Freeman

TIMELY CLASSICS

Conscience on the Battlefield

JULY 14, 2010 by LEONARD E. READ

Filed Under : War

PROLOGUE (1981)

In 1951, during the Korean War, I wrote a pamphlet entitled Conscience on the Battlefield. War “as a means to peace among nations” was then, and remains, a world-wide fallacy. Today, small wars go on in various parts of the globe, and there is the possibility that a big one is in the offing. Anyway, the mere likelihood of more such nonsense warrants a reissue of this thesis – with some minor changes.

Nonsense? Congress declares war in which millions may be killed. But every one of those legislators would be revolted by the thought of shooting a single innocent man. The nonsense is millions times one!

For the past 47 years, my ambition has been a better understanding and explanation of freedom. This includes the abolishment of coercion by individuals and/or governments and how to enlarge individual liberty, economic and otherwise.

We, as a people, are bent on a contrary course from which there appears to be no possible return short of a willingness – indeed, an insistence – honestly to examine every tenet we now hold. An analysis of liberty that would, at this juncture, prove “popular,” would be useless. Of course, it does not follow that an unpopular analysis would be right merely because of its unpopularity. But it does follow that unless it is highly controversial, and challenging to a great number of persons, it cannot be consistent with the advancement of human freedom. For popular ideas and liberty are now not in accord. Indeed, they are at odds.

It is strange that war, the most brutal of man’s activities, requires the utmost delicacy in discussion. Yet, anyone who even presumes an interest in economic affairs cannot let the subject of war, or the moral breakdown which underlies it, go untouched. To do so would be as absurd – indeed, as dishonest – as a cleric to avoid the Commandment, “Thou shalt not steal” simply because his parishioners had legalized and were practicing theft.

War is liberty’s greatest enemy, and the deadly foe of economic progress. If war be evil there must be a way to avoid it; there must be a rationale, a type of thinking, patterns for living, that lead to peace. These ways cannot be simple or we would invoke them. They are not easily explained or we would know them. Thus, anyone who attempts an exploration of these ways certainly will suggest unfamiliar ideas. But such probing is the preface to understanding, and frankness is the prelude to intelligent discussion.

Now as to the presentation which follows: In February of 1918 some 2,500 of us were aboard the troopship Tuscania when it was sunk by a German submarine. Many young Americans lost their lives in that disaster.

As a 19-year old kid, I did not indulge in any deep philosophical thought about war while that ship was sinking, or during the seemingly hopeless hours spent in a collapsible contraption on a very cold and angry Irish Sea. My thoughts were mostly about how to keep from freezing and how to remain alive. But the more than 63 years that have since passed have wrought their change.

What would be my thoughts in a similar situation today? If, for instance, I were wounded and awaiting death on a Korean battlefield, what thoughts and ideas about war might I have in my last moments of consciousness? If I could now come close to grasping what might pass through my mind under such a circumstance, isn’t it possible that my thinking might thereby be enriched?

Therefore, why not imagine a dialogue with myself? One character would be my young 19-year old, warlike self; the other my present peace-loving self, but a self elevated to a higher level by embodying those occasional intimations of Conscience and Understanding which a man experiences.

As suggested, I am well qualified for one part of the characterization: the above-mentioned experience during World War I, ancestors in the Revolutionary and Civil Wars, two sons in World War II, plus many weaknesses of the flesh which account for wars.

Why should I not also try to capture the loftier side of characterization? True, I haven’t lived the loftier side too well, therefore, don’t know it too well. But lurking in my mental background, in a nebulous sort of way, are thoughts and a set of ideas in conflict with what I and many others have done. Why not by concentration and some imagination draw on the resources that lie hidden in the deeper recesses of one’s mind? Why not draw on the better thought of others too? Why should it be necessary to wait until the last moment of consciousness to find, as best one can, how one ought to have lived?

The past cannot be undone, ’tis true. But cannot the past be drawn upon to make a better future? Cannot the past supply the stimulus for new understanding, for better comprehension, in order that life may become finer in its wholeness?

The following dialogue is imagined to have taken place as I lay dying on a battlefield near the 38th Parallel in Korea. And let us also imagine that the thoughts were inspired by a passage I had read from the chaplain’s Bible a few days before: “Put up again thy sword into his place: for all they that take the sword shall perish by the sword.”

The talk is not hurried. Time, bordering on eternity, has lost all meaning.

