With the seventieth anniversary this year of the end of the Second World War, a number of commentators have focused on the presumed "unity" of America seven decades ago to "win the war" against global tyranny and international aggression by Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. Individuals put aside their individual personal and petty interests to support and fight for a "greater collective cause."
The contrast is made between "then" and "now." Today, it is said, America is divided against itself on domestic policy issues, international and foreign affairs, racial antagonisms and cultural conflicts, to just name a few.
What America needs, it is said, is a shared set of common values and goals that can provide a unifying sense of public purposes. This is the path back to a restored American greatness at home and abroad, proponents say.
Such a view is often heard among both modern liberals on "the left" and conservatives on "the right." They may differ on the values to be shared and the public policy purposes people are to unify behind, but the emphasis on a higher collective calling is common to both.
"National Purpose" and Economic Controls
The call to a common cause or national purpose is often appealing to people. When I was a boy, my mother, who worked as a civilian secretary in the U.S. Department of the Navy in Washington, D.C. during the Second World War, would recall that wartime sentiment of a "national purpose," and did so with a degree of romantic nostalgia.
Among the "bad people" on the home front during the war were those who attempted to place their own interests ahead of the "national interest" during that time of "crisis." One manifestation of it was black markets in almost everything, from hamburger meat and automobile gasoline to a new suit or a pair of shoes.
You see, "the nation united" to achieve the common collective goal of winning the war required the government to superimpose a single, overarching hierarchy or scale of values over the entire country, to which and within which every American was confined and was expected to conform.
Resources are scarce, labor manpower is limited and real savings can only be stretched so far to undertake and sustain desired investments in different directions. To assure that all that was considered essential for the war effort was given first and highest priority, the U.S. government imposed wage and price controls throughout the economy; production regulations and central planning over all industry and agriculture dictated what was to be produced, by whom, where, and for what purpose.
Since competition between buyers and sellers could no longer set prices and determine who produced what and for which consumers, the government imposed a vast rationing system on American society. Ration books were assigned to every household throughout the United States that determined, for example, how much milk, meat, bread, eggs, potatoes, salt and virtually anything else to which anyone could have access out of the "collective" store of national production.
Did your household have children, and if so how many? Were members of your household working in war-related production or priority industry? Was your need for gasoline for your automobile connected with "winning the war" tasks crucial to the nation? The answers to such questions, and multitudes of others, determined how much of each of these goods, for instance, you would be allowed to purchase each month at the government mandated prices imposed on retailers throughout the market.
You needed special certificates, for which you had to apply, for a new suit of clothes or pair of shoes, a new set of tires for your car, or materials to make repairs around your home. To be approved you needed to submit the requisite paperwork arguing why you "really needed" such items when the resources to support "our boys" overseas had to always be considered priority number one so we could win the war.
"National Unity" and the Intrusive State
The Federal Bureau of Investigation, as well as local law enforcement, was diverted from the pursuit of ordinary criminals – murderers, thieves and defrauders – to detect, interdict and apprehend the networks of black marketeers: those who wished to privately buy and sell at agreed-upon prices that the government insisted could only be done on their mandated terms with their official approval and oversight.
A vast propaganda campaign was also undertaken during the war years to indoctrinate and intimidate people into acceptance of and obedience to the government's imposed "unity of purpose" upon the nation.
National unity required the criminalization and potential legal prosecution of many aspects of everyday life that before America's entry into the Second World War in December 1941 the citizens of the country viewed as essential elements of personal freedom. In other words, the price of collective purpose and a national common goal was the loss of individual liberty at home in the name of fighting tyranny abroad.
Police informers, undercover entrapments, invasions of people's privacy and property through government surveillance enveloped the United States in the name of capturing the black marketeers, whose actions, it was said, weakened the national purpose of winning the war.
Black market gang violence, corruption of the law enforcement and legal system and behavioral hypocrisy in people's public acceptance of wartime central planning commands versus their private evasions and avoidance of its impact on their own lives were all elements of the pursuit of a unifying national purpose.
