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Looking Backward

The Privacy Invaders

by Myron Brenton
Coward McCann, 240 pp., $4.95

The Naked Society

by Vance Packard
David McKay, 369 pp., $5.95

What Is Conservatism?

edited by Frank S. Meyer
Rinehart Holt, 242 pp., $4.95

The Conservative Papers

Introduction by Representative Melvin Laird
Doubleday Anchorbook, 268 pp., $1.45

In his book on the invasion of privacy Myron Brenton, a former private detective, now presumably repentant, suggests with alarm that a consolidated record of a man’s life can soon be compiled from his Internal Revenue file, his bank statements, his credit card receipts, his telephone bills, etc. so that his privacy may be made to vanish without his even having known what happened. Since the intimate records of our private lives are no longer our exclusive property, it follows, Mr. Brenton feels, that our constitutional protection from unwarranted search and seizure has become an academic matter. Mr. Brenton’s book is a superficial but earnest report of how private citizens are spied upon by their government, their employers, their insurance companies, the stores they shop in, and even the charitable organizations that solicit money from them: outrages which have lately been implemented by the invention—often in connection with the work of real spies—of tiny cameras, hidden microphones, ingenious mirrors, and electronic systems of cross-filing. That despite all these devices the ubiquitous Vance Packard was presumably able, while Mr. Brenton was writing his book, to go unnoticed while preparing one of his own on the same subject, gives the worried reader reason to hope that the situation may not be so bad as these two writers think.

Still, it is bad enough and if neither Mr. Brenton nor Mr. Packard gets to the bottom of it—or even indicates that there is a bottom to it—this is no reason to be complacent. For the invasion of privacy is among mankind’s oldest and deepest problems, beginning with the invasion of Abel’s privacy by Cain or with whatever actual invasion of the precincts of one tribe by another that story is meant to represent. In recent years the decline of bourgeois society, with its thick-walled dwellings, its shutters and draperies, its strict standard of professional secrecy, its feelings against the display of strong emotion, has opened the way for our characteristic modern abuses of privacy: the midnight visits of the secret police and air raids, the pollution of the air in our lungs and the talk of megadeaths. Beside all this the cameras in the lavatories and the microphones under the bed, which Mr. Brenton and Mr. Packard describe, are by no means trivial, but they are hardly intelligible as isolated symptoms. Neither author seems to grasp that the insurance investigators and the credit bureaus, the Internal Revenue and the employment office, the pollsters and the researchers are anything more than a local and recent anomaly, to be corrected, Mr. Packard thinks, if only we support the ACLU and read the Bill of Rights, which he thoughtfully prints as an appendix to his book. But this is to expect that the private and public agencies which flourish at the expense of our privacy will stop if only they are appealed to on reasonable enough grounds; that the present tendency toward increasingly rationalized governments and business, whose uglier characteristics these two books define, will meekly allow itself to be reversed.

Mr. Packard describes himself as a Liberal and Mr. Brenton seems to be one too. But if we turn from these Liberals to the Conservatives, who have recently published two collections of essays, and for whom the protection of privacy is a major doctrine, we find that they are not much help either. For the twenty-six contributors to these volumes, many of whom seem to be very tough-minded when it comes to challenging the Russians or defending a free economy against the claims of the poor and miserable, the question of privacy, when it arises at all, is usually subservient to questions of property or war. Their common assumption is that without our system of property and deprived of our deadly weapons we shall all be slaves; personal privacy will thus become a poetic memory, like prelapsarian man. As reasonable as this probably is, one is still, after reading these essays, likely to be disconcerted by the emphasis which their authors place on means, for the means they propose are as likely to compromise our privacy in the short run as they are meant to defend it in the long.

Of the two collections, the one edited by Frank Meyer of National Review is the more theoretical, including a high proportion of papers on the nature of God, man, and history, while the volume whose Preface is by Congressman Laird (R., Wis.), and which seems to have had no editor, is the more practical and includes several essays, some very interesting, on such problems as deficits, inflation, and foreign aid. Mr. Meyer’s collection, partly because of its combative tone and partly because of its theological preoccupations is the less satisfactory, especially as it struggles from one essay to the next with mankind’s paradoxical need for order and desire for freedom: a dilemma which, through the ages, has driven wiser men than Mr. Meyer has been able to assemble into the deserts of quietism. It is accordingly no surprise to find that fully half the contributors to this volume rest their case with God and find justification in the belief that there is an order in human affairs transcending reason and which, therefore, does not permit itself to be questioned. This line of conservative thought, which more or less dominates Mr. Meyer’s collection, may be consoling to those who like their systems neat, but as a practical contribution to the question of human freedom as it affects, say, the residents of Harlem, it is not much to the point.