Nor is the talk in final form. Quite likely it never will be on any subject requiring much penetration.

THE DIALOGUE

Well young man, you may think this is it. Perhaps you are wondering what comes next.

Who are you?

I am you, a part of yourself with which you hardly got acquainted. I am your Integrity, your Intelligence, your Humility, your Reason, your Conscience. In short, I am such Harmony as you have with Ultimate Wisdom – shall I say, with God? You have kept me in the background, hidden away from your earthly life. You have had only dim notions of my existence.

Why do you appear to me now in this last moment of life?

Appear now? You talk as though it were I who do the coming and going. I have been here all the time. You simply haven’t seen fit to embrace me, to make me a real part of your earthly self. Frankly, this is the first time since childhood that you have been receptive. Your time has been occupied with other companions: approval and applause among men, fortune, fame, power, to mention but a few. They have now deserted you as they do everyone, at the end. You are alone with me. I am all you have left. Thus it is that you feel I have come to you. On the contrary, this circumstance of your earthly departure has merely made way for me.

Strange that I should wait until now to know you. What an about-face in my sense of values! Fame? Always I was wooing her. Now I see her shallowness. Concern about Immortal Judgment takes her place, a concern I have not known before. How, dear Conscience, will I be judged?

Have you not written your own credentials? Perfect justice will assuredly be accorded you. Everlasting Life will doubtless be an accurate mirroring of you as you have been. While in many respects you were an excellent person, the record shows that you killed men – both Korean and Chinese, and were also responsible for the death of many women and children during this military campaign.

That is correct, and I regret that it was necessary. But we were at war, a good and a just war. We had to stop Communist aggression and the enslavement of people by dictators. That war was in accord with United States foreign policy.

Did you kill these people as an act of self defense? Were they threatening your life or your family? Were they on your shores, about to enslave you?

No, they were not. But you don’t understand our foreign policy. It was very clever. It sought to thwart aggression by going to war against others before they could use aggression against us in our own homeland. It had the advantage of using someone else’s country as the battleground. True, this foreign policy sometimes confused me. But I always imagined I got my thinking straight by envisioning Mr. and Mrs. Jones, next door, getting into a battle royal. The winner might feel strong enough to attack me. So, why not take the side of the weaker party in order to forestall such a possibility? That would put an end to neighborhood trouble, wouldn’t it? In short, our foreign policy was represented as an act of self -defense. We merely anticipated the acts of our enemies by taking certain positive and necessary actions. We planned to lick them before they had a chance to become aggressive against us. Our motto was: “Never give up the initiative.” I hope it will turn out all right. I was dealt this blow before the issue was settled. Conscience, what do you think?

In the first place, please understand that I don’t care to discuss what you call your foreign policy. It is too late for that. The judgment which now concerns you must be rendered on you as an individual – not on parties or mobs or armies or policies or processes or governments. While governments limited to keeping the peace and invoking a common justice are necessary for mortal beings, before Him it is only the quality of individuals that counts. What collective can have any validity for you from now on? In the Temple of Judgment which you are about to enter, Principles only are likely to be observed. It is almost certain that you will find there no distinction between nationalities or between races. A woman is a woman. A child is a child, with as much a right to an opportunity for Self-realization as you. To take a human life – at whatever age, or of any color – is to take a human life. You imply that you feel no personal responsibility for having killed these people. Why, then, did you personally accept the “honors”? According to your notions, no one person is responsible for the deaths of these people. Yet, they were destroyed. Seemingly, you expect collective arrangements such as “the army” or “the government” to bear your guilt. Yet you expect in Everlasting Life the bestowal of personal honors for virtues. Are you not struck with the absurdity of it all? Will you not stand before Judgment unadorned – just as a spirit, a recorded memory and conscience? Is this not all that will be dealt with there? Can there be any other trappings to consider beyond this spirit you are – once a person who lived and had the opportunity to choose between good and evil?

But, my Conscience, I had no choice. I had to do what others called my duty. Otherwise, my friends and fellow-citizens would have dubbed me a traitor. I would have been put in jail, disgraced before man, borne the name of a coward.

