally approved of the controversial lyrics he was defending.

It was all beside the point. But Zappa maintained that he was a conservative, and that society's laws should be based on actions, not words, and should not be based on a religious text.

One socialist publication called Zappa's politics "contradictory:" 

  • He "launched an 'onslaught' on Reagan and the Republicans whilst simultaneously advocating typical Reaganite policies like lower taxes and union busting."
  • "His 'musical' about AIDS, Thing-Fish, was an explosive assault on the patronising racism of Broadway. Yet, like many well off Californians, he opposed busing to integrate the schools."

In some eyes, it is "contradictory" to be a social critic who opposes social engineering!

I don't know Zappa's political views in full, but have understood he viewed himself as a "practical conservative." I can't expect Machen's 1920's worldview to be a fully-fledged political philosophy, as Machen was a theologian first. Nor can I expect the same of Zappa, who was a music composer first.

What can be said is they clearly did not believe a political order could be based on a particular religion's version of morality. A pluralist society, a society where a Zappa and a Machen can co-exist while retaining their own values, is one in which the primary interest of each group is peaceful co-existence with all the others. If no one can dominate, the best everyone should strive for is to come to the common rules by which everyone could live together in peace.

This is what used to be called liberalism. It was the best defense of the right of traditional, ethnic, religious communities to exist, and also of the right of individuals to break free from such communities if they so desired.

Today, this philosophy is called "classical liberalism." According to the modern liberalism, however, religious objections to State control is extremism, and individual objections to State control is potential terrorism. No wonder, in the face of this, Zappa would call himself a conservative. But whatever the appealing aspects of 1980's conservatism were, they have been set aside, as conservatism is now defined by a belief in religion-based laws and endless war.

Machen and Zappa were generations apart, and are both now long dead. But they seemed to be on to something, the same thing that Machen's atheist contemporary H.L. Mencken had, that the British free-traders like Lord Acton had, that the architects of American Independence had: a belief that liberty was the basis of true human community and all the good things that follow.




Comments (1)

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elm from 98801 writes:
May 14, 2009
ALL BELIEFS are aquired; have no personage or real life of their own!! Liberalism is just another way of describing a type of belief.

All memories, all learning and all beliefs are encoded; filed/stored in human brain matter. Compare that to data stored on a computor and you get ~ "garbage in, garbage out." Belief does not make something true!! Convictions do not either!! If aspects are not based on evidence, they lack evidence. Convictions can be as dangerous as lies!! After birth, a child gets the script other humans write on their blank slate. Humans impose their beliefs and convictions on their children. Many are they who create their children in their image.

Humans are not born with beliefs or religious convictions. Many different religious beliefs are hard-wired in early in life by constant repetition and reinforcement and for some are nearly impossible to remove. For others, freedom and logic prevails!! Whatever else is learned in life is built around and integrated into those religious beliefs instilled. Hence, it becomes the neuronal wiring representing beliefs aquired. Beliefs are not who we are!! Beliefs are who we think we are!! And, who others may thinki we are!! The heavier the ridged indoctrination and entrenchment, the heavier the beliefs held that something is true even when there is hard cold evidence to the contrary. If a zillion humans are absolutely certain of something but are unable to show why they are, very likely that sound reasoning was not used to reach their conclusion and their "program" is what is speaking.

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