The McAlvany Weekly Commentary
with David McAlvany and Kevin Orrick
Kevin: Our guest today, Larry Arnn, of Hillsdale College, Dave. The topic is Freedom in the 21st Century. You have, at the conferences we’ve been going to, and here on this weekly commentary, recommended a book called The Fourth Turning, which talks about after the crisis you have opportunity, and I think we need to not lose heart that we could actually move toward more freedom in the 21st century after a washout in the economy. What do you think?
David: Well, not only are there cycles in business and in economics, but there are also cycles in terms of liberty, and you see Lord Acton distilling that, as head of the History Department at Cambridge University, and his seven-volume set on the History of Liberty, you can see that there is an ebb and a flow in liberty, itself, and in the freedoms that people experience, and ultimately, sometimes give up. So, looking at the 21st century, I think, talking to Larry Arnn today, President of Hillsdale College, gives us an insight into an academic who is trying to cast vision for a student body and an organization, who prizes liberty, who prizes freedom, the free enterprise system, human action, human autonomy, and what does that look like moving forward? We know that there are many challenges to it as the state continues to grow larger and larger. Now the question is, how do we navigate the waters ahead? How do we look at where we are, where we are going?
Joining the conversation today is Larry Arnn. Larry is the 12th president of Hillsdale College and has a curious background, a very interesting background, in terms of his academic pursuits, both modern history, economics, international history, government. It is with that in mind that we want to look at the ideas of liberty and freedom. He has a unique role there at Hillsdale College, a college founded in 1844, one that is decidedly conservative in its approach to economics and politics. You could say that their world view sets them apart. There are only a few schools in the country that are sort of independently creating their curriculum outside of the influence of government, and the strings that are attached which come from government grants and what not.
What we would like to do is perhaps just start with some general comments about the freedoms that we have today. Maybe you can talk about the freedoms that we enjoy today, and certain freedoms that you might be concerned we are losing.
Larry: Well, as we talk today we’re in the middle of a great contest between two ways of governing. The old constitutional way put the security of civil liberties first – freedom of speech, freedom of worship, things like that, and the effort was to place the people, “the great body of the people,” as Madison wrote, in control of the government, and to design a government that would protect their independence, their ability, their equal ability, so far as humanly possible, to live fully human lives, and that means provide for their own material well-being, take care of their families, be morally responsible for themselves.
And the new way is different. It has a different idea about it. You can read about it, if you want to, in a beautiful speech that gives the microcosm of it, given by Franklin Roosevelt in 1932, the Commonwealth Club Address. It’s on the internet, to look up. And his idea, and the modern idea, is that we’ve come into a new age, and now the dangers and the opportunities are different. We’re much richer. The problem is not so much generating wealth, as redistributing the wealth fairly that we have generated, and the dangers to liberty are not what they used to be, kings and such. The dangers are, to use a quote from a different speech of Roosevelt, “economic royalists and other large interests in the society,” and we need a powerful government to pursue those two things.
In a third speech, Roosevelt argues that you can’t enjoy your right to your property, and property rights are very fundamental to the American Revolution, unless you can have security in your property, and so the government must have the ability to guarantee that you won’t lose your property. But of course, it can’t issue such a guarantee unless it has access to everybody’s property, and so the right to property is transformed.
And so, we’re in the middle of a fight between those two ways of governing, and the fight has not been going very well for a long time. And the change in the structure of the government and the relationship between the government and the private sector is just revolutionary. The government is 43% of the gross domestic product right now, and there is another estimate by the Competitive Enterprise Institute last week, a trillion-and-a-half dollars, or something like that, in regulatory costs, and that’s enough to put the government up around 50%, and that means half of the country is now tied up in the government. So that’s what is going on.
And there’s a new understanding of civil liberties that is coming to be, too, and that understanding is much more friendly to controls on speech, especially including political speech that was meant to be free, much more ready to restrict the practice of religion in public places, things like that. So there’s a huge thing going on in the country and it’s a change in doctrine that is giving rise to profound changes in practice.