(The United States had experienced a similar episode of lost liberty and wide government intrusions into daily life between 1920 and 1933 during the period of alcohol prohibition, with all the inescapable negative side effects. But after 1941, war hysteria and fears had caused collective amnesia and a willingness to allow government to, once again, dictate personal conduct and permitted trade, only during the war years it was far more comprehensive than during the earlier "war on booze.")
"National Purposes" versus Individual Diversity
It may be argued that very few, if anyone, are proposing such comprehensive central planning in the name of a national purpose or a common cause in contemporary America. It is merely being suggested that there are or should be some goals or purposes that all Americans can or should be united behind, and through which there can be an awakening and reinforcement of our common identity and social cohesion as a political community.
But whether comprehensive or piecemeal, all such pursuits through government involve one essential and inescapable element: coercion, that is, the threat or the use of governmental force to make everyone act within the parameters of the national goal or goals. Why is this inescapable?
The more complex and developed any society, the more it is inevitable that there will be an increasing diversity of values, beliefs and desires among its members.
Life and family experiences, differences in selected specializations of work to earn a living, a growing material prosperity that makes possible the multiplication of options and opportunities to do things, want things and achieve things that earlier generations could not even imagine because of a greater scarcity of means and methods that limited what could be done or wanted – all these aspects of modern market life makes possible a plethora of visions, values and dreams for individual happiness and meanings for living that works against reducing everyone to a single scale or hierarchy of shared values, purposes and desires.
Just walk down the aisle of any supermarket and observe the differences in what people put in each of their respective shopping carts. In a time of Internet streaming notice the diversity of tastes and preferences in music, movies, sports and other forms of entertainment, learning and enjoyment, as well as online shopping.
People spend their incomes in ways that represent and reflect their values, beliefs and desires. Some of us overlap in these matters, and when we do we form clubs, associations, organizations and connections to enjoy and advance shared beliefs, values and purposes with kindred spirits.
Some donate to cancer research; some give to halfway houses for battered women or children; others support the fine arts to preserve an appreciation of classical music or to house the works of great painters in museums; others give to advance social, political or economic ideas; and still others spend their money on going to Star Trek fan conventions or to buy season sports tickets to watch their favorite teams play in a stadium in the company of similar enthusiasts. The list, obviously, is endless.
Just think of how you furnish your own house or apartment compared to the homes of friends or acquaintances you have visited. Notice how you dress – styles, designs, fashions and fads – in relation to many others. What do you like to read, what do you like to eat, where do you like to go for vacations or a frequent night out? Again, the list is endless.
There are few who propose that we all should dress or live alike to assure a deeper sense of shared social or national purpose. But there are plenty of people who wish to tell you how and what to eat or drink; what your social attitudes and beliefs should be, and therefore, with whom you should interact, and in what settings and comportments of behavior and speech.
There are many who think we should all have the same values about the environment, attitudes about human relationships and causes worth financially supporting for the advancement of which they desire government to tax the citizenry, and then to spend the money in the politically selected "right" or "fair" way.
Competing "Common Causes" and Government Control
Rather than one overarching "national purpose" or "common cause" as during the Second World War, today we have a patchwork of different advocated national purposes and common causes for which special interest groups lobby and pressure those in political power to initiate and impose on the whole of society.
The "competition," in this case, is to marshal the necessary and needed political influence and clout to collectively and coercively impose one's own valued "common purpose" on everyone in society. The net effect is a spider's web of interlocking systems of politically imposed values and beliefs that are valued by some, but which end up being forced on all.
The real and meaningful diversity, in which each and every individual is at liberty to guide, direct and give meaning and value to their own lives through the peaceful and voluntary associations of market exchange and civil society, is replaced with the narrowing of that diversity to what those with political influence and power are able to obtain in political competition with others also attempting to use the authority of the State for their own purposes.
Here is the true source of the perceived disunity, antagonisms and conflicts in American society. Individuals and groups are fighting over the political power to make others conform to their own preferred scale of values, ideals and desires.
