The Only Principle

“Whenever I survey a crowd of people, I am overpowered by a sense of the most prodigious, the most stupendous miracle that can conceivably be performed, even by omnipotence. What miracle can one imagine, comparable with the annual and regular turning-out of millions of human beings, guaranteed positively no two alike? I can think of none. By comparison with this, raising the dead, cleansing lepers, multiplying loaves and fishes, seem most insignificant. Well, but, here that miracle is, here those beings are, and their infinite variety suggests to me that their Creator is not working this continuous miracle merely to show what He can do when He tries, but that He has some pretty distinct idea in mind when He does it. The thing is, therefore, to hit on some principle of social organization that comes nearest to corresponding with the conditions which this miracle appears to impose. The only principle I can think of as coming anywhere near filling this bill is one that we have never tried — freedom. We have tried everything else with no great success, so even as a ‘flyer’ or sporting venture, we might do worse than try freedom. It is fair to give warning, however, that a profitable application of this principle must go far beyond economic and political freedom, though these of course come first: economic freedom, meaning that each individual has free access to the primal source of his subsistence; and political freedom, meaning that government confines itself to exercising only the negative interventions of a Polizeistaat. But the principle must govern all the relations of life; and the essence of its successful application is that freedom should never be felt as permissive. As an illustration of what I mean, I may cite the amenities that we practice daily; they are actually exercises in true freedom. As things stand now, for example, the vegetarian devours his vapid fodder in pleasant converse with the husky beef-eater; the red-licker Democrat and the grape-juice Prohibitionist drink together on the best of terms. Neither party feels that he is acting on sufferance; the whole point is that neither party really notices what the other’s choice is. This is the index of true freedom; well, why not extend indefinitely our application of the principle that so largely governs our existing amenities? In New York the other day, a magistrate refused to commit two girls for appearing naked on the stage, saying that mere nudity does not in itself connote a lewd performance. This is all very well, but one must see, I think, that the freedom which these girls now enjoy is purely permissive; it is freedom by prescription — that is to say, it is not freedom at all. True freedom in these premises would be found where, if the two walked naked on Fifth Avenue at noonday, no one would notice, unless quite casually or by afterthought, that they happened not to be wearing any clothes. Whether in small matters or in great, the thoroughgoing application of this principle is, in short, an affair of the spirit; and while this principle is no foundation for a Utopia or anything remotely resembling one, it would seem to offer better terms for the organization of human society — terms corresponding much more closely with the nature of man — than those offered by any other principle of which we have knowledge.” (Albert Jay Nock, 1935, Thoughts on Utopia)