Peter Drucker’s first book, The End of Economic Man (1939), attempted to explain the growing appeal of fascism and Marxist communism in the first half of the twentieth century. For example, he wrote:
The old aims and accomplishments of democracy: protection of dissenting minorities, clarification of issues through free discussion, compromise between equals, do not help in the new task of banishing the demons.
…If we decide that we have to abolish or curtail economic freedom as potentially demon-provoking, the danger is very great that we shall soon feel all freedom threatens to release the demonic forces.”
…If freedom is incompatible with equality, they will give up freedom. If it is incompatible with security, they will decide for security.”
The “demons” he describes are the forces of unemployment, economic depression, and insecurity.
Drucker correctly recognizes that politics has its own Maslow’s hierarchy of needs in which freedom fares poorly against security and order. The really dangerous situation arises when demagogues and would-be dictators convince masses of people that freedom is actually the source of the problems they face. In other words, citizens may come to believe that freedom is the problem and that if we were to eliminate it, we would be more safe, more equal, and even more prosperous. If that strategic move works, then freedom will be redefined into some “new freedom,” which, as Drucker notes, will become the illusionist’s point of distraction while the genuine article disappears.
Freedom, Drucker observes, has always meant freedom of the individual. The “new freedom” is a right of the majority against the individual.
Because freedom occupies this perilous perch in a political society, it is important to defend it as a value. Indeed, freedom must not only be defended; the political community has to cultivate respect for freedom. The easy answer will always be for some authoritarian power to address crises and gain credit for strong, decisive action. But the real prize in politics is to find a way to foster a good society in which freedom contributes to human flourishing through all social strata. We could have a society of robots that would be perfectly equal, perfectly obedient, and maintain close-to-perfect functionality. But the question is what meaning such a thing would have other than as an exhibit.
We should treasure freedom because it is constitutive of the essence of the person. A human being has agency. Human beings need to be able to make choices about their education, their family life, their social interactions, and their economic lives as owners, producers, consumers, and (most of all) seekers of truth (in religion, science, philosophy, etc.).
A government that prioritizes the banishing of “demons,” as Drucker puts it, is also a government that will end up exorcising freedom in place of the idol of the “new freedom.”
This is the first in a series on Peter Drucker’s early works. See the full series here.