All Commentary
Tuesday, August 1, 1972

A Reviewer’s Notebook – 1972/8


Several years back I used to encounter people who spoke of “Leonard Read’s freedom philosophy.” Now I run into those who simply say “the freedom philosophy.” Leonard Read must be doing something right to find his recipes becoming the common property of cooks and diners who no longer think of crediting the pioneering chef.

Mr. Read, of course, would deny that he is an originator. In his new book, To Free or Freeze: That is the Question (Foundation for Economic Education, $3 cloth, $2 paper), he remarks that “practically every idea we espouse and pass off as our own is unknowingly taken from others.” Even so, I find Mr. Read an original in the way he combines his ideas and his methods.

Where else in the country will you find a man who really believes that the way to reform others is to reform yourself in hopes that the example will lead to self-discovery along similar lines in whoever cares to listen? Max Eastman, the crusader who became more contemplative in later life, used to refer to Mr. Read’s Foundation for Economic Education as “the monastery,” which I am sure Mr. Read would take as a compliment. After all, it was the monastery that kept the lamps of learning burning through the Dark Ages. “FEE,” says Mr. Read in his essay, “Speak for Yourself, John,” “is not an institutional spokesman nor an organization trying to ‘reach’ anyone. Rather, ours is, one might say, no more than an agency offering such services as you may think of value in your own search and personal growth…. Instead of playing the utterly futile game of trying to ‘reach’ others, we can concentrate on getting enough into our own mentalities and improving our services to the point where others will reach for us.”

Emphasis on the Individual

In keeping with his pilgrim’s accent on first principles, Mr. Read dispenses with the “scientific” jargon which tries to make political economy over into a predictive natural science like Newtonian physics. To Mr. Read, everything goes back to the individual (no two people are alike!) whose free will and unforeseeable subjective valuations put an aberrant factor into every economic equation. It is obvious that economics does not become a statistical subject until after the fact of choice. The whole question of choice leads from considerations of GNP and chatter about “parameters,” whatever they are, to moral philosophy, with its concern for right and wrong. Mr. Read wants to think about good and evil, not about the technical questions that lead to so much manipulation of individuals as though they were pawns in some dictator’s game of chess.

The good, to Mr. Read, is anything that adds to the sum of creativity. Force must sometimes be used to keep one man from injuring another, but this does not alter the truth that what Mr. Read calls “viewpoints, evaluations, inventions, insights, intuitive flashes, think-of-that’s” do not thrive in a world of controls and government seizures. When force, going beyond the police power, is used to transfer wealth, it hurts the sum total of creativity by enfeebling the injured person and encouraging laziness in the supposed beneficiary. Contemplation of the nature of force leads Mr. Read back to the State-as-night-watchman and away from the modern heresy of the State-as-quarterback. The State’s proper business is protection against such things as fraud, the spread of disease, and attack from abroad.

Actions Have Consequences

Mr. Read does not believe in crystal balls. But he does believe in “ifs.” For example, if we persist in our present course of price and wage fixing, or “incomes policy,” the “if” will lead to more scarcities. Scarcities under conditions of continuing price control, will lead to rationing, to be followed in turn by black markets. The fabric of law will suffer, and the accompanying growth of cynicism will make for increased violence. To control the violence, the government will have to use strong-arm means. And, to administer the strong-arm medicine, a tough guy will have to take over. As Hayek said long ago, the goons, in a world of controls, rise to the top.

Now, Mr. Read is not saying that the U.S. is bound to persist in its present foolish course; the politicians may come to their senses when they discover that inflation (a matter of the money and-credit supply) cannot be stopped by price and wage boards issuing their ukases. All Mr. Read is uttering is a little “if.” The future is not to be glimpsed in any crystal ball for the simple reason that it depends on what is being done by “our actions now.” Change in these actions naturally changes the “if.”

