Speech to YMCA Youth Citizenship Luncheon

"Politics deals with people, with human beings, whose glory is their independence of mechanistic laws, whose welfare can be achieved only through compromises based on give and take, mutual respect, and personal sacrifice."
Red Lacquer Room - Palmer House • May 07, 1956

Recently I went to the Automobile Show. The displays which attracted the most attention in every corner of the Amphitheater were the Dream Cars of the Future – sleek, low, powerful, new lines, new colors, new performance.

Last week a “Dream Train of the Future” -- the Aerotrain -- was put into experimental operation between Chicago and Detroit. We have all been reading about “Dream Homes,” “Dream Schools,” even “Dream Kitchens.” But where, I ask you, is anyone talking or writing or working on the “Dream Government of the Future?”

Will our government be the same in the year 2000 as it is today? Are we opposed to all change in government? Is it subversive to suggest or even discuss changes in government?

Plato in Ancient Greece wrote his famous “Utopia” without losing his standing as a loyal Athenian. Sir Thomas More wrote his celebrated “Utopia” in 16th Century England when he was Lord High Chancellor of the King’s Realm -- the highest judicial office in England.

What about our Utopia?

Is George Orwell’s book, “1984,” the symbol of our Utopia -- our world of the future, filled with secret police, concentration camps, factories for rewriting history? Or, will our Utopia be “The Brave New World” of Aldous Huxley?

In the United States we used to have hopes, even dreams.

Thomas Paine wrote “Common Sense,” -his famous book filled with hopes and dreams for an equalitarian society right in the middle of a revolution.

Abraham Lincoln wrote his immortal words -- “Government of the people, by the people, and for the people...” at a time when this dream of his was far from being fully realized.

Woodrow Wilson composed the famous “Fourteen Points” and challenged the United States to create a “world safe for democracy” at a time when emperors and kings ruled more than 80% of the world.

Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill called for the “Four Freedoms,” and raised the hopes and hearts of men from the dreary work-a-day world to visions of a better day.

We used to be an inspiration to the world. Our ideas of liberty, equality, freedom of opportunity, brightened the eyes of men on every continent, and eased the burden on the backs of men of every race and in every land.

“Every man a-free man;" “Every man a king;" --and the son of every man a potential president of the United States. These ideas, these dreams, gave us world leadership -- made us popular, if you will -- not because we gave away money, but because we gave away ideas and ideals.

You, Young men and women ---

You, Young Christians ---

You who have joined an “Association” of that very name -The Young Men’s Christian Association- are the ones to whom your generation will look for ideals and new ideas, for improvements in government, human relations, and economic conditions.

Let’s take a look, therefore, at some of our present ideas. Let’s see if we should improve, modify, or even eliminate some of them in our dream government of the future -- our government’s tomorrow.

We can agree, I believe, on some basic facts we should certainly wish to preserve in any dream government of the future. For example, all of us know our form of government requires more of its individual citizens that any other form of government in history, any monarchy, dictatorship, or oligarchy. We know that it presupposes the existence of rational, educated men and women whose concerted judgment over the long run will be just and wise. We know that the success of our government depends on each citizen voting -- on each citizen participating in public life -- on each citizen making his decisions, not on the basis of his own interest, but in the public interest.

You have read and studied all these things in civics and history courses. With these ideas none of us will disagree. But, I suggest that not all of our present ideas are as relevant for the future. Here, for example, is one:-

The idea that “Politics is a dirty business.” This is the first idea I nominate for oblivion.

No one claims that banking is a dirty business because bank employees abscond with several million dollars each year. No one claims that the business profession itself is dirty, undignified, or contemptible because some businessmen try to bribe government officials.

No one claims that the Post Office Department is a corrupt institution simply because a number of prisoners in federal penitentiaries are postal employees who violated their trust. Over thirty women convicted of this criminal offense are now in the Federal Penitentiary at Alderson, West Virginia. But work for the Post Office retains its social acceptability and dignity.

Nor does anyone claim that the legal profession is a dirty business because some lawyers are disbarred, others habitually consort with criminal elements, and others become involved in shady dealings with government officials.

A young Washington lawyer recently said: "...If a fellow represents Earl Browder, the former head of the Communist Party, everyone thinks he must be a Communist. Nobody suggests that if a doctor takes out Earl Browder’s appendix, he’s a Communist.

These examples illustrate a fundamental fact -- we must look beyond the profession to discover the man, whether he is a politician or professor. And when we look into the political profession, we discover that all of us are participants in an unending political drama.

