The late Cecil B. DeMille was not only an underappreciated master filmmaker but also a very serious thinker. In fact, the latter was what caused the former: his devotion to free markets, individual liberty, and opposition to communism incensed film critics during the 1950s and thereafter, and in a predictably petty way they refused to accord full recognition of his accomplishments as a filmmaker.

A very good example of DeMille’s social and political thought is now on display at the Ludwig Von Mises Institute website. “The Right to Work” is a reprinting of DeMille’s testimony before the House Committee on Education and Labor in 1948, and in it DeMille makes a strong case that the federal government’s favoritism toward labor unions denies people their inalienable right to work. DeMille begins with a strong statement of support for the classical liberal concern for the rights of the individual :

My concern is for the individual. . . .

The touchstone for any law—or any government, anywhere in the world—is the question: How does individual freedom fare? In many parts of the world, the freedom of the individual has been set back by centuries.

Mussolini is dead, but his fascist idea lives—the idea that the individual is the creature of the state, that he exists for the state, that he has no rights except what the state gives him and can take away.

America has been a living revolt against that pagan idea, ever since the founders of America declared that “all men . . . are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights” and “that among these rights are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

That’s an inspiring statement of the classical liberal principles on which the United States was founded and which DeMille championed throughout his life. Unfortunately, DeMille’s statement relies on some highly dubious concepts as well. The transition from classical liberalism to modern liberalism (now known as progressivism), was based on a perverse extension and indeed reversing of the classical notion of rights and liberties. Instead of their former understanding as protections from the state (aka negative liberties), the idea behind progressive liberalism was that liberties must be positively implemented by government, that the government must actively create the conditions for individuals to exercise their liberties, by coercing individuals to undertake actions that will make living conditions better for others (such as through progressive taxation).

DeMille’s statement to Congress reflects this notion of positive liberties and the related notion of positive rights:

What privilege — I would prefer to say what right — could be more essential to the orderly pursuit of happiness than the right of a man to earn bread for himself and his family — the right to work?

Yet DeMille acknowledges that this right is in neither the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution. He argues that neither of these documents claims to list all of the rights of human beings, but that’s a dangerous path to go down, as modern progressive liberalism makes clear.

Nonetheless, I agree with DeMille’s policy positions  and believe that there is a strong and sound case to be made for them. The real concern, I aver, should not be for rights but instead for liberties. In my view the correct argument for DeMille’s position is the harm principle: that one of government’s real area of responsibility and authority is that of keeping people from harming one another. And when government allows some people to intimidate others, that’s a dereliction of duty. And if labor unions did so, it was the responsibility of the government to stop them.

Thus DeMille gets to the heart of the matter when he writes the following:

The right to strike has been stretched to mean not only the right of workers to quit in concert, but to prevent their fellow-workers, who want to work, from going to their jobs, by assault, threats, intimidation, and abuse — a violent method called peaceful picketing.

He’s correct here, and we don’t need to invent a new right in order to see that this is wrong on the part of the strikers and that government should not allow it. Using force to keep other people from doing their jobs is criminal behavior and should be prosecuted as such.

Thus, enforcing the laws against violence, intimidation, extortion, and the like is what was needed then and needed now in any such instances. When local governments failed in their responsibility to protect people from such actions–regardless of the motives of those engaging in those activities—it was and is the responsibility of the state and ultimately the national government to step in and ensure that the laws are enforced. And where the laws allowed exceptions to strictures against violence, intimidation, extortion, etc. based on the motivations of the persons involved (in this case, protecting unions’ power), that was and is an injustice that requires legal remedies.

The latter would typically mean rewriting the laws to remove such exceptions, and their presence on the books represents the very tyranny of the majority which our nation’s founders warned us about.

But although DeMille’s statement to the congressional committee reflected some of the rhetoric and assumptions of the time, his essential liberalism, decency, and sympathy with the common people are evident in his proposed remedy:

Let the law pin down responsibility where it belongs—on the executive officers and strategy committees of striking groups. Let the penalties and damages be heavy enough. Let there be a few convictions and a few judgments awarded. And you will see men and women, who want to work, going to their work without fear. Please note that I said “going to their work.” I am not advocating the revival of professional strikebreakers or urging any support to employers who would use them. Employers’ thugs are as bad as union thugs. I am speaking for the man or woman who has a job and is satisfied with it and wants to keep it. That man or woman deserves the protection of the full power of the United States.

The power of government would be better employed in calling out federal troops, if need be, to escort one worker through the gates of his plant than in encouraging plant owners, at the first hint of a labor dispute, to shut down and throw out men and women who want to work.

This is the essence of classical liberalism: that government exists to protect people’s liberties, and that these precious liberties are always in danger both from government and other powerful forces. When these liberties are directly threatened by any entity or means, it is the government’s duty to protect the individual from coercion. That is what government is really for, and when a government fails to perform that duty, it is responsible for the evils that are unleashed by its complicity.