Thank God for the Mess We're In
MARCH 01, 1975 by LEONARD E. READ
There is a reason for our mess. We are now reaping the bitter harvest of the poisonous seed sowed intermittently during the past. We are experiencing bad effects whose causation can be traced to the employment of wrong means. We suffer the natural consequences of our folly, which proves once again that the universe is rational. To state this in another way, if improper methods did not lead to failures, we would really have a problem. As it is, we need only take our heads out of the sand to see clearly that interventionism not only has failed to provide the promised something for nothing but has led to all sorts of undesirable consequences.
Heads in the sand! I refer to those who do no more than lament the mess we are in; all they "think" about is whether they can survive it. Though greatly puzzled, they fail to get the message the mess is meant to convey. Indeed, many are just beginning to realize that we are moving toward disaster, even though we have been on a wrong heading for decades.
Why then do I thank God for the mess we’re in? Simply because the mess is sending up signals —messages loud and clear — that our past is filled with errors which inexorably produced their evil results. The consequences we suffer now were caused by past mistakes, and we need to know what wrong actions are responsible for these bad effects. The fact is, we are being graced with warnings which, when and if read aright, can lead to our salvation. That’s why I thank God!
Bearing in mind that what happens has an instruction peculiarly its own and that there is something good in everything bad, let us try to find the lesson. Our past is filled not only with moral but politico-economic errors, and our present likewise. How are we to identify these wrong actions and find the right ones, that is, how expose the fallacies of state interventionism and reveal the merits of human liberty as related to the interest and benefit of every one of us?
When liberty prevails, every individual in the entire population is free to bring persons and other scarce resources into complementary and workable combinations. Reflect on our varied talents. If we approach the matter properly, we come to note our own lack of most of the talents known to man. I, for instance, could no more bring musicians and instruments together to form an orchestra than I could bring technicians and tools together to release atomic energy or to deliver the human voice at the speed of light. But look around; there are millions who can and do bring individuals and other resources into association that render a fantastic service of all sorts to King Consumer. And, when liberty prevails so does competition, a constructive force that assures that the efficient servants rise to serve all of us better.
When liberty prevails, there are in the U.S.A. not less than 130,000,000 adults free to release their greatly varied and unique creative energies. The aggregate of these energies — the bringing into combination of things and persons — is beyond the power of anyone to even imagine, let alone measure.
Consequences of Intervention
Let us now observe what happens to these sources of creative energy when the state regulates and controls them. What are the consequences when organized physical force — government —controls our creativity, our varied and unique potentialities? To accurately observe and appraise these consequences is to discover the errors — moral and economic —which account for the mess we are in. And the task is to free ourselves from these malpractices.
Suppose that we have found an outstanding individual who has all the degrees and honors mankind has ever bestowed on anyone. How easy to conclude that we, the ordinary consumers, would fare far better than we do now by our own choices, if only we would yield instead to his "wisdom." Assume next that he is given the power to impose his will only on a single person: You. The power to cast you in his image! Instantly, two individuals have become noncreative — you and he !
It is obvious why this dictocratic action would abolish your creativity — you have become but an image of him. But why the "great" one? How does this diminish his creativity? Whatever effort he devotes to lording it over you is effort he cannot exercise creatively. No one can, at one and the same time, be a dictocrat and a practitioner of liberty. These roles are mutually exclusive. So, we have here a small-scale model of the mess.
Sixteen Million Dictators
From this model proceed to the prevailing situation in the U.S.A. We have some 100,000 governments — federal, state, and local —and about 16,000,000 on the payrolls. An enormous percentage of these persons — little folks, even as you and I — are not just telling a single person what to do but commanding millions of us as to what to produce, what and with whom to exchange, what our money is worth; they dictate hours of labor, wages, what our children must study ; on and on and on, even to seat belts.
Summarized, these 16,000,000, with some notable exceptions —those who are not dictocrats —have not only removed themselves from the nation’s 130,000,000 potential entrepreneurs but, far worse, they have frustrated, to a marked extent, the morals and the creativity of the citizenry.
As a result of this governmental intervention, the varied talents and the uniqueness of each citizen are more or less imprisoned. Add to this the dictatorial, coercive powers extended to labor unions on an enormous scale and, on a lesser scale, to farmers, businessmen, educators, welfare agencies and others.’ This is a sketch of the mess we are in.
To repeat, when liberty prevails, all are free to bring things and people into workable combinations to the betterment of all, the policeman included. But when the police and their subsidized minions regulate and control, a do-as I-say-or-else action replaces, to a great extent, the bringing together actions of free and creative people, and to the detriment of all.
Why the qualifying term, "to a great extent"? Why not a total breakdown? The idea and practice of liberty is not that easily overcome. We are born to be free. Having had many experiences with liberty during the past two centuries, citizens will course their way around and through the dictatorial edicts ; they’ll find loopholes — become schemers, evaders. This ingenuity, though debilitating, explains why the mess is not as bad as it might otherwise be ; why we continue to live in spite of the mess ; why, despite mass killings, millions lived in Nazi Germany and Communist Russia. A fortuitous leakage of creative human energy! As Lord Macaulay observed in 1839:
It has often been found that profuse expenditures, heavy taxation, absurd commercial restrictions, corrupt tribunals, disastrous wars, seditions, persecutions, conflagrations, inundations, have not been able to destroy capital so fast as the exertions of private citizens have been able to create it.2
The signals are loud and clear — far too numerous to recount. The messages are that every one of these evils we now experience are but consequences of past and present errors. As Emerson so wisely pointed out, "Cause and effect cannot be severed." We must work on the causes rather than the effects if we would repair our ways!
Let me conclude by calling attention to but one signal, a warning that is fretting millions of concerned people all over the world: the rapid decline in the purchasing power of the dollar. The cause? Inflation! Its causes? Excessive governmental expenditures which in turn are caused by people from all walks of life running to government for every conceivable kind of succor — people feathering their own nests at the expense of others. The remedy? Remove the causes.3
In any event, I thank God for the mess we’re in and its timely warning that we must change our course to avert disaster.
1If governments at all levels are taking over 40 per cent of our earned incomes, then perhaps we should recognize that over 40 per cent of us are acting as policemen rather than as productive, creative, peaceful producers of goods and services.
2See Chapter III in Macaulay’s The History of England (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1934), p. 217.
3If interested in a more detailed explanation, see my "How To Stop Inflation," The Freeman, November 1973.