You are doubtless right about what would have happened to you, and at the very hands of those whose guilt is as great as yours. In my view there can be no distinction between those who do the shooting and those who aid the act. Moreover, the guilt would appear to be even greater on the part of those who resorted to the coercive power of government to get you to sacrifice your home, your fortune, your chance of Self-realization, your life – none of which sacrifices they themselves appear willing to make. They will face Judgment, too, in but another moment. And they will be judged as you will be judged. On the surface it would seem that more courage would have been required of you to attend strictly to Principle than to do what you did – than to take a part in tearing asunder what God has created. Deeper reflection, however, will reveal that you and others took on the characteristic of a herd, and by so doing surrendered your standing as individuals. By this drifting from personal action to mass action – a move that only alert intelligence could have avoided – a dilemma was created for you and for all members of the collective: the choice of shooting others or having others shoot you for forsaking them; to do as the others demanded, or risk the collective’s penalty for nonconformance.

You certainly put my evil in good company. According to you, nearly every man, acknowledged as great in our history, bears a guilt not unlike my own, as does about every American citizen of today. Isn’t that carrying condemnation a little too far?

In attempting to answer this question, it should be clearly understood that no single person is ever in possession of more than an infinitesimal fraction of Truth. This condition would seem to condemn man to some error even when he exercises his best judgment. The capacity for self improvement affirms this point. To argue otherwise would be to classify man as perfect – that is, as equal to God. To assert that any mortal could be wholly free from sin would be to make the same untenable argument.

Man, in spite of his individuality, lives with others. And having chosen to live with others, he cannot escape an accountability for his part of any collective action of society in which he participates. As part of the warp and woof of society, he is committed to some responsibility for its collective misdeeds, either by commission or omission. Thus, all men err. There are no exceptions.

To take one’s own life to escape the sin implicit in living, or to surrender life as the alternative to sinning, is to indulge in a greater sin. The first duty of man is to defend life. Otherwise, there is no opportunity to develop God-given potential. Living man can only aim at sinlessness; he can never achieve it. Having any part in coercive, collectivist action is one way of insuring sin. The best one can do, then, finding some such action inescapable, except through death, is to mitigate his sin. While bearing his share of society’s sins he can at least refuse to be a sponsor of them; indeed, he can use suasion to spread the truth as he sees it. You should not, therefore, be too dismayed that you and those you hold in high esteem have erred. It is the lot of mankind. Among the cardinal sins, however, is the failure to make earnest attempts at minimizing error.

Thanks for the relief which these thoughts provide. But, one matter bothers me very much. Why did our leaders, including many supposed moral leaders, tell us that we could not fail in this war because God was on our side?

It may well be that your leaders believed what they told you. But many of the leaders in what you call your enemy countries also claimed God’s blessings, and said the same things. I doubt, however, that you will be judged according to these claims of any earthly leader. Nor will a leader be judged for the acts of his willing followers. The greatest of earthly leaders will doubtless stand alone before God, on their own records, as you will stand.

Very well! I am beginning to see what you mean. But I shall argue for absolution on the grounds that I did not know that I was doing a wrong. These points you have made never occurred to me before.

Do not overlook the fact that you were born onto earth with God-given mental faculties, with the power to reason. You had me with you all the time, yet often ignored me. You should have realized from the simplest earthly observations that there is no evidence of any absolution of cause and consequence on the grounds of not knowing. For example, assume that you were unaware of the law of gravitation, and jumped from atop a high building. Would the fact of your ignorance have made the fall any less severe? Let’s say you had no suspicion of murder as an evil and, as a consequence, you killed people. Would they be any less dead by reason of your failure to know? Isn’t the untimely demise which you now face enough answer to these questions? In spite of your lack of understanding of the reasons for it, you are dying. If Conscience has any function, it must be as a guide to the avoidance of evil acts and their inevitable consequences. To put one’s self into communion with Truth is the first of all virtues. To do this one must live. Could you conceive of there being no penalty for ignorance, or reward for wisdom?

No, I could not, my Conscience. But, another question. Why do you say it is wrong to kill, and then imply that it is proper to kill, if necessary, to defend one’s life?

The answer becomes clear if we think in terms of who initiates violence. It is evil for any person or set of persons to initiate violence against another. But, if another initiates violence against you, and if he dies in the process of your protecting your life, does he not, in reality, suffer death at his own hand, as in suicide? He initiates the action in the course of which he is killed. He, not you, is the author of the equation that destroys him.

I can plainly see that this is morally sound as relating to persons. But isn’t there a different standard for a nation?

