Wednesday, November 12, 2008


Today I continue my expression of gratitude for freedom.

My earliest memories were of post WWII Germany where Dad was involved with the war crimes trials. I vividly remember the despair and poverty of the German people at that time. I now realize that part, if not most, of that despair stemmed from dashed expectations. In a sense, the German people had bet the store on Hitler and had lost.

I have often wondered what would have happened if Hitler had won the war. How would our lives be different? In one sense, of course, he did win the war. That is the sense outlined so clearly and unforgettably in Frederick Hayek's wonderful book, "The Road to Serfdom". Writing at the end of the war, but before it was completely won, Hayek pointed out that although it was unlikely that the Germans would be ruling Britain, the ideas that had motivated the Germans were already, in large measure, ruling Britain, i.e. the ideas of central planning and socialism. The idea that government can be, and even should be, the provider of last resort. Those ideas were so deeply imbued in the minds and hearts of Englishmen at the time Hayek wrote that they made no stir whatsoever and I doubt that we would have ever even heard of Hayek were it not for the fact that his book was given a powerful review by Henry Hazlitt and subsequently became a bestseller in America, largely because there was enough of the spirit of independence left in America that the idea of becoming a society of subserviants to central planners was still disturbing. Today, of course, we have traveled a long way down that road. And, it is important, I believe that we ask ourselves about freedom. What is it? Why is it important, or is it? Can I, to use Harry Browne's famous words, "be free in an unfree world?" If so, how?

I begin the exploration by reflecting on a couple of my experiences in Germany when I returned there in the early 1960's. At that time there was a small resurgence of Neo-Nazi sentiment. The German government in alarm, flooded the TV programming (there were only two channels--both government controlled) with anti-Nazi material. Predictably, there was a backlash of anti-anti-Nazi sentiment. I vividly remember two comments of people telling me why they had supported Hitler.

The first came from a lady I greatly admired, who was, during the Hitler regime, a devout Catholic--a person I thought would have been adamantly opposed to Hitler. On the contrary, she reported, "I supported him wholeheartedly--we all did. Before Hitler our children were getting into all kinds of bad things, things totally foreign to German tradition and culture, things like drugsand pornography. Hitler took the youth and got them into good things. After Hitler you could be proud of your children again."

The second comment was one I heard reiterated almost more often than any other except the almost universal comment that "Hitler got us all working again." It went something like this. "Of course, I supported Hitler. Before Hitler you hardly dared walk the streets of the city at night. Some parts of town you didn't dare go into even during the day. After Hitler, if you accidentally left your wallet on a park bench or at a bus stop, you could return the next day and be sure that if it wasn't where you left it, it was at the Lost and Found office of City Hall with all the money you left in it still there. The streets, any streets, anywhere, were safe day and night."

In a sense, of course, these people were saying that under Hitler they were actually freer than they had been before he came to power. There is a problem with all this, besides the obvious regimentation behind it. This was usually mentioned as an aside when people made comments like those above with an off-hand addendum like, "if only he hadn't started the war" or "if only he hadn't done what he did to the Jews". The real problem was that Hitler was doing what would more appropriately be done at the family and local government level. And that is precisely, in my opinion, where freedom fails. Freedom is defined by the actions and habits and mores of our people, our families, and our local communities. When we turn those over to the central authority, no matter how good a job it seems they are doing, freedom falters. But, until it does completely we should be grateful and cherish what remains.

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