The Mass Man

JUNE 01, 1959 by LEONARD E. READ

Over and over again the argu­ment is dinned into our ears, "Let’s stop talking to each other and reach out instead for the un­converted. Sell the masses on freedom; they have the votes." This advice is superficially co­gent, with the result that hun­dreds of millions of dollars and untold man-hours have been ex­pended in an effort to "bring light" to the masses.

But an impartial survey of these efforts fails to turn up even one which lived up to its promises; all have proved dismal failures. Nonetheless, the search for national salvation through "selling the masses" is as per­sistent today as it ever was.’

If there is such a thing as "the masses," there must be such a thing as a mass man. But who in heaven’s name is he, and where’s his hangout? Perhaps he is among those ‘who urge mass reform, for they are so numerous that the re­maining population can hardly qualify as "the masses"!

‘Success in mass production and sale of commodities—autos, watches, soap, corn flakes, cosmetics—has influenced many to erroneously conclude that ideas can be mass sold. There is, however, an important distinction between market­ing products—things that satisfy de­sires of the flesh—and spreading ideas, the latter being accomplishments of the intellect. Commodities, once produced, are ready for consumption, whereas "selling" an idea requires that each "buyer" reproduce it in his own mind.

Those who would "sell the masses" don’t give us much of a clue as to the characteristics of the mass man except that he is low grade intellectually. He is al­ways pointed to as one who needs vast improvement, so obviously he is something of an ignoramus.

The Search for "Someone Else"

Within these popular terms of reference, "the masses" who "don’t understand" would seem to include the finger-pointers them­selves. For, pray tell, who among us has a monopoly of understand­ing? Can it be those who insist that someone else be brought to a state of wisdom, especially when nearly everyone is pointing to someone else? Or, could it be that those who point their fingers are unwittingly pointing at their own reflections? Thinking they see someone else, they spend their money and time on the reforma­tion of reflections and shadows, forgetting, as Thackeray put it, that "the world is a looking glass and gives back to every man the reflection of his own face." Small wonder that programs for educat­ing the masses have so consist­ently met with dismal failure!

There is, though, a real mass man—millions of him! And he is not necessarily an ignorant fel­low. By all the standards we use to measure intelligence, the best intellects among us may be of the mass. The real mass man is likely to be found in a position of leader­ship—in the church, in business, in the classroom, on the farm, and even more conspicuously in gov­ernment and all committee-type organizations. This real mass man, I submit, has been escaping our attention because our natural inclination in the face of social problems is to seek the culprit among those whose behavior dif­fers from our own. Using our own behaviors as the norm of right­eousness—"our" being the most of us—we find it difficult to discover the mass man in our­selves. It is almost unbelievable that we could be the masses.

"Mass Man" Defined

How are we to recognize the real mass man—in others, or in ourselves? The mass man is any­one who lives by a double standard of morality, who acts in the mass—the collective, the committee, the organization—in a manner in­ferior to the way he acts on his own responsibility.

Take Joe Doakes for example: he wouldn’t kill a fly, let alone take the life of a human being. Yet, Mr. Doakes will join a mob, hang another by the neck till he’s dead, and feel no remorse whatso­ever. To his mind, the mob, not he, is responsible. Joe is definitely and definitively a mass man. For, Joe’s moral standard when acting in mass is inferior to his moral standard when acting individually.

Most persons would agree that Joe Doakes fits the definition—but they themselves have never behaved like that! No, there aren’t many lynching parties in this day and age. But, if the definition is accepted, the shoe will come nearer to fitting—and pinching—as we move on to more common examples of mass action.

For instance, suppose the fed­eral government were to decree that all farmers are entitled to $30.00 for every acre of land taken out of production and that each farmer, with the help of an armed officer assigned to him for the purpose, is to call personally on people, rich and poor alike, and forcibly collect the booty. Disre­garding the inefficiency of this cumbersome method, how many farmers would take advantage of such a law? Few indeed, for this personal, face-to-face procedure would be as revolting to the farmers as it would be to the payers of the pelf.

Farmers in the Mass

However, let us give the immor­al conduct sanctioned by this law the appearance of being deperson­alized, rewriting it in conformity with the way it now stands on our statute books. Let the mass agency—government—do the forcible collection for the farmers. Nearly all feeling of guilt disap­pears. Indeed, in most instances, what would have been a feeling of moral revulsion gives way to an opposite sensation: a right to the property of others. This actually has happened to most of the mil­lion and more farmers now receiv­ing such collections for not grow­ing something. The action of farmers in the mass is inferior to the way each of them would act personally.

Of course, it is not right to single out farmers as typical mass men. They qualify no more than do those of other occupations, such as the producer of steel prod­ucts who wouldn’t personally raise his hand to stop an exchange be­tween two of his neighbors but who will solicit the help of the mass agency—government—to hinder and penalize certain ex­changes in order to improve his own chance of getting that busi­ness. He has a moral standard for mass action inferior to his moral standard for personal action.