No! There is no new right brought into being by reason of you and another, or you and 150 million others, acting collectively. Whatever is immoral for you as a person is immoral for a number of persons. Virtue is a quality solely of the individual. Multiplication of individuals does not change virtue’s definition. As it is proper for you to protect your life against violence initiated by another, so it is proper for a number of you to protect yourselves against violence initiated against your number. But that is all. There is no extension of moral rights by reason of how numerous you are. Were moral rights to exist in relation to number, a mob’s actions would have a basis for approval. Russians would have rights not possessed by Americans. And might would, indeed, make right.

But what about the protection of others, beyond our number, who have had violence initiated against them? Suppose I had observed a bully beating a child, or a ruffian attacking my neighbor’s wife? Should I have stood idly by as a mere witness to such outrage?

Not necessarily. It is presumed that in the case of a bully beating a child, or a ruffian attacking your neighbor’s wife, that you have been as competent to judge initiated violence as if the violence were initiated against your own person. You asked the question because you think you see in it a situation analogous to the United States protecting South Korea. The situation is not analogous. You would not, of your own free will, give up your home, your business, even your life, to protect the South Koreans as against the North Korean. And for good reason. In many instances, you recognize your incompetence to assign causation even to your own acts. It is, therefore, next to impossible for you to determine the just from the unjust in cases that are remote to your experience, between peoples whose habits and thoughts and ways of life are foreign to you. Thinking only of yourself you recognize your own scope and proper limits of your own actions. But interference in strange areas may make you the initiator of violence rather than the protector of rectitude. If, however, of your own free choice, you wish to protect the South Koreans, you have only your own judgment to account for. But there is a far greater accounting to make if coercion is used to cause others to do what you elect to do. Why, though, should you elect to do any such thing? You are as unaware of the forces at work in this Asiatic affair as you are of the causes of a quarrel between two headhunters. Am I wrong? If so, why have you been shooting Koreans and Chinese when the Russians are supposed to be the ones you fear? Are you expecting the North Koreans or the Chinese to invade the American shores?

Very well, my Conscience, but matters of national concern such as this cannot be left to the voluntary action of a free people. Few, if any, would be here in Korea. I doubt if many would voluntarily give up home, fortune, and life to protect the Philippines, or France, or even England. National interest demands that there be an authority to coerce us into proper action against communism.

Force! Coercion! Violence! Forever, it seems, people proposing force as a means to eliminate force! You do not seem to realize that the essential characteristic of communism is coercion. Communism in essence is the communalization of the product of all by force. Americans now practice communism in so many ways that the doctrine – not in name, but in substance – is rapidly becoming not only acceptable but “respectable.” There are people, many of them, who sincerely believe in this idea. Those who believe in it, and openly proclaim their belief in it, you call “Communists.” But you who practice it, and deny your belief in it, call yourselves “Liberals” and your countries “Democracies.” And you propose to rid the world of force by using force against those who admit they believe in force. In reality, you endorse their position. You make the belief in force unanimous. What, pray tell, can you do with guns to make them question the rightness of their beliefs? Can you do more than to confirm their belief in guns and to incite the wider use of guns?

The belief in coercion is an idea just as much as the belief in freedom is an idea. It is for this reason that I think you have mistaken the nature of the conflict. It is ideological, not personal; it is of the intellect, not of the flesh. A ferment now goes on in the minds of men, ideas demanding violence as the means to a communal way of life. As in every ferment a scum rises to the top, as fungus on a muck heap. These bad ideas which rise out of the ferment are not to be destroyed by killing the persons who voice them. The swirls in the ferment will throw up replacements endlessly. Killing merely agitates the process, as a poke on the jaw usually evokes a retaliatory poke on the jaw. It’s the ideas which have to be considered. The route to better ideas is evolutionary and peaceful, a matter you should have pondered long ago. Better ideas are not shot into persons with guns. Can you not see that gunners, except when acting in self-defense, have contracted the very disease they are bent on destroying?

What you are saying is that the people of the United States do not know their own interests; that coercion, the essence of the dictator idea, produces better results than man in free action. You are saying that your countrymen are ignorant if free, but that one or more of their number, politically selected, will force them to act wisely if given enough power. You are saying that wisdom is generated by the mere act of giving some person or persons a monopoly of coercion. If this be true, why do you not accept the Russian arrangement and be done with it? Does it really matter whether an American or a Russian has a gun in your back? I thought you were fighting for freedom. Isn’t it possible that the way to advance freedom is to behave like free men rather than like regimented men? You, I fear, have been spreading the very disease you claim to be trying to destroy.

