March 22, 2023 Reading Time: 5 minutes

In his instructive political fable, The Awakening of Jennifer Van Arsdale, George Leef writes, “Liberalism is the one philosophy that requires no enemies… It minimizes conflict and calls upon people to resolve whatever problems arise through peaceful means.”

By liberalism, Leef refers to the 17th-century movement that began to free individuals from entrenched interests, “from the constraints of the powerful institutions that dominated their lives—the interests of monarchs and church leaders and guilds.”

Leef observes that “human energy and ingenuity” were freed “to pursue commercial gains, rather than confining them to furthering the interests of the rulers.” 

“Under liberalism,” Leef writes, “the only way for a person to improve his life is through cooperation with others. There is no place for the theft, exploitation, and domination that other systems invite.” There is no need to make enemies.

Is the growth of collectivism and the decline of liberalism why Americans are angrier than ever? With anger comes the need to blame; many are certain their enemies are other Americans. Even while the stock market is close to all-time highs, all this hatred bodes poorly for the future.

What will happen in a bear market? Economic uncertainty will engender fear, creating more anger and a need for “enemies.” Authoritarian politicians will exploit these human weaknesses.

Unhappy, angry, miserable people tend to blame others for their suffering. “The frustrated,” Erich Hoffer writes in The True Believer, “oppressed by their shortcomings, blame their failure on existing restraints.”

Beware! Hoffer warns when the “oppressed” turn to a mass movement for relief from their unhappiness, “power falls into the hands of those who have neither faith in, nor respect for, the individual.”

Wanting enemies to blame, the public gives totalitarians a point of entry. In 1926, Stalin reportedly said, “There can be no greater pleasure in life than to choose one’s enemy, inflict a terrible revenge on him, and then go quietly to bed.” 

The Soviet system and its incentives brought out the worst in human nature. During Stalin’s 1937-38 Great Terror to root out his “enemies,” Russian historian O.V. Khlevni︠u︡k reports, “1.6 million people were arrested, and 700,000 of them were shot…approximately 1,500 ‘enemies’ were killed every day.” This murderous rampage was enabled by many “ordinary” Soviets who valued loyalty to Stalin and the state above all. We fool ourselves if we think the mindset that allowed Stalin to assume absolute power was unique to Russia at that time. When the need for enemies trumps morality, there are no do-overs.

In The Road to Serfdom, F. A. Hayek writes, “It seems to be almost a law of human nature that it is easier for people to agree on a negative program — on the hatred of an enemy, on the envy of those better off — than on any positive task.” Hayek explains totalitarians exploit our willingness to indulge in tribal hatred. He writes, 

The contrast between the ‘we’ and the ‘they,’ the common fight against those outside the group, seems to be an essential ingredient in any creed which will solidly knit together a group for common action. It is consequently always employed by those who seek, not merely support of a policy, but the unreserved allegiance of huge masses. 

For insights into the enemy-seeking side of human nature, consider Anton Chekhov’s character Dr. Kirilov in his short story “Enemies.” Chekhov’s story begins as Dr. Kirilov’s only son is dying of diphtheria.

An agitated wealthy man, Abogin, appears at Dr. Kirilov’s home within moments of his son’s death. Abogin pleads for the doctor to come at once to assist his critically ill wife. Initially, Kirilov, in deep distress, refuses. Abogin persists and the doctor relents.

After an 8-mile carriage ride, they arrive at Abogin’s home to find Abogin’s wife has run off with her lover. She had feigned illness as a ruse for her getaway. 

Angry with Abogin, Kirilov is indignant that he has been made to “play a part in some vulgar farce.”

Consumed by his anger, the doctor puts the death of his son and his grieving wife out of his mind. Kirilov “hated and despised” Abogin, Abogin’s wife, and her lover. The doctor’s mind filled with “unjust and inhumanly cruel” thoughts until “his head ached.” Chekhov wrote, “a firm conviction concerning those people took shape in [Kirilov’s] mind.” 

Reflecting on the nature of human grievances, Chekhov foretells, “Time will pass and Kirilov’s sorrow will pass, but that conviction, unjust and unworthy of the human heart, will not pass, but will remain in the doctor’s mind to the grave.”

Kirilov makes his grievances permanent by endlessly rehashing and justifying “cruel” thoughts. Our grievances are held in place as we rehash them; grievances are naturally ephemeral when we stop justifying them. 

We recognize and release our unkind thoughts or grip them tightly by rehearsing and justifying them. In his book Bonds that Make Us Free, philosopher C. Terry Warner observes, “We participate in the creation of our emotional troubles and deny we’ve had any part in it. In regard to our troubling emotions and attitudes, we are our own worst enemies.”

Warner explains our enemies are not independent of our mind: “The truth is that we bind ourselves to them [our enemies] as if by an invisible tether, and we do so by our negative thoughts and feelings.” 

Our minds can make wrong-minded and right-minded decisions. Right-mindedly, Kirilov could have joined Abogin by sharing their common humanity, for both were grieving a profound loss. Taking the wrong-minded path, Kirilov chooses an enemy for life.

In his Meditations, Marcus Aurelius advised, “If we limited ‘good’ and ‘bad’ to our own actions, we’d have no call to … treat other people as enemies.”

Those committed to their enemies list are eager to shore up allies. In The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Adam Smith cautions, “we are not half so anxious that our friends should adopt our friendships, as that they should enter into our resentments.” 

Again, authoritarian politicians will exploit our need to make enemies. Liberalism and its web of commercial ties are the antidotes, providing powerful incentives to be right-minded. 

The market process fosters human connections, not making enemies. Free markets reward those who better understand how to fulfill the needs of others. Under the rule of law [no cronyism allowed], the market process engenders trust. In his essay “Profit and Loss,” Ludwig Von Mises wrote, “Profit is a product of the mind, of success in anticipating the future state of the market. It is a spiritual and intellectual phenomenon.” 

Markets enable win-win trades; cooperation wins over conflict, and wealth diminishes poverty. Miracles of human cooperation are all around us, yet much of the media focuses our attention on the actions of politicians.

During COVID, Dr. Fauci, politicians, and their allies used fake news, hateful propaganda, threats, and censorship to stir fear and divide Americans. To Dr. Fauci and politicians, people are statistics to be manipulated, coerced, and even made an enemy. 

To entrepreneurs, people are potential customers to be served. In his essay, “A Virtuous Cycle,” James Surowiecki explains that capitalism “advocates the fair treatment of people… just because they’re, well, people.”

The human mind can make bitter enemies from whole cloth by cherishing grievances. Human weakness is manna for authoritarians. The more undisciplined our minds, the more power authoritarians get. The wise individual seeking freedom attends to human frailty. Minds can be creative or destructive. Be right-minded. Stop justifying grievances. Embrace liberalism. Value voluntary cooperation; as you help others flourish, you will flourish.

Barry Brownstein

Barry Brownstein

Barry Brownstein is professor emeritus of economics and leadership at the University of Baltimore.

He is the author of The Inner-Work of Leadership, and his essays have appeared in publications such as the Foundation for Economic Education and Intellectual Takeout.

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