Who in the church or the chamber of commerce would per­sonally take the property of others by force to satisfy his charitable or welfare instincts? Except in rare headlines, such per­sons simply do not exist. Their personal standards of morality are above such action. Yet, the mere pretense of depersonalizing the act—doing it in mass, in the col­lective, in the organization—re­duces their souls to the level of robbery. From the pulpit and in countless resolutions from every type of organization we hear and read solicitations to the federal pap-wagon, pleas for police grants ­in-aids. These individuals—every­one who acts in this manner—are mass men, "the masses," whether their solicitations be for hospitals or airports or TVAs or subsidies for nonproduction or for anything else in the socialistic bag of tricks.

Depersonalizing the Act

Apparently, it is the appearance of depersonalization that accounts for this destructive, inferior standard of morality. Joe Doakes thinks of the mob as doing the lynching, and so does each of the others. Everyone considers him­self absolved of any evil, as if an abstraction—a mere term, "the mob"—could hang a man! But does action by a collective absolve the individuals who compose it of the responsibility for the collec­tive action? An affirmative answer is absurd. The following story illustrates the point:

A person reputed for his liber­tarian views was a visiting guest at a chamber of commerce meet­ing. Favorable action was taken on three committee reports, all of which were pleas for the federal government to use its compulsion to obtain the property of others that the local community might be "benefited." At the conclusion of the meeting the visitor was invited to "say a word." This is all he said:

Remus Pagwagon passed away and his spirit floated to the Pearly Gates. The spirit knocked. Saint Peter responded and inquired as to the purpose of the visit.

"I crave admittance," said the spirit.

Saint Peter looked over his list and sadly announced, "Sorry, Mr. Papwagon, I don’t have your name."

"Don’t have my name? How come?"

"You took money from others, from widows and orphans as well as the rich, in order to sat­isfy your personal notions of do­ing good."

"Saint Peter, you are in error. I had the reputation of an honest man."

"You may have had that rep­utation among those who acted in a manner similar to your­self, but it was an undeserved reputation. Specifically, you were a financial supporter and a member of the board of di­rectors of the Opportunity Chamber of Commerce, and that organization sponsored a government golf course, to men­tion but one of many irrespon­sible actions; that required the coercive extortion of the earn­ings of widows and orphans to benefit would-be golfers."

"Ah, but that was the Op­portunity Chamber of Com­merce that took those actions, not your humble servant, Remus Papwagon."

Saint Peter looked over his list again and then said, "Mr. Papwagon, we don’t have any chambers of commerce or labor unions or councils of churches on this list. There is nothing but individual souls."

Saint Peter closed the Pearly Gates.

Whereupon, the meeting ad­journed, but some in attendance that day are still speculating on the whereabouts of the soul of Remus Papwagon and on the pros­pects for others who similarly deny self-responsibility.

Each of Us Is Guilty

A painful fact to keep in mind is that every living person in the U.S.A. to some extent qualifies as a mass man. Let each take note that any finger of shame points in part at his own reflection. Absolute purity in conduct in response to the dictates of individual con­science is not attainable; it is only approachable.

If one would continue life—an aim this author commends—there is no way to divorce oneself com­pletely from the way of life im­posed by men who act in mass, by men who act in some manner in­ferior to their highest personal standard or morality. Few, if any of us, know how to live except in the market and in society as it is. The very bread we eat is from subsidized wheat. The mail that takes this issue Of THE FREEMAN to the reader is rank with special privilege, as socialistic as any­thing in the U.S.S.R. Much of the power and light we use is on the rob-Peter-to-pay-Paul basis. Our economic blood stream—the money we use to exchange our millions of specializations—is shot through with the adultera­tions which result from the Pap-wagon way of life. The only alter­native to life in this smoggy at­mosphere is death itself.

We Can Try

Absolute purity is unattainable. But we can paddle in the direction of purity. So far as the mass agency—government—is con­cerned, we can refrain from ever standing sponsor for any social­istic activity, and we are free to employ all the persuasion we can muster to explain the fallacies of state ownership and control of any productive and creative activity. So far as voluntary mass agencies—committees and organ­izations—are concerned, we can, if we are a part of them, act al­ways in accurate response to our highest individual standard of morality, realizing that there is never any escape from a personal responsibility for any collective action in which the individual participates. And, one more thing: We can refuse to be a member or financial supporter of any volun­tary organization that takes action for which we are unwilling to stand personally responsible.

Organizations Often Misrepresent

Here is an example of how vol­untary collectives all too often misrepresent us: A spokesman for a business organization appeared before a committee of Congress. By reason of what a small com­mittee had resolved, he claimed to speak for several million business­men. His report made concessions to rent control, concessions that many of the members would dis­approve. In short, a lie was told. Many businessmen of libertarian views were represented as advo­cates of rent control, a socialistic item. Identity with such organi­zations is no way for a man to reflect accurately that which he be­lieves to be right.

Nonetheless and more or less, we are all of the masses. And what we see as imperfections in others is little else but a reflection of how far we are from our own potential perfections. So, there may be something to "selling the masses" after all—that is, if each of us correctly identifies the indi­vidual seen in the looking glass as part of the mass and thus an imperfect man. Here is a fact so dimly appreciated it can be classi­fied as secret: Further enlighten­ment of the man reflected in one’s own mirror is the sole means he has of bringing more light to others.         


June 1959



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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