July 25 marks the 1902 birth of Eric Hoffer, known as the “longshoreman philosopher” for the manual labor he performed for most of his life. In 11 books, beginning with The True Believer, the Presidential Medal of Freedom winner focused on the allure of a seemingly ennobling collective cause and the coercive power it puts in the hands of leaders and their discontented followers. He contrasted this with freedom, which is the only milieu in which creative individuals can flourish and find fulfillment. Given the vastly increasing popularity of proposals for further imposing collectivist government policies into Americans’ already-adulterated freedoms we see around us today, his insights into freedom merit renewed attention:
"The aspiration toward freedom is the most essentially human of all human manifestations."
"Freedom means freedom from forces and circumstances which would turn man into a thing, which would impose on man the passivity and predictability of matter."
"The basic test of freedom is perhaps less in what we are free to do than in what we are free not to do."
"People unfit for freedom—who cannot do much with it—are hungry for power. The desire for freedom…says: leave me alone and I shall grow, learn, and realize my capacities."
"We clamor for equality chiefly in matters in which we ourselves cannot hope to attain excellence."
"There is no alienation that a little power will not cure."
"A man is likely to mind his own business when it is worth minding. When it is not, he takes his mind off his own meaningless affairs by minding other people’s business."
"Nothing so offends the doctrinaire individual as our ability to achieve the momentous in a matter-of-fact way, unblessed by words."
"The intellectual…derives his sense of usefulness mainly from directing, instructing, and planning—from minding other people’s business…A free society is…a threat to the intellectual’s sense of worth…Any social order that can function with a minimum of leadership will be anathema to the intellectual."
"The ability to get along without an exceptional leader is the mark of social vigor."
"The real 'haves' are they who can acquire freedom, self-confidence, and even riches without depriving others of them…by developing and applying their potentialities. On the other hand, the real 'have nots' are they who cannot have aught except by depriving others of it. They can feel free only by diminishing the freedom of others, self-confident by spreading fear and dependence among others, and rich by making others poor."
"Men of power…their main purpose is the elimination or neutralization of the independent individual…every device they employ aims at turning men into a manipulable 'animated instrument,' which is Aristotle’s definition of a slave."
"The taint inherent in absolute power is not its inhumanity but its anti-humanity."
"Absolute power is the manifestation most inimical to human uniqueness."
"All leaders strive to turn their followers into children."
"Absolute power corrupts even when exercised for humane purposes. The benevolent despot who sees himself as a shepherd of the people still demands from others the submissiveness of sheep."
"We all have private ails. The troublemakers are they who need public cures for their private ails."
"To the frustrated, freedom from responsibility is more attractive than freedom from restraint."
"The danger inherent in reform is that the cure may be worse than the disease… reformers are not on guard against unpredictable side effects which may divert the course of reform toward unwanted results. Moreover, quite often the social doctors become part of the disease."
"No matter how noble the objectives of a government, if it blurs decency and kindness, cheapens human life, and breeds ill will and suspicion—it is an evil government."
The collectivist mindset that Eric Hoffer so cogently analyzed, primarily in terms of external threats, is increasingly being echoed in America today, presenting an increasing internal threat to freedom. But no amount of power to coerce others, in either instance, can make a life meaningful or good. As Hoffer realized, only freedom can provide that opportunity. It does not guarantee a meaningful life; only the possibility. But to create or preserve that possibility, we need to bolster freedom. As he recognized,
Every device employed to bolster individual freedom must have as its chief purpose the impairment of the absoluteness of power…[or] the defeated individual, however strong and resourceful, can have no refuge and no recourse.