From Leonard Read: A Legacy of Principles

MAY 01, 1996 by MELVIN D. BARGER

Mr. Barger is a retired corporate public relations representative and writer who lives in Toledo, Ohio.

The first time I ever read anything by Leonard Read—in the late 1950s—I thought he was arbitrary, opinionated, and reactionary.

Within a few years, however, I was following his ideas with close attention and was also contributing to The Freeman. And when I met him personally in March of 1961, I had come to view him as principled, focused, and visionary. Today, nearly thirteen years after his passing, I view him as a great pathfinder in my own life, and, more importantly, as a social philosopher who will shape the future.

What brought about this changing viewpoint?

It wasn’t any change in Leonard, because he hardly ever wavered from the principles he championed when establishing the Foundation for Economic Education in 1946. The change was my own. First, more reading and thinking about our general social organization brought about a realization that we needed new moorings and a better sense of direction in human affairs. I also became disillusioned by the failures of ideas in which I had believed. It became clear, too, that a large number of our leaders may have lost their way.

While Leonard Read often wrote on timely subjects, he was never caught up in political movements or felt that a single election or candidate would either doom us or save us. He consistently followed his carefully honed set of principles, and it was always possible to find this consistency in his writings. Three Readian principles stand out in my own memory of him, and almost define the way he thought about life and the world. Though Leonard expressed these ideas in many forms, I have chosen here to word them as I perceive them:

1. Anything that’s peaceful should be permitted.

2. Coercion is never creative and cannot bring about continuing human progress. Only freedom does.

3. Each of us is some part of the Universal Consciousness and can achieve greater good for ourselves and others through self-improvement, which comes by expanding the individual consciousness.

How well do these principles work in practice? Here are examples of my experience with them:

Anything that’s peaceful should be permitted. Leonard Read’s views on peace were nothing short of radical, but they would please few of the radicals who march for peace and hold other demonstrations for it. Nor would Leonard have believed that many of those who advocated peace were really peaceful in their own thinking or in the way they wanted to deal with others. Since most of them were really interested in using government power to impose their views on the rest of us, Leonard would have regarded such advocates as being anything but peaceful.

One of Leonard’s radical ideas is that government power is organized force that should be used sparingly; actually, only to protect individuals from crime and fraud, to enforce lawful contracts, to protect property, and to defend the country. In doing this, it is maintaining peace and acting peacefully.

But when government expands its powers into other areas, it cannot and does not act peacefully. In redistributing income, for example, it must use police power to take from one in order to benefit another. This process goes on in countless ways and has many supporters, but Leonard saw it as violence, even if the police officers do not actually appear to collect the taxes. Any other government action must also be enforced by violence if certain individuals or groups refuse to go along with it.

But Leonard had little sympathy for those who objected for the wrong reasons when the government appeared to be abusing or exceeding its powers, when they protested about specific incidents of power abuse without facing the underlying causes that had put such abuses in motion.

In 1961, for example, there was a great outcry when the Internal Revenue Service seized horses belonging to an Old Order Amish farmer in Pennsylvania who had refused to pay his Social Security taxes. The IRS agents who confiscated and sold the horses for taxes were seen by the public as villains. But Leonard rightly pointed out that the agents were doing precisely what they should have done. “This agency of government is not in the business of deciding the rightness or wrongness of a tax,” he wrote. “Its job is to collect regardless of what the tax is for.” He even went on to suggest that in carrying out their duties as law enforcement officers, they had to treat this gentle Amish farmer just as they would have treated John Dillinger or some other infamous bank robber.

It seemed quite a stretch to compare an action against a peaceful Amish farmer with the manhunt to get the notorious and dangerous Dillinger. But since the Amish farmer had become a lawbreaker, police power had to be applied just as it was against deliberate felons. As a last resort, the federal agents could have used deadly force had the Amishman carried his protest too far.

Leonard’s view on this is useful to remember when considering current actions of the IRS or federal agents in general. Time and again, we hear about the arbitrariness and high-handedness of the IRS, but we don’t hear much support for real elimination of taxation or the lavish spending which makes it necessary. And when we hear criticisms of other government actions, such as the Waco Branch Davidian catastrophe or the killings at Ruby Ridge, we still do not have many people pointing out that such tragedies are likely to occur as a result of the relentless expansion of government police power.