A Vicious Circle of Subsidies

The other day I listened to a plausible plea for State subsidy to the arts. Taken on its own terms, the argument seemed to me at least morally irrefutable. We have had inflation, which means that people have been robbed of the purchasing power they might have spent on going to plays, or on buying books or visiting museums. As a matter of retributive justice, why shouldn’t the State return some of the stolen purchasing power to the art-loving individual? I put this question to Mr. Read. “The trouble,” he said, “is that the money is no longer there. There’s nothing to be returned.”

Of course, there is money there for the arts — and for a million other things — on a short-term basis, provided we are willing to let our children pay the bills. Meanwhile, the quarrel between hundreds of separate pressure groups, each intent on retributive justice, puts an intolerable strain on government, which cannot hope to conjure up the necessary “just” payments out of a top-heavy tax structure and more inflation. What Mr. Read was really saying is that “pretty soon the resources won’t be there.” This is something that our politicians, along with the people who prod them, have not yet faced.

The Victims of “Help”

Mr. Read, “bonded to conscience,” wonders how we are to reverse the drift that is taking our society to “all-out” statism. As a first order of business he insists that those who would stop the downward plunge must “develop the quality of personal incorruptibility.” Politically speaking, the “incorruptible” man should “never give approval to a law that ‘helps’ anyone.”

This is hard doctrine for the modern age, which believes in so called “positive” action by the State. But Mr. Read says that “pity, unless spiced with common sense, is what’s heartless.” Providing people with “governmental feeding stations” kindles the vice of avarice. Beyond that, it tends to render people helpless by atrophying their faculties. “Helping people to become helpless,” says Mr. Read, “is no act of kindness.”

If you look at what is taking place in the political and social arenas, it might seem that Mr. Read and his “saving remnant” are hopelessly out of fashion. Nevertheless, “the freedom philosophy” has many more adherents than it had in the Nineteen Forties, when I first heard Mr. Read talk about tapping the emergent energy of the individual. At long last the intellectual currents are not all going the same way, which gives us ground for hope that we’ll be free before we freeze.

 

WHAT, HOW, FOR WHOM: The Decisions of Economic Organization by Henry N. Sanborn (Box 8466, Baltimore, Md.: Cotter-Barnard, 1972, 356 pp., $5.20)

Reviewed by Gary North

Five years ago, supporters of the free market who wanted a textbook for an introductory course at the college level in economics had Allen and Alchian’s University Economics as the one reasonable selection. Now we have Thomas Sowell’s Economics, a reprint of Rothbard’s Man, Economy and State, and Prof. Sanborn’s new book. Things are looking up.

Sanborn teaches at Towson State College in Baltimore. His perspective is Chicago oriented, i.e., he follows Milton Friedman on monetary theory, George Stigler on antitrust laws, and positivists in general on methodology. He refers constantly to the MV = PT monetary equation, and from this he concludes that a steady increase of the money supply by the government will eliminate serious depressions. A teacher would be wise to assign Rothbard’s What Has Government Done to Our Money? along with Sanborn’s book.

Generally he favors the market as a means of both human freedom and efficiency. He also avoids the use of the “indifference curve” approach which has done so much to confuse a generation of students. He writes in a folksy, nonpretentious style, which is probably the best reason for the book’s superiority. His footnotes are not burdened with citations from obscure professional journals, but are graphic and illustrative, using such sources as the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Newsweek, Barron’s. The inclusion of cartoons also makes it lively; their impact may remain when the memory of marginal cost curves has long faded.

This would be an ideal book for a one semester course, especially for non-majors. It should also be a source of classroom controversy. For example, on page 299, he simultaneously praises military conscription laws and calls for the abolition of laws against prostitution and narcotics. His basically pragmatic approach mars the final chapter especially, where he calls for various kinds of government intervention to eliminate minor defects of the market system (“neighborhood effects,” natural monopoly), but on the whole these deviations are few. The first half of the book is exceptionally good. The one major flaw is his explanation of profits: he accepts the entrepreneurial theory of Frank H. Knight (and Mises), only to abandon it in later pages for a “return on company inputs” theory which is distressingly vague, for good reason. If this is cleared up in later editions, it will be a very good introductory textbook.