When this collection does, from time to time, descend to question of political action, the result is often bizarre. For instance, Stefan Possony, of the Hoover Institution, confronting the mundane proposition that we shall soon, in his opinion, have to double our military budget, proposes that this can be done, while lowering the income tax as well, by turning the parks over to private speculators. In this way the government can spend $600 million more a year on bombs and pick up a little extra by taxing the tickets. That this solution merely transforms a public tax into a private one while inviting the unpropertied classes to rebel does not occur to Mr. Possony; but Mr. Possony, I suspect, is no more interested in practical matters than his more openly religious colleagues. His aim is not so much to solve a problem as it is to expound an ideology whose grounds, typically, are war and property, the very grounds on which Cain slew Abel. We are worse off with Mr. Possony than we were with Mr. Packard and Mr. Brenton. But we are worse off still with Mr. Meyer who writes that “what the conservative is committed to conserve is not simply whatever happened to be the established conditions of a few years or a few decades, but the consensus of his civilization…over the centuries….” To this tautology it might be answered that here, alas, is the heart of the problem.

The one indispensable contribution to Mr. Meyer’s collection is the essay by Professor Hayek whose title is “Why I am Not a Conservative” and which was written for a different occasion but reprinted here. In this essay, whose presence in the volume is somewhat unaccountable, Professor Hayek dismisses the possibility of true Conservatism in America on the ground that our tradition is essentially a liberal one. Conservatism in America, Hayek suggests, is more likely to be a question of personal temperament than of moral or political principle. And it is likely to follow from a temperament which “does not object to coercion or arbitrary power so long as it [sic] is used for what [it] regards as the right purposes.” Conservatism, according to Hayek, fears new ideas because it has no distinctive principles of its own to oppose to them “…its last resort is generally to a claim of superior wisdom…[it] rejects well-substantiated new knowledge because it dislikes some of the consequences which seem to follow from it…[Thus] the believer in freedom cannot but take an essentially radical position directed against popular prejudices, entrenched positions and firmly established privileges.”

While one must agree with Professor Hayek, especially on the evidence supplied by his fellow contributors, one must argue, on the same evidence, with his idea that America’s central tradition is liberal. Liberalism is only one aspect of our complex past. There is also our Calvinism to be considered, and it takes hardly any subtlety to recognize that Conservatism, as Mr. Meyer’s volume tries to define it, is really a paradigm of the ill-tempered and obsessive religion in which our country was confirmed in infancy or of its later manifestation in the Social Darwinism which marked its adolescence. In this religion, rights and privileges are not given equally to all men but are the mysterious signs of grace, the proof of virtue and of one’s future salvation. Where these proofs are lacking, God, in his infinite wisdom, has demonstrably withheld his blessing. Thus poverty is the proof of sin as property is the sign of election. For the poor there is little that their fellow men can usefully do. To interfere with the heavenly distribution of the world’s goods, as the Communists or the medlers in Washington do, is to do the devil’s work, and to thwart the devil, the risk of hell on earth is none too great a challenge. The elect, in their costly shelters, will be spared in any case. For Mr. Meyer’s contributors, it is as if Max Weber had never written a word.

It is a relief to turn from these cheerless sermons to some of the essays in The Conservative Papers, though not to the first four papers by Messrs. Malik, Kissinger, Drachkovitch, and Rowe, each of which encourages, it seems to me, more or less violent or, at any rate, aggressive solutions to Cold War problems while tending to ignore, as if on principle, possibilities of settlement: not so much on the theory that settlements are impossible, but that they are immoral. The essay by Professor Banfield on foreign aid, however, and the one by Professor Brandt on under-developed countries seem to me models of enlightened disillusionment with liberal clichés. Roger Freeman, of the Hoover Institution, on the other hand, allows his disillusionment to carry him to extremes, such as his argument that if the minimum wage laws were revoked we would have less unemployment. Indeed, we might have none. But on this logic, we might also have slavery. Nevertheless, Mr. Freeman’s argument, partly because of its occasionally extreme positions, has a certain dramatic interest and can be recommended for this reason to college debating societies if not to the Department of Labor. Milton Freedman’s essay on the futility of a controlled economy and Edward Teller’s on the desirability of atomic testing seem to have been written in haste and are not as cogent as they might have been had their authors taken greater pains. This is especially the case with Mr. Freedman’s essay in which he contends, most casually, that “The so-called uncontrolled economy is controlled too; by the right people, by the millions of separate individuals who collectively make up the society, and whose separate aims and objectives collectively make up the true goal of society.” It would have been interesting had Mr. Freedman pursued some of the implications in this statement so that we could tell whether, in fact, his contention is really a tautology, like Mr. Meyer’s, of whether Conservatism, as he imagines it, is actually a version of anarchism. As it is, an attentive listener to Mr. Freedman’s rhetoric will surely be confused by the echoes he hears of those other “millions of little people” who, a generation ago, were collectively supposed to produce quite another millenium.