It is rather dreadful to think that I have met death in an action that spreads communism. The demand for unity, however, has always seemed sound to me. An early American slogan was: “In unity there is strength.” How else could unity be achieved except by some program insuring involuntary service?

There are two kinds of unity. One kind makes for weakness. The other makes for strength.

For instance, there is that type of unity exemplified by the goose step. It makes for a sameness in action, to be sure. However, it is nothing but a mass obedience to a master will. It demands a disregard of personality and individual variation. Its theme is a tortuous cadence, mankind responding to the tick-tock of some fallible, human metronome. In this kind of unity there is but the appearance of strength. In substance it is a corruption and a weakness implicit in men, who, though gifted by God with reason, permit themselves to be led like oxen or driven like sheep. This is the kind of unity involuntary service provides.

There is strength only in that unity which results from like-mindedness. This originates with an individual’s actions being in unity with his conscience. In short, the type of unity that has lasting strength is born of integrity. Its extension depends on the consciences of men being similar. The result is similarity in action – action dictated by conscience instead of by Caesars. This is the kind of unity voluntary service produces. Involuntary unity, however, will do even more harm than that of merely making its practitioners weak. Its false show of strength tends to create fears in other nations, developing a like-mindedness in them as to what they should do to resist and assuage their fears. Coercion thus generates a voluntary unity and a real strength among the very people at whom the involuntary unity is aimed.

In one of the little-publicized chapters of World War II, for example, one million Russian officers and men voluntarily joined the invading Germans, considering them as their liberators. The German dictator, hearing of this, ordered that these officers and men be imprisoned or killed. This action, dictated by Hitler, caused a like-mindedness among the Russian people. Their subsequent action at Stalingrad against the Germans became very much of a voluntary action. History records how like-mindedness created a strength where only weakness had existed.

The Korean affair is in no way dissimilar. Hardly an American favored this war if tested by his willingness voluntarily to sacrifice family, fortune or life. This war could not have happened short of involuntary service. And as was to be expected under these circumstances, the result has been less security for America. Our excursion into Korea is creating a like-mindedness, the will to voluntary service against us on the part of the Asiatic people. These steps which are weakening an America that was strong are strengthening an Asia that was weak.

But, then, is it not also true that involuntary servitude and a show of military force by the Russian people tends to cause a like-mindedness, a will to voluntary service, on the part of the Americans?

This would be the tendency, if let alone. But the involuntary service that has been initiated in America destroys the tendency toward voluntary unity in this field, just as, in the field of welfare, involuntary police grants-in-aid destroy the will to voluntary charity. Directed action is substituted for self-inspired action. Weakness takes the place of strength.

Involuntary service on the part of the Russians, if extended to the point of interfering with American life and property, would inspire American voluntary service.

But Conscience, wouldn’t this voluntary action on the part of the American people come too late to save us from invasion?

This prevalent idea overlooks the weakness from within that comes to the aggressor by reason of his continued involuntary service. It glosses over the fact that as the enemy extends himself and his supply lines he is faced with ever-dwindling resources at home. His extended position requires the opposite: progressively greater resources at home. Overlooked, also, is the strength that would remain with Americans by reason of the conservation of their resources and by reason of an undeniable determination bred by the like-mindedness of a people defending their homeland. They are as a tigress protecting her offspring.

To fight evil with evil is only to make evil general. To contend against involuntary action by involuntary action is only to make involuntary action general. Let a slave master organize millions of slaves into industrial and military divisions, and many people will think they observe a great strength. Let millions be free of any slave master, let their energies be released, let them work alone, or competitively or cooperatively as the mutuality of their interests suggests, and many people think they observe a great chaos. These observations are but great delusions. People confuse appearance and substance one with the other. There is enduring strength only in free men. When the truth of this is learned to the point of its becoming a profound faith, then – and then only – will mass murders be removed from the agenda of men. Man will seldom kill if acting on his individual responsibility and under guidance of his own disciplines. But he can be made to kill if and when he becomes an involuntary agent. In this condition he is no longer singular and self, but part of a mass, responding to stimuli beyond his own wisdom and conscience.

I begin to understand. The chaos I thought I saw in men acting freely was but the inadequacy of my own grasp of things; it was but the reflection of my own limited comprehension. Order, strength, to me, meant only an arrangement of men’s behavior that fell within the range of my own narrow knowledge. Men forced to goose step, to act in simple patterns, gave the appearance of unity which I mistook for strength.