When political coercion through government regulations, controls, restrictions, prohibitions and redistributions becomes a leading method to pursue and achieve your goals, values and beliefs through their imposition on others, then the achievement of one person's desires in these matters is by definition a potential threat or hindrance to other's choices in these areas of life.
Conflict is inevitable, whether it be about the curriculum in government schools, or being taxed to cover other people's medical expenses, or whom you have to make a wedding cake for in your bakery shop, or whether you can offer taxi services only with a government license.
Individual Purpose is the "Common Cause" of Liberty
In the free-market economy, each makes their own decisions concerning these matters, and virtually all others, through voluntary associations and peaceful trade. The competition among people to pursue their values and dreams is not over access and use of government compulsion, but the non-violent rivalry of offering others attractive terms in the market place for them to supply you with the means of following the goals and purposes that matter to you.
But what about a sense of "national purposes" or "common causes"? What binds members of a free society together is not any detailed agreement concerning the ends that people should pursue, but rather a belief about the moral and just means to be used by anyone in trying to attain their individual goals.
The highest common value held by members of a free society is belief in the ethics of human liberty. Each person should be considered an end in himself, and not a means to other people's ends through the use of force or its threat. He is not a sacrificial animal to be made to conform, work and obey others who claim to know what is "right," "good," or "just" for everyone in almost every aspect of life.
The legal rules of a free society are "procedural," and not "substantive." Procedural rules specify the process by which and through which any individual may go about the pursuit of a particular goal or purpose, but it does not specify the goal or end the individual has to pursue.
Substantive rules specify what goals or purposes the individual must follow, and often dictates the end or result that is considered desirable for the attainment of which the actions of individuals are commanded.
Freedom's "Rules of the Road"
For instance, the "rules of the road" are procedural or "end-independent." That is, the rules of the road when driving a car specify that you must stop at a red light and only go on a green light, that you have to pull over and stop when an emergency vehicle in speeding by, or that it requires everyone to abide by the indicated speed limit.
But they do not dictate or command when, why or where you must go when driving on the road. You may be going to work, driving to the supermarket, taking your child for a dental appointment, or simply driving around for the pleasure of it. Each individual makes their own decision where he or she may want to go and for what reason while using the roads. All the individual is required to do is follow the lawful procedures when on the roads.
Substantive, or "end-dependent" rules are directly commanding people how and for the achievement of what particular ends or goals individuals are to be required to undertake any activities. This would be more like being told by the government not only how to drive your car on the roads, but being told where you had to go, for what purpose and when you need to be there.
With procedural, or end-independent, rules individuals merely must follow the "rules of the road," with preferred common courtesy, and are then free to go their own way in life. Under substantive, or end-dependent, rules, where you go, for what and when all depends on who has the political power and authority to impose their plans and purposes upon you.
We should not forget that nations do not have "purposes," "values," "goals," or "desires," because nations are not living, willing entities separate from the individuals who live within a geographical area designated on a map as the boundaries of a "nation-state."
Human Dignity and Diversity is Freedom's Purpose
What bind the people of a truly free society together are a vision and an overriding value on the right of the individual to his life, liberty and honestly acquired property. The "common cause" of free men in a society of liberty is one in which any of the specific forms of the "ties that bind" between people occurs through voluntary association and freedom of trade.
For the friend of freedom, the common "social purpose" that all men of good will should share, value and strive to establish and maintain is a world in which no one person or group of people can make others go places and do things through the use of government regulation, control or command that they do not consider peacefully best for themselves.
That is an idea of individual human dignity and diversity that is morally far superior to the imposition of "national purposes" and collectivist goals through the use of the policeman and the threat of the jailer and the hangman.
Dr. Richard Ebeling is the BB&T Distinguished Professor of Ethics and Free Enterprise Leadership at The Citadel in Charleston, South Carolina. He was professor of economics at Northwood University in Midland, Michigan (2009-2014). He served as president of the Foundation for Economic Education (2003-2008) and held the Ludwig von Mises Chair in Economics at Hillsdale College in Hillsdale, Michigan (1988-2003).