If we believe that the coercive powers of government should be used to address every social problem, we can expect various unwanted consequences. Government power must be enforced at gunpoint. So, if we don’t like it when the guns really appear and are used, then we should get back to basics and place strict limits on the power and scope of government. Limited government, as Leonard saw it, would require only sparing use of police power.

But even as the debates over government actions continue, Leonard’s basic principles serve as a useful guide when considering other issues. In recent years, for example, I’ve written about government subsidy of the arts. It’s clear that government support of the arts is not a peaceful action: coercive means are used to take money from taxpayers to support forms of art which are sponsored and defended by various pressure groups. Whether we approve of the art or not is irrelevant; we simply have no real choice in the matter of supporting it.

When recent controversy arose over the nature of some subsidized art, there were cries of “censorship” because elected officials took a stand against certain shocking examples. But elected officials have a right and even a duty to exercise judgment over tax-supported projects. Had this been privately funded art, however, any government criticism or interference would have been wrong and certainly in violation of the First Amendment. The protesters, unfortunately, were so addicted to government grants as a “right” that they could not understand the difference between “public” and private funding of the arts. The correct solution would have been to end all government support of the arts while continuing to fight the battle for artistic freedom on Constitutional grounds.

Leonard’s principle of permitting “anything that’s peaceful” is also a model for personal behavior. It can help us steer clear of wrong actions when our so-called friends try to enlist us in bad practices. Shortly after I began writing for The Freeman, for example, I had a visit from a man who organized telephone campaigns against left-leaning school teachers in his district. The method was to harass and hound them until they were forced to quit or asked to resign. While not in agreement with the teachers, I could not condone this method of dealing with them. It was an abusive and practically violent tactic that no real student of liberty would endorse.

In adopting this principle of acting only peacefully, it’s also necessary to determine whether or not a certain practice is peaceful. The late Ben Rogge, who taught often at FEE, would uphold “anything that’s peaceful,” and then go on to point out “that we’re not being peaceful if we build a fire and allow the smoke to drift into our neighbors’ yards.” This explanation would seem to justify all the wretched actions the government has taken in the name of environmental protection. But I think both Ben and Leonard would have argued that people who really believe in peaceful actions will also practice common sense, good ethics, and courtesy, whether tending to a backyard fire or a large factory.

A second idea I acquired from Leonard (and other FEE writers) is that coercion is never creative and cannot bring about continuing human progress. Only freedom does. Leonard had great admiration for the geniuses of the past who had brought about the industrial revolution and other modern miracles. But creativity could not be coerced; it had to flow from the voluntary efforts and thought processes of people working together in harmony.

He stated this in various essays, but his classic was “I, Pencil,” in which he argued that no single individual knows how to make a simple pencil, and yet we produce billions of them every year. Years later, the noted economists Milton and Rose Friedman used this wonderful example in their popular 1979 book, Free to Choose. If nobody knows enough to make a pencil, it is equally true that nobody knows everything that’s required to produce all the other things we now enjoy and use. The market takes care of progress, if people are permitted to think, invent, produce, and sell without undue interference or outright prevention of their activities.

And where there was outright prevention of economic activity, Leonard could easily cut through the confusion. For the past fifty years, for example, there has been rising concern about the mediocre performance of the government-owned postal service, with frequent attempts to modernize and reorganize it. Despite considerable effort and the talents of some fine managers, the postal service still ranks low in the public’s esteem and loses business to those entrepreneurs who are permitted to compete with it in some types of services (but not in first-class deliveries).

Leonard believed that the answer to the postal confusion was simply to “let anybody carry mail.” There was no real reason that the government should have a legal monopoly on first-class mail, thus preventing other delivery services from trying their luck in the field. He would point to the market’s success in bringing telephone messages across the country in fractions of seconds, while mail deliveries continued to be clogged and inefficient.

With Leonard’s approval and the support of Freeman editor Paul Poirot, I wrote several articles about the post office, suggesting that free-market mail was the answer. These articles were considered quixotic and downright impractical in the 1960s and ’70s, but time has vindicated them. At the same time, Leonard’s belief that anybody should be permitted to carry mail is now being seriously considered and would even soon become lawful if not for the fierce opposition of the postal unions.