David: Dr. Arnn, you are educating and guiding educators there at Hillsdale, and it seems that we can either be educating our young for freedom, or we can be educating our young today for serfdom. Maybe you could contrast the difference and what you think is a priority in that process there are Hillsdale, and how it might contrast with other institutions, and perhaps just the contemporary zeitgeist as you describe it, something that is taking the “new way,” as elucidated by Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Larry: Well, thank you, that is a good question. And here is one distinction. The college, as you mentioned, is 170 years old this year, and we serve the same goals we were founded to serve before the Civil War. The old way of education had to do with equipping a soul, a person, with the knowledge of ends and means sufficient to make them capable of guiding their own lives intelligently, and that meant you had to study the great arguments about right and wrong. In Socratic philosophy, the idea is the good is the first question in philosophy, and also the last question in philosophy.
And so, the curriculum at Hillsdale College deals with the natural and moral sciences, and humane sciences, and it deals with them in the natural sciences using the best information available in natural science today, and in the humane sciences it deals with the fundamental questions of human life as they’ve always been known. An example is, what is the meaning of the expression, “the laws of nature, and of nature’s God,” in the first sentence of the Declaration of Independence, which is, after all, the authority that was appealed to in the founding of this country. Does that expression mean anything? Are there such laws?
So we try to find out about that, and that kind of education always precedes a big argument about alternatives. So if you study the Constitution at Hillsdale College, which everyone does, we have a reader that we teach the course from, and it’s made up of documents, about 60% of which are produced by people who were enemies of the Constitution of the United States, through the history of the country, and that’s just the way things were. There were the Federalists, and the anti-Federalists, there was the Confederacy and the Unionists, and more recently, there are the progressives. And so you have to read those, and you have to compare, and you have to enter into that argument. So there’s that. That’s a way of educating.
The new way of educating is built on the ideas that I named before, and it really is built on the notion that the fundamental questions are really settled. We now know the truth about the truth. For example, that the truth is contingent upon what the individual thinks, or about what the age in which the individual lives and breathes, happens to think.
And so, this idea of looking for a truth about the moral things – we already know that. What we should do is train people to be involved in the administration of things scientifically. So technical education is important, career planning is important, but also training in the doctrines that lead one to understand that it requires a major effort of compliance with central policy everywhere in the economy, for life to be lived well. And so, you can just look at what they teach in the best places, and you’ll see that’s more or less what they do.
And so, we don’t do that. And those are the alternatives. We read the great books here, and that means everybody who comes here reads Homer, and everybody who comes here reads Cicero, and everybody who comes here reads John Locke and Machiavelli and Hegel, and the moderns, too. And those books don’t all agree with each other, and so you’re invited to try to figure that out, and find a consistency that will help you understand your nature, and live well according to it. So that’s the deal, and those are the distinctions.
I’ll give you a practical example. I think it’s still in force, but I know as recently as 2000 it was in force, the teacher’s guide for the advanced placement courses in English Literature, published by the College Board, used in High Schools all over the country for advanced students, and if you do well in these courses you can get college credit, and you can get a leg up for college admission. So the smart kids take AP courses. Well, the introductory paragraph to this version of the guide was written by a professor at Agnes Scott College in Georgia. Her introduction says, “We used to think that we knew what literature was, and now we know we don’t. Now we know there are only literatures, one for each observer. And so therefore, objectivity and factuality are out the door, and now we teach students to find their own reality (these are quotes, I have much of it memorized because I’ve talked about it a lot) find their own reality in the text, no doubt hoping they will find values to guide them through a mad, mad world.”
Now the point is, that’s a teaching principle that is very influential in America, and what it requires you to do is, let’s say you’re teaching Shakespeare. Shakespeare is beautiful, and also, not immediately easy to read. So, in our experience, the way you get students to read Shakespeare is that you say, “You know, this is really great, and we’re going to have the privilege of getting to know what this says, and what this means. And it’s likely to make us better. And we’re going to have to work really hard at it. It’s very valuable.”
That’s one kind of speech. Another kind of speech to start the class is, “We know that there is nothing objectively valuable in here, and so you’re to read this to find your own reality in it.” If you think about that for a minute, that’s pretty easy work, because do you really even have to read it, or read it carefully? So that’s the point, and that’s one reason why the schools fail today. They don’t really believe they have anything high to teach.
David: It’s interesting, when you take away the rigor of exploration, and part of that exploration would be to determine what the author perhaps intended, or was trying to communicate, you lose a lot of input that might ultimately be valuable for what it appears they are driving toward, if you call it a phenomenological experience or something where it is just about personal subjective expression. All of that is very relevant to a personal diary, but there is still the need to connect ideas with the culture we live in, decisions that have to be made, and perhaps wisdom that can be drawn from that literature for real world application.