This chaos I thought I saw – others doing things I couldn’t do or understand – was but men in free and voluntary effort, each finding his greatest realization and productiveness in action of his own choosing. I had planned, after this war, to enter my chosen field, a highly specialized one, adapted to aptitudes peculiar to me. I now see how my own interest would have been better served by similarly having others specializing in the fields peculiar to their aptitudes in order that there might be an exchange among us with benefit and profit to all.

All sorts of things occur to me now. Human energy is expressed through the faculties of men. The non-use of any faculty, be it a muscle in the arm or the power to reason, brings on atrophy. Human energy is like electrical energy; it has strength only as it is flowing, as it is in use. These faculties of men through which their energy finds expression are not only different in all men but they are self-controlled. No man can control the creative faculties of another. No man can force another to think, or to invent, or to imagine. The only control one man can exercise over the faculties of another is a destructive or restraining control. One man can destroy all the faculties of another by shooting him. One man can restrain the use of the faculties of another by inducing fear of prison or ostracism.

Involuntary service, therefore, is the restraint of men’s faculties by another, the denial of self-control of faculties, the forced employment of someone else’s idea of one’s faculties, an idea that has no possible way to be right. This explains why, in the army, I have noted good entertainers made into poor cooks, and skilled machinists employed as bad buglers. Involuntary service presupposes that there is one person or group of persons who know how to fit the peculiar faculties of all men into some master plan of action. In reality, though, such persons are fortunate if they even know what to do with themselves, let alone others.

I now see the strength in voluntary effort. I now see that no one – least of all I – can grasp or understand more than a fraction of the total effort of all persons. But I can see my own superiority as a free man as against a slave. And I need only to project this idea to all other persons to arrive at my own answer, the one you have been trying to impress upon me: Free men are strong men!

I wish, however, that you would elaborate even more on why most individuals will not kill on their own responsibility, but will take a part in mass killings. If these acts of ours which turn out to be evil, were done in ignorance, why so wide the lack of understanding? All people seem to be similarly at fault to some degree.

I only wish you had called on me, your Better-self, ere this. Or that you had called on others. Excellent answers to these questions have been made time and time again throughout history. You merely took no heed of them, nor of me. You repeatedly said you had no time to contemplate, to think, to read, to study – in short, to invoke my help. Unwittingly, you made mockery of anything really serious that had a bearing on your Immortal Soul. You opened your ears and mind to the frivolous, to “easier” ways, to the fallacy that you could turn your responsibilities and problems over to government, to answers that declared you could take a part in evil and not be responsible for it. By your failure to reason you became a party to an absurdity: the notion that you could gain peace by the use of war; love by the use of violence.

The key to your mortal confusion, I believe, has been a failure to perceive, until now, the nature of the collective. You have admitted – and I believe you – that you as an individual would not kill another person. But oftentimes men personally as virtuous as yourself have joined a mob, lynched and killed someone, and attached no personal guilt to themselves at all. The collective – the mob – was responsible for the deed, so they thought. But the mob, an informal collective, is not subject to eternal damnation or Immortal Glory. It is but a name given to an arrangement which consists only of individuals. Can other than persons be responsible for acts, be the acts done alone or in association?

But I was not acting as a member of a mob. I acted in response to my government.

Government, also, is a collective. It differs from the mob in that it is organized, legalized, formal force, presumably founded on deliberation rather than on impulse. But government is no more subject to eternal damnation or Immortal Glory than is an illegal mob. It, also, is but a name given to an arrangement which consists only of individuals. They – and they alone – are responsible for what they do collectively as government. They – and they alone – are subject to Judgment.

Most persons believe some form of government to be necessary as a means of achieving maximum liberty. But unless they succeed in properly limiting government, they will surrender some – or even all – of their personal rights and responsibilities to it. Unless they understand the nature of coercion – its power only to suppress, restrain, destroy – they will yield to it and lose their ability to act creatively. Government has the necessary and logical function of protecting the property and life of all citizens equally. But if people fail to understand the nature of coercion they will attempt to use this force of government even for creative purposes; they will vainly attempt to use a negating physical force – government – as a means of accomplishing a positive good. Unless they comprehend coercion, many of them will rob in the name of charity, plunder in the name of prosperity, and kill in the name of God.

I confess, I have been killing in the name of God, at least as I know God.

