essays

Dec 1, 1980

The Humane Libertarian or “Baldy” Harper Speaking for Himself

“With these two volumes, IHS has provided liberty-lovers with a potent helper indeed.”

The Writings of F. A. Harper: Vol. 1, The Major Works; Vol. 2, Shorter Essays, by F. A. Harper. Institute for Humane Studies, Vol. 1, 437 pp., Vol. 2, 611 pp., $20.00 set.

THIS COLLECTION OF his works reveals F. A. “Baldy” Harper—economist, philosopher, humanist, 1905-1973—as one of the intellectual and moral giants of all time. In these two volumes of essays, he makes such a morally attractive, well-reasoned, coherent, convincing, and virtually complete case for liberty (including a truly free market), that I think these books alone (plus enough readers, of course) could turn a large fraction of humanity libertarian, even if there were no other libertarian literature in existence.

One of Harper’s several magnificent achievements is the simplicity of his writing. These two volumes are easy reading in spite of their profundity. Just as the simplicity of the equation E = mc2 reflects clear thinking and the profound grasp of a subject, so does the elegant simplicity of Harper’s presentation. And simplicity has a virtue of its own: it can make important insights unforgettable.

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For the libertarian movement, unforgettable means useful. For we have a very, very big teaching job to do, and to do quickly. Harper has provided us with a superb primer which explains some of the known laws of cause-and-effect in economic matters, and defines the basic economic concepts, like scarcity, production, ownership, specialization, market, trade, money, price, value, wages, profit, capital, and wealth.

His essays seem to have explained everything which a non-libertarian needs to learn about economics in order to recognize for himself, forevermore, the dangerous implications of the economic policies commonly supported (or proposed) by non-libertarian politicians and their backers, and by well-meaning do-gooders with their slogans like “Fund Human Needs,” “People before Profits,” and “Economic Democracy.”

I used to be one of them myself, and I am convinced that the sloganeering of rank-and-file do-gooders (leaders are another matter) results from ignorance, not from anti-liberty philosophical conviction. Harper, too, observed that ignorance was the major problem:

“Why is it that intellectuals are so willing to pave the road to serfdom? It is not, in most instances, an intentional crime. They do not know that it leads toward serfdom. With the best of intentions, they cherish a sincere desire to improve the lot of their fellow men….” (1945)

Since I know directly that most such people are emphatically not “Leftists” in terms of disrespect for liberty, as a convenient shorthand I will call the do-gooders “Ignodogs” (Ignorant Do-Gooders). This is meant as a far more affectionate term than “Leftists.”

A crucial question which separates the sheep from the goats (and also the Citizens’ Party from the Libertarian Party) is this: does the desire “to improve the lot of your fellow men” give you the right to compel others to work for that same goal?

The answer is “yes” if you believe in the doctrine of social rights, and “no” if you believe in the doctrine of individual human rights.

Under the doctrine of social rights, every individual who does not freely choose to work or to sacrifice for others and for the goals of others, may properly be forced to do so. The power to enslave the unwilling may be held by officials democratically elected by a majority, by ruling coalitions, or by tyrants, and may be exercised in the name of “the needy,” “the economy,” “the general welfare,” “progress,” “efficiency,” “the country—or (we have also seen) in the name of “the proletariat,” “the Aryan race,” “the Fatherland,” or “the Ayatollah.”

Under the doctrine of individual human rights, every individual’s right is to be free from coercion; such individuals may or may not choose service to others as one of their personal goals. Some will, and some won’t. Without the freedom to choose, there is no such thing as a generous choice or a moral act of any kind.

These two incompatible doctrines of “rights” are compared with great clarity by Harper. They are not presently understood. When the two doctrines are understood, a few will knowinglyside with slavery (while continuing to give lip-service to liberty), but I predict many more will become intelligent advocates of human rights which (as Harper shows) are “really just another name for freedom itself.”