What you’ve said about technical and career path-oriented educational schemes, there is a lot of emphasis going to getting a good education so that you can get a good job, so that you can make decent money, so that you can enjoy some conception of the good life, and then repeat that same cycle for the next generation, and it’s not to say that that is sort of disconnected from a thoughtful cultural engagement, or separate from it, but it seems like we’re trying to make our way in the world, and that now trumps making the world a certain way. And that may come as a very high claim in terms of what is possible, but making the world a certain way assumes that there is something of a pecking order in terms of ideas – good, better, and best, if you well. Is that fair to say?
Larry: That’s right, and you do investments in the economy, right? And making a living and getting ahead, those are incredibly important things. I have four children, my wife and I, and I bought a wedding dress the other day, and it was expensive, and I didn’t buy it for me (laughter) and I needed money. And so, you’ve got to make a living. So, of course, it’s important to do that. But here’s the point. The relationship between means and ends is what you have to get in mind, and if the ends are claimed to be given, we know the answer. The answer is, there is no answer, except whatever answer you make up about what the right is, about how to live your life.
Let’s just get on with means. Here’s what happens when you do that. The first thing is, you deprive people of the most interesting area of study, because when it comes to means, everybody is interested in reading, writing, and arithmetic, and history, and good books. There is a natural interest in those things, because those are the tools by which we operate as human beings. The human gift is the ability to speak, and therefore to read and to write, and then to calculate, you see. So, those are means, and those are fundamental, and everyone needs those. And the first step is to be really good at teaching those, and oddly enough, we’re not very good at teaching those these days.
But then, after those fundamental means, there is a kind of sophisticated means you need. For instance, you’re a distinguished investing guy, right? And that means you know all kinds of things the rest of us don’t know. And that, learning about that, is only interesting to people who are about to go into that work, or who love it for some personal reason. And you can’t build schools around teaching that kind of thing, except to the ones who are going to go into it.
Now, that brings me to the last point, and that is, what about ends? And let’s say people who listen to your show benefit by it, and they get really rich. Then the question is going to be, what will they do with the money? And, you know, the world is full of rich people who are miserable, and the world is full of rich people who are not. And the difference is not that they have money. The difference is, the ones who are not miserable have some idea of something worthy to do with their money. And you see, how do you learn what that is? And there are really great books, some of them 2500 years old, that make riveting reading today, about that question. And those used to be the staple of the schools, and they are mostly left out today, and that’s one reason why school is so boring.
David: If we’re educating the young for freedom, as would be my intention with my children, and I’m sure it has been with yours, your four children, let’s just move to a dinner table conversation. What are the things that you feel need to be a part of a dinner table conversation? Not just once a year, but routinely. How would Larry Arnn open up a conversation with his kids to discuss the stuff of life, the things that are meaningful, and yes, of course, personal, interesting, to your own children, but from a larger perspective, from a broader perspective, walk us through the education for freedom that may have occurred in your own home.
Larry: Well, first of all, now we’re talking about a real family, my own, and you have to remember the first thing to know about one’s children is, you’re their father, and you’re not their teacher. And my children and I, my wife and I, I’ve been married to the same woman for 35 years this year, later this year, and she’s a really great woman, and our children are really super. But, of course, they don’t want me to dominate their lives, because they’re worth something. You know, one of them has a Ph.D., and happened to get her Ph.D. in the place where I got mine, studying things I have studied, but she’s very much her own woman.
So, the first step about dealing with the young, and I’m kind of an expert on that because I work in a college, is that you have to let them live. You can’t tell them what to think. And so, the best conversations I have with my children, and they’re mostly grown now, but the best conversations I have with them arise naturally, and they’re about the things that you and I have just been talking about. And those things, by the way, are available to the common sense. Everybody can have an opinion about them. Everybody does, in fact. If the question is, “what is the right way to live?” that is naturally interesting to every person, and everybody has an opinion.
And so, a great way to teach your own kids, or somebody else’s, get into a conversation about that, and you have to spend time with them for such conversations to arise naturally, but if you do, they will. And then, of course, everybody gets his say, and if you contribute, you see, just because I am dad, I am very much dad, it’s the most important station I occupy on earth, even though my children are mostly grown, and husband is the second most important. And I guess I’m a college president or a citizen, third and fourth, among my earthly stations, right?