Recently a Chicago author described the political scene in these words:- “Some of us like the Roosevelts, the Churchills, and the Eisenhowers, play leading roles. Others, like the local alderman, or lowly ward-heeler, make up the necessary supporting cast. Still others hang around like stage-door Johnnies to be in the thick of things without having to assume any responsibility, while most of us just sit contentedly back and watch the passing show. During our lifetimes only a few of us are ever able to leave the theater. The vast majority of us actually give little thought to leaving.

“And the reason is quite simple. Despite our talk about rugged individualism, man is and ever shall be a social animal. He cannot provide for his physical, material and moral development in isolation. Of necessity, he has to associate with others like himself.

“But the association of man with man is not haphazard. It is organized and regulated.” Its purpose is to create a society ruled by moral principles and dedicated to the common good of all its members.

It is the politician’s job to translate this abstract, theoretical concept of the “common good” into concrete, working terms. The politician must decide how many dollars and cents constitute a “fair or just” minimum wage. Is it 75¢, 90¢, a dollar? The politician must decide whether public, tax-supported housing is required for the common good. How much housing? Where? The politician must decide whether, and for how long, men may be imprisoned for crimes; what to do, and how to do it, about juvenile delinquency; whether to enter into trade relations and treaties with foreign governments, with which governments, and for how long.

Political decisions about these political questions control and create the very environment and atmosphere of our lives. And since the future always presents new problems, society can meet the future only with new answers, political answers, framed to meet the ever changing problems of human existence.

Politics has been defined as “the art of the possible.” It has also been called the science by which man tries to create and maintain order in human affairs. But it is not an absolute science like physics, which is based on the “laws” of the material universe. Politics deals with people, with human beings, whose glory is their independence of mechanistic laws, whose welfare can be achieved only through compromises based on give and take, mutual respect, and personal sacrifice.

It has been said that “The man who is too good for politics is too good for his fellow man...” That statement is true. But, let us pray, it will never be true of us.

The second idea I nominate for oblivion is the idea that “The best government is the least government.”

I was in Austria in 1936 when that tragic country was being treated to very little government. In fact, the Chancellor of Austria, Engelbert Dolfuss, was assassinated, and for twenty-four hours there was no government at all. Gangs of marauders roared up and down the streets during the night, giving us a sample of the results to be expected when a country “enjoys”, so to speak, the least government.

No, I think it is a serious distortion of the truth, and an over-simplification, to believe that the best government is the least government. Guatemala, for example, has very little government. And they have a revolution, instead of an election, almost every four years!

Today, business is more complex and centralized than in the past, and so is government. Sears, Roebuck and General Lotors are examples of great growth, great size, and great improvement over their predecessors... two huge and successful corporations which are today three, four and maybe five times as big as they were twenty-five years ago. When business grows at such speed, and reaches such complexity -- should we be surprised at the growth of government?

The same observation, I think, could be made of labor, the CIO and AFL. And when labor and business have both grown so large, can we still maintain that the best government is the least government?

This phrase: “The best government is the least government” arose in the 17th Century when all government was the tool of absolute royalty. Government was not a “service institution” then, as it is today, It was a money-making enterprise, designed to fill the pocketbooks of royalty and nobility. “Habeas corpus” was unknown or unrecognized; spies, stool pigeons, and snoopers invaded the private lives of the bourgeoisie; and more than 120 offenses in England --considered an advanced country at that time-- were punishable by death,

Government then was the exclusive domain of kings and princes who ran affairs to suit themselves. Small wonder that the middle class claimed that the best government, of that type, was the least government.

The third idea, and one which I certainly do not wish to consign to oblivion, but which I think is interesting to think about, is that profound statement in our Declaration of Independence..."All men are created equal.”

When he wrote that immortal clause, Jefferson meant, I believe, that all men are created equal legally -- before the law, that is; and equal, too, in certain aspects of their nature as human beings -- spiritually equal, so to speak. But I wonder if Jefferson meant that all men are created equal in all respects.

Jefferson himself owned Negro slaves. So did nearly all men of his social and economic station in Virginia. I wonder if Jefferson meant that all his slaves were equal in all respects to Jefferson himself. Jefferson was a wealthy man, an owner of extensive properties. Did Jefferson mean that all men should, or could, own and live in a house like his own Monticello?

Did he mean all men are created equal intellectually? He himself corresponded continuously with philosophers, political scientists, and eminent American political leaders like President John Mains. Can we honestly believe that this Jefferson, this prototype of an intellectual aristocrat, could have believed that all men were equal in brain-power?

Jefferson, in fact, believed that ownership of some property was necessary to qualify for voting privileges. He supported the early theory of our government that appointment to the U. S. Senate should be restricted to property owners and “elder statesmen.” He opened the University of Virginia to all, but he did not advocate graduation for all.