But the market is taking steps of its own to deal with the postal monopoly. Even if letter mail continues to be a government monopoly, the fax machine and E-mail are now competing effectively with postal deliveries. Both developments were just coming onto the scene during Leonard’s final years, but he would have cited them as more proof of the creativities that lie in the free marketplace.

The third important idea I learned from Leonard is that each of us is some part of the Universal Consciousness and can achieve greater good for ourselves and others through self-improvement, which comes by expanding the individual consciousness. To some, this sounds a mite religious, but I never learned anything about Leonard’s church affiliations or matters of that sort.

His approach was simply to point out that we didn’t create ourselves or bring about the intelligence that is in all things. We also have an earthly purpose, which is the improvement and advancement of the individual consciousness. We cannot really improve others except by offering them our perceptions of the truth and also by setting good examples in our own lives. Any coercive effort outside the individual is bound to fail in the long run, since it is only our own personal acceptance of ideas that gives them lasting power and effectiveness.

I had good reason to go along with Leonard’s position on this, because my own background as a recovering alcoholic had prepared me for it; indeed, I outlined these points in a 1961 Freeman article titled “The Lessons of Lost Weekends.” But lingering in the back of my mind were doubts that the individual consciousness could have any real impact on the formidable political powers that were causing so much misery in the world.

But time would prove Leonard right, at least to my satisfaction. The decline of Communism is an outstanding example. Back in the 1960s, most of us in Leonard’s circle of friends were appalled by the astonishing hold Communism seemed to have over large areas and populations. We could not see any light at the end of this tunnel, and there was a paralyzing fear that this demonic force would eventually enslave the entire world. It did not seem possible that Communist power could ever be broken without armed rebellion or perhaps a preemptive war by democracies. Indeed, during those years people did argue that the United States had the right to strike preemptively against the Soviet Union to save our own freedom.

Fortunately, we never took such a course, which would have been terribly wrong in Leonard’s view as another case of using guns to carry out something that comes only by a change of consciousness on the part of many people.

And thus came the change. Though the threat of retaliation also slowed the Communist advance, at work was another process—year by year, gradual shifts in the way citizens in the Communist countries viewed themselves and their governments. The process was so slow that only a few people realized it would someday reach a critical mass and topple one government after another, and without a great deal of bloodshed. The toppling began in the late 1980s in the Eastern European countries. When the Soviet government finally yielded to this process, we discovered that the people required no educating about the nature of Communism nor informing that Marx and Lenin were just as responsible for its horrors as such perpetrators as Stalin and his henchmen. From bitter experience they understood Communism better than we did. And really, it would not have collapsed without a general “change in consciousness.”

This fall of Communism took place after Leonard’s passing and is not yet complete. But he would have understood it, and also would not be surprised that considerable crime, chaos, and ethnic strife followed in many of the formerly Communist countries. These problems, too, grow out of the individual consciousness and can only be eliminated when people come to realize their errors and make the appropriate changes in their political environments. The current problems in the former Soviet Union and Yugoslavia also show that the coerced togetherness did nothing to change the real feelings of the people involved. Even with seventy years in power, Communism in the Soviet Union could only keep the lid on ethnic rivalries; it could not remove them. And it is probably beyond the reach of any intervening country, however well-intentioned, to force permanent changes in the world. We have learned, to our sorrow, that there are strict limits to what guns can accomplish in dealing with world strife. While Communism was always an organized threat, our real problems continue to be the human failings that go back to the beginning of time.

Yet, though millions of people throughout the world seem to be caught up in fear, corruption, hatred, and envy, Leonard had hope for the future. He believed that “thoughts rule the world,” and even gave that title to one of his books of essays. He felt that the United States and other democracies, ensnared by many of the same problems that cause havoc elsewhere, should not preach or interfere with others.

But he had immense faith in the final triumph of freedom that would come about with a change in human thinking. This, in turn, would bring about the elimination of the coercive, destructive practices that are raging because people are not really pursuing peace. Also, there is no dearth of good thinkers we can look to for the ideas we need to create a peaceful, prosperous, and happy society. As examples, Leonard listed such great thinkers as Confucius, Socrates, Jesus, Epictetus, John Locke, Edmund Burke, Bastiat, Cobden, Bright, Adam Smith, Washington, and Marcus Aurelius, among many more.

It’s a great list. My only change would be to add one name: Leonard Read. The world owes him more than we will ever know.


May 1996

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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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