There appears to be another failure, too; the failure to grasp the idea that whoever gives another the authority to act on his behalf, must accept personal responsibility for the results of the delegated authority. For example, self-discipline is exclusively the product of the individual. It is the quality – indeed, the virtue – in you which accounts for the fact that you would not kill another person in your own name. But let authority for your actions be transferred to government, a collective, without an exact accompaniment of your personal responsibility for that authority – without an equivalent transfer of that excellent discipline which controls your own actions – and, ipso facto, you will act without personal discipline as a result of the mistaken belief that there can be authority without responsibility. In short, will you not generate irresponsible action? And this, I submit, is the illogical process – call it foreign policy or whatever – which leads you to kill another person without remorse or a feeling of guilt. You label the action by another name, “the government,” “the army”; so you thoughtlessly conclude that the responsibility is attached to another name also. Does not the fault inhere in your not recognizing that the consequences of your actions are irrevocably yours, whether you personally conduct them or whether you employ government, a collective agency, to administer them?

Unless there be a strict awareness of the limitations that should guide delegated authority, and an equally keen realization that even a limited, delegated authority demands total personal responsibility, there will of necessity result a vast amount of evil action.

Were there none of my forebears who understood the nature of the collective?

Yes, many of them. One of your countrymen perceived these dangers and gave a warning that was little heeded: “That government is best which governs least.” It is only when the agenda of government are minor and incidental to the aggregate action of a people that the agenda can even be understood, let alone accepted personally as one’s own. If the agenda become numerous, or if they extend beyond the narrow confines of defending all citizens against violence and predacity initiated against them by others, the minds of most men will not be able to grasp what will be suffered in their names. However, as I said before, you should have sought my services sooner. While I, too, am finite and subject to error, I am as close to God as you can get on this earth. It was your task to join with me in order that together we might search for Truth—-the vital element in your earthly purpose of Self-realization.

Thank you, my Conscience. But what is there for me now?

Your life is now about to end. Will you not from here on be judged for what you were? You will no longer be in the realm of the to be. What you have been will condition what you will be, or so it seems to me.

What has happened to your life is not at all uncommon. You simply elected to act in a way pleasing to some of your earthly contemporaries. You gave little weight or thought to Immortal Judgment. You chose to have your honors before your fellowmen rather than before God. You gave preference to man’s medals and plaudits over and above the reward you now seek. You were given your opportunity, and you made a choice. As a consequence, will not your spirit and influence go down through the ages as you elected they should? Were you not the judge, and have you not passed judgment on yourself by your life and the way you lived it? It seems to me that you have made the pattern for your life in the Everlasting World, a part of which you have made in this last moment of consciousness as a mortal being. Let us, since you and I are now one and inseparable, be eternally grateful that so much of it appears to have been good.

THE EPILOGUE

Hmm! The collective! Government and its over-extension! The process of de-personalization! The method that divorces action from conscience! Action and conscience together lead to justice – apart, action becomes indiscriminate! Action and conscience together, and I would not kill – but divorce them, and I become a party to mass killing. Why did I not think of these ideas and their meaning? Why did I not recognize that (1) our ambassadors to other countries are politicians and (2) that the only ambassadors of good will and peace are free traders, as free to trade with other nations as between our fifty states? Why did I not think….

ABOUT

LEONARD E. READ

Leonard E. Read (1898-1983) was the founder of FEE, and the author of 29 works, including the classic parable “I, Pencil.”

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CURRENT ISSUE

December 2014

Unfortunately, educating people about phenomena that are counterintuitive, not-so-easy to remember, and suggest our individual lack of human control (for starters) can seem like an uphill battle in the war of ideas. So we sally forth into a kind of wilderness, an economic fairyland. We are myth busters in a world where people crave myths more than reality. Why do they so readily embrace untruth? Primarily because the immediate costs of doing so are so low and the psychic benefits are so high.
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Essential Works from FEE

Economics in One Lesson (full text)

By HENRY HAZLITT

The full text of Hazlitt's famed primer on economic principles: read this first!


By FREDERIC BASTIAT

Frederic Bastiat's timeless defense of liberty for all. Once read and understood, nothing ever looks the same.


By F. A. HAYEK

There can be little doubt that man owes some of his greatest suc­cesses in the past to the fact that he has not been able to control so­cial life.


By JEFFREY A. TUCKER

Leonard Read took the lessons of entrepreneurship with him when he started his ideological venture.


By LEONARD E. READ

No one knows how to make a pencil: Leonard Read's classic (Audio, HTML, and PDF)