For these and many other reasons it is clear, I believe, that Jefferson did not mean that all men are equal intellectually, economically, morally, physically, or in many other ways. In fact, if he were here today, he would agree that everyone in this audience is a privileged person, gifted with many talents, enriched by much education, nurtured in a peaceful land, guarded in body by the greatest medical profession in the world, strengthened in soul by a religious freedom unequalled in history.

One eloquent commentator recently said this: “Genuine democracy in any valid Christian sense or truly American tradition does not cultivate the pretense that all men are created equal in every respect. Democracy calls upon us to promote equal opportunity, equal justice, and a recognition of those essential equalities which flow from essential human personality...”

”...It is a false democracy, it is an evil spirit hostile to democracy, which seeks to level all persons, and reduce to least common denominators all beliefs, all differences, and all values...

“Not all medical techniques are equally effective. Not all preferences in art reflect equal taste or culture. Not all business procedures are equally-well-advised. Not all forms of government promote public welfare equally... All persons are not equally capable, equally courageous, or equally competent. Not all are equally kind, or honest, or trustworthy, or just, or equally God-fearing, or equally loyal...

“It is no sin against political democracy to aspire after spiritual and intellectual aristocracy. You who are privileged persons cannot be content to achieve no more than the average... There must always be people better than the rest-- more holy, more pure, more competent, more hopeful, more kind, more disposed to service, and espoused to duty than the general run of mankind... It was not that you might be the mediocre, moral equals of the spiritually underprivileged, that so much has been devised by heaven and sacrificed on earth in your behalf.”

Every man in this room is called to the heights of achievement -- achievements unreachable by those who frustrate themselves and society by attributing their problems to other people or to other countries.

Nationally, we do this when we speak and act as if we believed that everything would be perfect if we could eliminate the Communist menace, or the tension between the Arabs and Jews, or overpopulation in Japan or India, or the ingratitude of nations which have received our money in the form of foreign aid.

In our dream government of the future, let us stop blaming others, foreigners and foreign wars, for our troubles.

No war is a foreign war once we are in it. No problem is a foreign problem once it affects the lives of our people and the tranquillity of our society.

The young leaders of the Y.M.C.A., and their sponsors here today, have the chance in these blessed days of peace granted to our country, to prepare now for the new government of the new world of the 21st Century, now only some forty years away.

Air transportation alone has revolutionized our concepts of geography and of national security. The jet age is already here. The rocket age is about to arrive. Our continent has already shrunk in size to a mere 8-hour trip on a plane. Soon it will take only half that time.

The farm has given way to the city, and local government designed in the 18th Century for a rural nation must be changed to suit the huge metropolitan centers of the 20th Century.

In the last five years our national population has increased by almost twelve million. Ninety-eight per cent of that growth has taken place in the 200 big cities of the nation. Our municipal and suburban governmental structures, which influence the activities and lives of this huge and graving city population, are out of date like a Model T-Ford.

They need remodelling by politicians devoted to the common good, trained in the science of good government, educated to concentrate on the needs of the next generation rather than the next General Assembly.

It would be easy to predict that a dream government of the future would be popular if it succeeded in doing only two things: 1) reducing taxes, and 2) increasing benefits.

It is easy to be popular in these ways, but to be truly successful, our dream government of the future will need leaders who believe in the high destiny and importance of public service – men willing to re-examine the cliches that “Politics are dirty,” that “Political patronage is corrupt,” that “The best government is the least government,” that “Foreigners are the cause of our troubles.”

These glittering inaccuracies can best be consigned to the graveyard. Let us not concern ourselves with clichés of the past. Let us modernize our government as we modernize our businesses, and our medical and scientific practices, making it more responsive to the needs of our countrymen and of our times.

As I look around me, this final thought comes to my mind: There maybe a future mayor of Chicago sitting before us here today, a foreign ambassador, or a secretary of state. But even if none of us should ever reach such eminence in public life, all of us, as responsible citizens, as inhabitants of a democracy, still have the obligation to practice good government, and this does not mean merely voting.

In your future role as parents, you will be called upon to transmit what you have inherited from your parents. The ideals and practices of Western culture will be your responsibility to transmit to the future. This does not mean that Christians and other peoples of the Western world have a monopoly on truth. Pagan philosophers, centuries before Christ, spoke of justice, and all of us are still engaged in trying to make justice prevail.

But you are among the best; much is expected of you.

May each of you in your own personal lives achieve the fullest measure of personal happiness. May each of you also make an important contribution to the society in which you live, to the happiness of others, and to the dream government of the future.

Peace requires the simple but powerful recognition that what we have in common as human beings is more important and crucial than what divides us.
Sargent Shriver
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