Professor Saulnier’s paper on deficits and Professor Haberler’s on inflation raise technical arguments which the lay reader may not find hard to follow, but whose merits he will find hard to judge: for example Professor Saulnier’s assertion that deficits, by concentrating power in Washington, “make it possible to reshape the nation’s social structure in a manner that is essentially undemocratic.” Mr. Saulnier does not tell us what he means by democratic or “undemocratic” and he ignores the reasonable question that retained profits, which tend to concentrate power in large industries, may have consequences which are just as “undemocratic” as deficits which concentrate power in Washington.

Representative Laird’s collection is preferable to Mr. Meyer’s because it is less doctrinaire. It wisely does not attempt to define a Conservative position, much less to impose one on readers who may be agnostics. Still, for such agnostics, it leaves a number of matters in doubt. One would think, for example, that a proper Conservative goal might be to extend the ownership of productive capital to the largest number of responsible people, yet Professors Banfield and Brandt are alone in considering how this might be done. The other contributors give the impression that the widespread distribution of capital is either immoral, impractical, or unnatural. Nowhere in these collections does one find an argument to defend the position which might be attacked by such a question as: Are the millions of dollars which Huntington Hartford, for instance, spends on his Caribbean Island less frivolously or more democratically spent, because they are private, than an equal number of public millions spent by the Veterans’ Administration on free hospitals? Nor is there anywhere in these volumes an attempt to account historically for the increasing centralization of our institutions, as they inevitably find new ways to rationalize their activities. Instead one has the impression from most of these writers that our bureaucracies are a kind of Jacobin plot: that modern history is an amorphous present in which Eleanor Roosevelt has somehow managed to outsmart J. P. Morgan.

A number of contributors congratulate themselves that there seems, at last, to be a Conservative surge in America, but here, though perhaps one may reluctantly agree with them, one feels they are at their most evasive. For in neither collection is there an attempt to explore the sociology of the new Conservatism and thus to discover whether this movement is, in fact, one whose member represent “the consensus of…civilization over the centuries” (in its nobler aspect, presumably), or whether the interests of its followers are closer to home. In the absence of such a study one must settle for whatever insights into the characters of the followers may be had through the contemplation of their proposed leaders as they present themselves, for instance, in such essays as these. From such inferences one inevitably derives the impression of a constituency which is hostile to new ideas, indifferent to history, afraid of what it cannot understand, materialistic in the extreme and moved, by the presence of strangers, to belligerence and cupidity. One senses from these essays that the conservative surge is really the old American fundamentalism and Babbitry, battered somewhat out of shape by the events of the past thirty years, but now grotesquely swollen by the sudden arrival in its midst of a horde of marginal holders of mortgaged property. From the huddled masses of a generation ago have sprung the cohorts of the aspiring Plantagenets of the Sixties. No wonder that it is now Milton Freedman who invokes the Century of the Common Man and that the more politically ambitious of his co-contributors conjecture a new coalition—perhaps even a new majority—in the name of self-interest and private property. Is it out of prejudice or is it a fact that these new common men, fearful of change and thus fearful of life, dazzled by their new possessions and encouraged to imitate the broken relics of a departed bourgeoisie—itself the shadow of an imagined class—seem less attractive, less manly even, than their fathers, no matter how wrong and blinded and cheated these latter may have been?

Between one fiasco and another there is little to choose. Still one can only regret a political ideology as bleak and damp, but as full of passionate intensity, as most of these essays suggest; a politics whose appropriate weather is the suspicion and bluster, the stubbornness and hypocrisy which we have come to associate with the Cold War, and whose echoes we hear in the obsessive eavesdropping and the compulsive mistrust which Mr. Packard and Mr. Brenton find to have become endemic in the ordinary business of this country.


Epstein’s English Usage July 9, 1964

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