Within the two Harper volumes is a second primer, which defines liberty and then explores its relationship to human rights, justice, tolerance, moral codes, peace, private property, progress, government, majority rule, and to the laws of cause-and-effect in human relations and to truth.

Harper defines truth as the natural laws of cause-and-consequence, and he makes explicit his assumption that such laws exist in the social sciences as well as in the so-called hard sciences, whether or not we have yet discerned such laws.

He proposes that whenever behavior is almost universally regarded as either good (e.g., helpfulness) or bad (e.g., theft), either right or wrong, moral or immoral, it is regarded that way because of its observed consequences. His hypothesis is that the species can discover the laws of the social sciences as it discovers the laws of the hard sciences, by observation, testing, and by sticking to stable, precise definitions of terms.

Truth is a recurrent theme in Harper’s essays. It is clear from his writings that he had a passion not only for liberty and justice, but also for truth as an even more fundamental and libertarian value.

Harper argues that the repeatedly observed consequences of abolished liberty provide powerful scientific support for the hypothesis that liberty is the only arrangement which is in harmony with the laws of human nature, with truth.

And he points out, if it is the nature of truth to be internally consistent, then there can be no conflict between the truths which pertain to economics, liberty, and morality (the individual’s exercise of freedom in choices which affect others). The harmony of economic principles, moral principles, and liberty is another of his key insights.

Harper’s essays have the uncommon power to convince reasoning people of all ages that the “selfish” pursuit by individuals of their own goals under a system of true liberty (reciprocal freedom from coercion) is inherently moral, and is the only social arrangement which can foster peace, full-employment, human rights, charity, and other important humanitarian goals—the very same “unselfish” goals presently credited to the Ignodogs but not to the libertarians.

Even teenagers will have no trouble reading and remembering Harper’s essays—an enormously important matter if we wish to help them (and their parents) evaluate the apparently lofty slogans of the Ignodogs, and if we are counting on today’s teenagers to become our future helpers in achieving liberty on this planet.

What Harper wrote in the 1940s, ’50s, and ’60s about inflation, price controls, “the just price,” unemployment, “fair wages,” profits, “special interests,” subsidies, taxation, ownership, government, peace, etc., is just as applicable to today’s news as it was to the news of those decades. By contrast, what most living economic pundits say today does not even hold for six weeks.

The fact that Harper’s essays are “dated” should be regarded as another virtue, because this very fact should help Harper’s new students to see that timeless principles (or truths) do exist in economics and in other human transactions.

In spite of Harper’s wisdom and profundity, his work reveals the genuine humility of a truth-seeker, and provides an important model also in this respect for his students.

Another bonus is Harper’s strong streak of whimsy, which is especially evident in his delightful essays, “The Graduated Gadinkus Tax” and “To Shoot a Myth.”

A collection like this renews my appreciation for the technologies of papermaking, printing, and distribution. Large chunks of the accumulating capital of human wisdom are put at the service of all, for the equivalent price today of a restaurant meal, half a pair of shoes, or a ticket on a skilift. Both of the Harper volumes have been almost flawlessly put together—with good organization, appealing layout, relatively large type, and generous interline spacing. The Institute for Humane Studies (IHS) did a first-rate publishing job, which this first-rate material deserves. I only regret that the books do not have an index, and are not wrapped in eye-catching and irresistible covers.

With these two volumes, IHS has provided liberty-lovers with a potent helper indeed, and now we either will or won’t help to get the books into the hands of teachers of political science, “civics,” history, economics, sociology, and philosophy, into libraries of all sorts, and into the widest possible circulation.

While relatively few of the rank-and-file Ignodogs themselves will read these 1,000 pages unless the libertarian movement becomes noisier, if each libertarian would read both volumes, he (she) would surely become a far more competent, confident, and persuasive noise-maker!

Egan O’Connor is a book editor, an activist in the peace movement, and a graduate student in biochemistry and nutrition.