 

IMPUTED RIGHTS by Robert V. Andelson (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1971, 153 pp. $6.00)

Reviewed by Edmund A. Opitz

In view of the central importance of the idea of rights to the philosophy of liberty it is astonishing that books dealing with the subject are so few. Professor Andelson’s formidable little volume stands virtually alone; interest in the idea, either for its own sake or for its significance in our history, has inspired few researchers and writers. There are other puzzling questions. The doctrine of individual rights is an idea of the first magnitude, to be ranked alongside the idea of gravity or the theory of relativity. Why, if the idea is so important, did it take Western civilization more than two thousand years to grasp it? Why has no other civilization even come close? Why, having once embraced the idea of rights, did we abandon it in a fraction of the time it took the West to gain it? And after having largely let go of the substance, why do we so pathetically cherish the label of “rights” that we now paste on patents of privilege granted by the state!

Things were different in the eighteenth century. Men of that era echoed Locke when they talked about the right to life, liberty, and property. What began with Locke as a philosophical speculation worked its way into men’s bones and became something they could almost taste. Conditions in the American colonies gave each man unaccustomed liberty to live his life and be responsible for the property he produced. And there were, in addition, religious convictions about a protected, private domain in each individual whose invasion would violate the sacred prerogatives of the person. Monarchy broke itself against these convictions, which in turn were strong enough to generate the ideal of a government instituted solely to secure these rights. It is to the idea of rights in this tradition that Dr. Andelson addresses himself, and in a closely reasoned, gracefully written book, he vindicates this idea in a masterful way.

Briefly surveying the history of his subject, the author finds three distinct theories of human rights, as analyzed in terms of ground, end, and regulating principle. He finds strong reasons for rejecting the radical-humanist and utilitarian arguments for rights and places himself in the metaphysical tradition which “derives rights from man’s place in a purposive order.” The book’s frame of reference is theological; it is an examination of “the nature of man in the light of the distinctive end for which he was created.” A society which maximizes personal liberty for all and jealously guards individual rights provides the context in which men and women may best fulfill their earthly purposes and achieve their transcendent goals. The first half of the book lays the theoretical groundwork for what the author terms “a rationalized social structure deduced from Christian premises,” and it is a pleasure to watch a carefully articulated argument unfold. The author’s orientation is broadly Calvinistic, and he views man as “fallen.” That is to say, man’s nature is out of joint; so an empirical examination of human nature as it is does not disclose any such thing as “rights” organic to man as such. But human nature is more than natural, which is to say that rights are imputed to man by his Maker. Even those who do not accept the author’s theology will find this a meaty discussion.

So much for the theoretical groundwork; now for the practical application. Professor Andelson proves to be tough-minded and cogent as he tests his philosophy of personal rights against a number of vexed issues. Guided by “the evidence of social data and the rules of logical consistency,” the author proceeds to spell out in some detail that “structure of mutual noninterference which provides the only rational criterion for adjudicating competing claims to personal fulfillment.” There is no room in Professor Andelson’s philosophy for government welfare programs: “… the alleviation of misery is not, as such, a right, and ought not, as such, be coercively enforced. For the use of coercion, other than to guarantee rights, is an infringement upon rights…” Beyond this, he would not countenance any effort to legislate morals; conduct which merely offends sensibilities and is not clearly predatory is no concern of the law. The author champions the right of private association (and dissociation) and thus comes into conflict with aspects of current civil rights legislation. The law should enforce contracts and protect rightful property. The laborer is not a commodity, the author affirms, but “his labor is the commodity par excellence” — a position at variance with monopoly unionism. And as for the United Nations, its absurd Declaration of Human Rights “is proof of its untrustworthiness to wield supreme authority.”

This brief resume of some of the issues may convey the notion that Dr. Andelson is forthright to the point of abrasiveness. Correct! The reviewer dissents vigorously from several of the opinions expressed but applauds the candor which makes this a cleansing book and an important one.


  • John Chamberlain (1903-1995) was an American journalist, business and economic historian, and author of number of works including The Roots of Capitalism (1959). Chamberlain also served as a founding editor of The Freeman magazine.