A Reviewers Notebook: Seeds of Progress
JUNE 01, 1980 by JOHN CHAMBERLAIN
In his twenty-sixth book, Seeds of Progress (Foundation for Economic Education, $6.00 cloth, $1.50 paperback), Leonard Read talks a good deal about the Law of Attraction. Creation, he says, is a magnetic force. Wise men, applying the Divine Principle at the human level, draw others to their standard by their exemplary behavior. Whether Mr. Read interprets the Cosmic Order correctly or not I leave to the theologians. But as for himself, he has been a living embodiment of the power of attraction for many, many years.
Basically, one Read book is like another, for Leonard Read staked out his “freedom philosophy,” with its free market and limited government principles, back in the Nineteen Thirties and Forties. Once he knew where he was headed, he never swerved—or, as he likes to put it, “leaked.” But if one Read book resembles another in philosophical orientation, they abound in fresh nuances. Anatole France said criticism was the adventures of a soul among masterpieces. A Leonard Read book is the adventure of a soul among philosophers. Whether it is the stoic Epictetus or Saint Augustine, or the Goethe who unburdened himself to Eckermann, some newly encountered philosopher is always setting Leonard Read off on a fresh tangent in building or sustaining the case for the freedom philosophy.
As a result, Leonard Read gets away from the cliches of his subject. There is, for example, his discussion of the idea of responsibility. A certain type of conservative can be counted on to say there are no rights without reciprocal duties. Implicit in this formulation is the suggestion of compulsion: you must do thus and so in order to earn a given right. The thing won’t wash in law, for the Bill of Rights was not accompanied by a Bill of Duties. It won’t wash under any theory of democratic politics, either, for if rights are dependent on duties it would set the State up as the arbitrator in a trade. The idea of “inalienable” rights would disappear. It would mean that a fifty-one per cent majority—or a logrolling alliance of several on-the-take minorities—has the power to force a single pattern of behavior on everyone. That way lies tyranny. Rights under such a theory become permissions, with dictocrats (a favorite Read word) telling the individual what he must do.
Leonard Read, a different sort of conservative (assuming that he is a conservative at all), does not link rights and duties. He prefers to talk about “the twin virtues of ‘responsible and responsive’.” People should be responsible for themselves. If they are, they will be responsive to others. Quoting Verna Hall, he says that, “to the extent that an individual turns the responsibility for self over to another or allows government to take it away, to that extent is the very essence of one’s being removed.” Leonard Read also quotes Josiah Stamp, the English financier who was killed by a Nazi bomb. “It is easy,” said Stamp, “to dodge responsibilities, but we cannot dodge the consequences of dodging our respon sibilities.”
Countries are saved, not by compulsory enforcement of a code of duty, but by those who are the self-responsible. We have all seen what happened when drafted soldiers were compelled to fight wars they couldn’t believe in. One has a duty to defend one’s country, but if one can’t be “responsive” about it voluntarily as a matter of belief that the State has set a wise course in foreign policy the war will inevitably be lost.
Leonard Read’s subtle distinctions about responsibility and responsiveness are important now that the idea of compulsory registration, including the registration of women, is once again in the air. The justification that is offered for compulsory registration is that it is good for the State to know where you are so that it can come and get you if it so chooses. Naturally, this assertion that one’s body belongs to the State fails to create a feeling of responsiveness in the young. It results automatically in a “hell no, we won’t go” reflex. A responsible government would be less fanatic about compulsion and more concerned with proving the case for a foreign policy that would command free assent and so attract volunteers to the colors.
Speaking of duties, Leonard Read takes off from Goethe on the subject of finding one’s duty. Goethe said that man is not born to solve the problems of the universe, but to find out what he has to do—‘and to restrain himself within the limits of his comprehension.” There should be no compulsion on people to work for the “common good,” for there are far more conceptions of what constitutes the common good than there are people. Individual assessments of the common good vary from moment to moment with “billions of changing perspectives.” Going from one philosopher to another, Read quotes William Graham Sumner: “Making the most of one’s self . . . is not a separate thing from filling one’s place in society, but the two are one, and the latter is accomplished when the former is done.”
Most people who start with an idea and build an institution to support it eventually succumb to the feeling that the institution must go on regardless of what happens to its original raison d’etre. Some time ago Ben Rogge led a discussion about the future of The Foundation for Economic Education. Leonard Read, at a FEE Trustees’ meeting in a time of financial difficulties, turned thumbs down on the proposal to launch a fund drive to establish an endowment to cover, through earnings or interest, the Foundation’s operating expenses. Such a fund, he argued, might rob the staff of the incentive to do a good daily job of persuasion.
The Foundation, as Leonard Read notes, survived its period of financial troubles. Manna continues to come from heaven as long as the “exemplarity” of the FEE staff sus tains its power of attraction. As to the question of the far future of the institution, Leonard Read quotes Ralph Waldo Emerson, who said “we do not guess today the mood, the pleasure, the power of tomorrow, when we are building up our being.”
Taking Emerson at his word on “unguessability,” Leonard Read concludes his book by saying that “there is only one appropriate aim for those of us on the Senior Staff: to so conduct ourselves that we shall have superior successors.” The future will be determined by present performances. “The power of tomorrow, as related to human liberty,” says Read, “is determined by our power on its behalf today. Let us not interfere or try to out- think the Great Ordainer. Be assured of a series of surprises—pleasant and rewarding ones!”
On such a note of affirmation Leonard Read ends his twenty-sixth book. I am sure he is already at work on his twenty-seventh.