Like timing in athletics, so perspective in life is the clue to good performance. And one is about as difficult to get as the other. It is not hard to remember how one resented the “old folks” who were always so sure that things were never so good as they were in the good old days. But now that I am joining the ranks of the old folks I am reaching the same kind of conclusion. Then of course, I am nagged with the question of how good things really used to be.

All this is brought on by student riots in the streets of Paris and Berkeley, labor upheavals in all parts of the globe, emerging nations struggling for recognition while they cut one another’s throats, and the general feeling that in this election year it is pretty hard to believe that there is any man around big enough to grasp the problems, let alone solve them.

There still remains, however, this question of perspective. It seems to me that I have often read of riots during the American Revolution, not to mention downright treason. There were draft riots during the American Civil War, and I suppose they would have burned a few draft cards if they had had any. No good government has ever come into being without a tremendous loss of life and property. Certainly a little perspective wouldn’t hurt.

But we are not helping ourselves very much if we rest content with the assertion that things are not as bad as they used to be, or at least are no worse. It seems to me that unless society is better than it was a century ago, unless young people are not only healthier but more stable than their parents, we are not getting anywhere.

The center of our problem seems to lie somewhere in the area of law and order versus freedom, or, in more extreme language, stability versus anarchy. I wish we could develop a new awareness, especially on the college level, of how tricky the business of order and government is, how much effort has gone into the so-called establishment, and how easy it is to tear things apart before we know exactly how they ought to be put together. The hardest thing about a revolution is getting it stopped. And, there are always a lot of nice people around the edges who get hurt.

This whole matter is of pressing importance to a democracy like our own, dedicated to law and order and created by revolution. It is true that we are also dedicated to freedom, but the founding fathers were smart enough to talk about “freedom under law.” Jefferson knew very well that all political philosophers from Aristotle on considered democracy the most dangerous form of government because an uninformed and irresponsible electorate, becoming increasingly careless about its citizenship, becomes increasingly unstable. Anarchy follows, which gives immediate opportunity to the strong man, the tyrant, or the dictator. Democracy is always an unstable mixture that may stay as it is or explode into something else. Jefferson knew that there had to be education for citizenship.

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One would think that college and university students would understand these things. The basic failure is that with all their learning they have not been educated for citizenship. A course or two called “Problems of Democracy” hardly does it. By the time they are ready to graduate from college, about the only experience they have had in responsible democratic action is in student government or fraternity politics, usually under the protective covering of an administration that allows them to play at government but not really practice it.

What is really more serious is the lack of any understanding of political theory. Philosophy generally has fallen on bad days. Most students encounter it as only a very short required course. Some of the erudite seemingly spend a great deal of time in philosophy, but they tend to veer off into the minutiae of analysis or word studies, thus missing the great deeps. What a pity that all our students cannot learn in political philosophy how very, very difficult it was in past times to organize and set in motion any kind of government that paid any attention at all to human rights. What a pity that all students don’t see what a beautiful and delicate apparatus they are tampering with. What a pity that they fail to see the necessity of order for the very operation of their freedoms. There simply is no freedom apart from order, as any airline pilot, for example, would be quick to point out.

In the tradition that runs from Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, and the writers of our own American basic documents, it is interesting, indeed exciting, to see how this idea developed. Hobbes was a complete materialist who saw every little bit of stuff bumping against the other bits of stuff. (He was not far from atomic theory.) Therefore it was not hard for him to say that human beings are also bits of stuff who keep knocking against one another. The more crowded they get, the worse they bump. If any one person is to be free, some kind of control has to be brought down on the mass to give him his area of operation.

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The simplest solution is this: every person in a group must give up some of his individual rights—i.e., to move as far as he wants in any direction—in order for there to be any rights or freedom left over at all. The good society is possible, therefore, when an agreement is reached in which some kind of government looks after the whole mass in order to protect some, not all, individual freedoms.

Ten men on a basketball court may decide to play with five men on each side. Order already. Then they must agree to stay within the boundary lines. They must decide how much a basket counts. They just can’t make up the rules as they go along. More seriously, however, the ten men are forced to do one of two things. Either they get a referee who will exercise control “by the consent of the governed,” or each man must set within himself some kind of self-governance. When this whole problem moves from a basketball floor into a society, we have our answer: either we have a government “by the consent of the governed” or we have a society made up of individuals with their own inner self-governance.

The Bible, the Church, and the Reformers were all of a mind that men are not quite ready for that inner self-governance. Laws are made for the lawless, and on this side of glory most of us are selfish enough somewhere to be lawless. Why do college students suddenly believe that they have reached the “maturity” never yet obtained anywhere by any human being, educated or not, by which they may have freedom without order? It is so naïve a belief that one wonders how those who hold it can think they are sophisticated.


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