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Opinion column by Aubrey Herbert (pseudonym for Murray Rothbard), published in Faith and Freedom, September 1956, pp. 28-29
Along Pennsylvania Avenue - Aubrey Herbert

"What can I do?" is a common complaint in politics. What can a lone individual do to turn a political tide that seems invincible? The libertarian is especially prey to this kind of defeatism. Opposed by the weight of millions, by mass-circulation propaganda, what can he hope to accomplish?

Libertarians can now take heart, because the great drama of the past session of Congress featured the triumph of a vigilant handful of alert libertarians. The national press has given this victory no publicity—it would hardly be convenient to advertise such a defeat for the statist machine. Yet, in the midst of an incredibly dull session, the little-known victory on the Alaska Mental Health Bill brings a beacon of hope to America.

The story begins in routine style. Alaska Territory has no mental hospital, and Alaskan mental patients were shipped to an Oregon hospital for treatment. Furthermore, Alaskan mental patients were treated in the same way as common criminals.

A bill sped through the House last winter, without opposition, changing commitment procedures, and granting Alaska one million acres of land to finance the mental hospital.

The bill was slated for quick adoption in the Senate. But, out in California, the American Public Relations Forum—smelled a rat. The Forum specializes in battling America's new number one propaganda campaign—Mental Health.

Suddenly, as if by spontaneous combustion, we hear radio commercials bark about "mental health," newspaper ads trumpet the slogans, etc. As always, this is the prelude to tens of millions of federal tax dollars poured down some "welfare" rathole. But the Forum sees something far more sinister in the offing. It finds in state mental health bills provisions for compulsory commitment of peaceful citizens—sometimes just on the say-so of a governmental psychiatrist.

The Forum distrusts the government and the Socialists running it—and well it may, when we note the terrible ordeal of Ezra Pound, or Lucille Miller, or Ron Ramsey1, or the Finn Twins—all sent to asylums for arguing with the government. They know that leftists and fashionable psychiatrists consider as "mentally ill" all those who criticize minority groups or world government, or who fail to "adjust" to the prevailing political norm.

So the Forum wrote a bulletin attacking the Alaska Bill as setting the stage for an Alaskan mental concentration camp for right-wingers. The fighting libertarian Hoiles newspapers picked it up and wrote a famous editorial: "Now Siberia U.S.A."2 The war was on.

Only a few organized groups got behind the hue and cry. Most influential was the libertarian medical group, the American Association of Physicians and Surgeons, and Dan Smoot's new newsletter. Right-wingers bombarded Congress with protests and demands for hearings.

Plug the Loopholes

The Senate was forced to grant time for hearings. The usual quota of anti-Semitic and anti-"papist" agitators charged in and muddied the waters, handing welcome ammunition to the gleeful leftists. Abuse rained on the heads of the opposition who were called every name in the book—hysterical, paranoid, etc. Even the normally anti-Socialist, Dr. Marjorie Shearon, Washington reporter on medical problems, resigned from the AAPS and led the wave of abuse.

Yet the opposition knew too much and fought too well. The left retreated.

The Senate passed an Alaska Mental Health Bill, to be sure, but a completely new one submitted by Senator Goldwater (R., New Mex.). Tossed out were all the sections attacked by the Forum, the AAPS, etc.—especially the compulsory commitment procedures, and loopholes that might have permitted U.S. citizens to be shipped to Alaska.

In attacking the patriots' position, the leftists omitted all the larger meanings in the case. Sure, the one million acres are not all slated for the hospital—they are part of an old pattern of federal land grants to states to provide revenue for financing such projects.

And sure, if the government must own land, better a state or territory than the federal government. Again, those provisions were probably meant as harmless "exchange" clauses—so that Alaskans in New York can be on par with New Yorkers in Alaska.

But the point is that we cannot be too vigilant. We cannot permit loopholes for tyranny. The Miller and other cases are too close, the menace of compulsory commitment too formidable. In the larger sense, the Hoiles papers and other patriots are right, and the smugly superior defenders of the bill are wrong.

It is unfortunate, of course, that the governrnent mixes in medical matters at all—and that it should socialize medical care for mental illness. But, at least, a small group of libertarians rose up and struck a mighty blow. They blocked an opening wedge for compulsory commitment on the federal plane. And they showed us what energy, grit, and vigilance can achieve.

Events are moving almost too swiftly for comment, but it looks like the biggest news story of the decade is breaking right before our eyes. This story is the crackup of the world Communist empire.

The danger is that we may underestimate the crucial changes that are taking place. The communist movement was built on one central myth—the cult of party infallibility. Sure, the communist "line" changed often—but each time, the leadership of the party was hailed as infallible. When the Nazi-Soviet pact was signed, the Communists hailed Stalin as right before and after—right to be anti-Nazi before 1939 and pro-Nazi afterward.

Now, for the first time, Krushchev's famous speech last February heralded an attack by Communists on their own leader number one—a man whom they worshipped and exalted for thirty years.

Once that was done, all the rest followed logically. For, if Stalin was a butcher and monster, the present leaders joined in his crimes, and the foreign Communists grovelled before him without even the alibi of fear of Stalin's guns. Every Communist now sees that he lived a thirty years' lie.

It is folly to ignore all this and laugh the whole thing off as just another tactic to "lull the West." would a world empire shatter and confuse its ranks and change its system just to score a propaganda point?

Lurking in Each Breast

Not only has the world Communist movement surrendered to "Titoism," but internal changes are swiftly destroying the old order. Rapidly, the old despotism disintegrates, under the dual pressure of the discontented masses and the natural urge for freedom that lurks in the breast of every man—even of a Communist. Free speech and free elections are beginning to emerge in the Soviet states.

Prediction is always risky, but if this trend continues, here's what we will see: before long, there will be nothing wrong with communism except its socialism. All the reasons why the man-in-the-street, and our State Department hate communism (slave labor camps, no elections, no free speech, world Russian control) may evaporate. And we will suddenly wake up to find that Soviet Russia is no worse, say, than the British Labor Party.

This will be a great boon for the cause of liberty. For one thing, the cold war will end, the threat of war will disappear, for why should we fight against a regime no different than a lot of our "allies," and not so far from our own system? And then, libertarians will realize that the enemy is not communism, not Soviet Russia, but statism. Everyone will see that communism is just a socialist sect.

Russia is socialist—so is Franco, and Chiang and the British Labor Party and the Americans for Democratic Action.

Then, perhaps, we will understand that the great threat to American freedom lies, not in Moscow, but in Washington.

  1. In 1955, Ramsey was a 16-year-old high school student who wrote letters to the editor that were critical of the United Nations. He was later committed to a mental institution for 34 days. His story is told in chapter 13, "The Fright Peddlers", of G. Edward Griffin's The Fearful Master: A Second Look at the United Nations, Belmont, Massachussets: Western Islands, 1964, pp. 160-161. (Freedom Circle note) ↩︎

  2. "Now—Siberia, U.S.A.", Santa Ana Register, 24 January 1956. (Freedom Circle note) ↩︎