But the truth is, I don’t own those questions. I don’t get to say what the truth is about them. I try to be the kind of person who knows something about that, and who is helpful in a conversation toward understanding, and the best conversations are always like a dance. You take turns, you know. You say something, and they something. And if you’re any good – my eldest daughter dedicated her doctoral thesis to her mother and me, and I have read the dedication in recent months, and it’s one of the most beautiful things I have ever read. I’m not going to read it to you, it’s a family document. And I know what she thinks about me, at least the day she was writing that thing. And she’s the one about to get married. And so, the only thing I can tell you is, raising a kid is a magical experience, and the magical part of it involves them fully, and you do better when you understand that.
David: In the last few minutes that we have to discuss today, we’ve seen, in so many centuries past, we’ve witnessed, or read about, all kinds of revolutions. In the 20th century we had the Russian Revolution. We had the Cultural Revolution in France in 1968. We had the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia in 1989, and the character of each was unique. There were ideologies associated with each. Where are the revolutions that we should anticipate on the horizon? What are the ideologies brewing angst related to the status quo? Does this go back to what you suggested earlier, the difference between progressives? And, I’m not sure what you would juxtapose with progressives, but I’m just interested in what the future holds in your opinion.
Larry: Well, the formidable thing in the world today, and I regard it as a challenge to freedom, and that’s an argument. One has to be able to make that argument, and I try to be able. I think the great challenge to freedom in the world today is the managerial scientific state which reigns in China, and in most of Western Europe, and in the United States, coming to reign, and in most of the Western countries. That has a great force, and it proceeds by central administration, bureaucracy, complicated rules at the center. And that kind of government is so large, that it becomes a force in politics and threatens to be able to seal itself off from the voters because they lack the independence to judge the government.
So that’s what I think is the crisis of our country and the West in these days. And I also think that the proclamation in the Declaration of Independence about the laws of nature and of nature’s God, one of the things it means is, if you give a group or a class of people, whether they are scientifically trained or not, whether they are modern or ancient, if you give such a class the ability to govern other people without their consent, sooner or later, and likely sooner and later, they will abuse that authority. So I think that’s a problem. I think we face that.
Now, what kind of revolution? The claim of the Declaration of Independence – you have to think how it’s written, because it’s very beautiful. Whether you like it or not, it’s very beautiful. But it begins with a claim that is simply and breathtakingly universal. It says, “When in the course of human events, (that means anytime) it becomes necessary for one people (and that means any people) to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the laws of nature and of nature’s God entitle them,” those are laws that they claim pertain ever. So I think that is a guide. If that was true then, then it’s true now. And if it’s not true now, it wasn’t true then, they were mistaken.
I mentioned to you earlier when we were talking, I look to events in India in recent days, because I think the man who has been elected Prime Minister of India is a galvanizing human being. I hope and pray that he is what he seems to be, and it’s a massive victory he won. The party that brought India out of the British Empire, and then later, by the way, among other things, aligned it with the Soviet Union for decades, was simply trounced. They lost so much authority, it’s called the Congress Party, headed by the Ghandis, various of them. They may not qualify under the law as an opposition party, they have so few seats.
And this guy, whose name is Modi, is messing with the state-owned co-monopoly – I think they’re talking about breaking it up, cultivating better relations with Pakistan. He’s done a whole bunch of dramatic things, and he’s been elected by such an overwhelming majority, including tens of millions of people who have never really had a chance to lead a secure life with sufficient resources to live. And so, God bless him, and what’s going on there, and one prays that it will prosper.
David: Well, that certainly stands in stark contrast with the managerial scientific state, what some has described as the Beijing consensus, contrast to both the Washington consensus and something that is far more democratic, at least as we have it expressed in India. Maybe the way forward is for the world to witness the successes and failures, as we already have, even in the last century. The revolutions that I mentioned, again, all of them had a unique character. The Velvet Revolution was one that took people toward freedom, toward democracy, toward free markets, and away from communism. Frankly, the Cultural Revolution in 1968, I think, may have been headed the other direction, or at least, it was intended to be co-opted by Labor and the Communist Party.
We have so much to look forward to. Thank you for joining us in our conversation today. We want to understand the world the way it is, our place in it, as you describe, equipping a soul. Hopefully, that is accomplished. Each of our listeners, each of our clients, take very seriously their responsibilities to their families, to the people they live with and call countrymen, and we do appreciate defining some of those issues with your comments today.
Larry: Pleasure to be with you.