All Commentary
Wednesday, August 1, 1973

A Reviewer’s Notebook – 1973/8

I started reading Leonard Read’s Who’s Listening? (Foundation for Economic Education, $4.00 cloth, $2.50 paper) in the middle of the Watergate uproar, when any mention of listening suggested telephones, not face-to-face conversation. Watergate was, of course, a seeming irrelevance, but could I help it that Mr. Read got me to thinking about it in the light of what he calls the “freedom philosophy”? Suddenly, while meditating on Mr. Read’s formulation of a Law of Readiness, it popped into my quite ready mind that a tapped telephone is an adulterated good, an interference with free market choice that is all the worse when government, whose agents should be busy protecting the consumers of telephone service against crooks who would invade their privacy, is the prime culprit in the tapping.

It is this sort of illumination that Mr. Read provokes. He would be the first to admit that he stands on the shoulders of Adam Smith, Frederic Bastiat, Carl Menger and other great economic thinkers of the past, but he performs his own unique role in moving the thinking of his intellectual heroes beyond economics into general philosophy.

Take the Read Law of Readiness, for example. He disclaims that the discovery of the Law is original with him. And, indeed, the Law is implicit in Bastiat’s famous passage about the ability of the principle of free exchange to supply a million people in Paris with the necessities and amenities of life without anybody planning and directing everything from a central conning tower. Bastiat talks about “this secret power” that brings supply and demand into a relationship without arbitrary decision by bureaucrats or elected officials. He marvels that the light of self-interest, when left free of hindrance, could bring what is necessary each day to a gigantic market without either choking it or leaving it undersupplied. A mysterious Law of Readiness seemed to be at work, although Bastiat didn’t frame it quite that way. It is Leonard Read who has given the law its proper name. Like the Law of Gravity, it can be worked with without being quite understood. Readiness comes from a condition of inner and outer freedom. It might be phrased as the Law of Openness. If nobody stands in the way, someone, somewhere, will spring into action to satisfy a want. This is fundamental to understanding economic action. But, as Read defines his Law of Readiness, it is also fundamental to the flow of ideas from mind to mind.

Persons Not Vilified

It is precisely because he is so certain that his ideas will reach others who are ready for them that Mr. Read preserves his almost preternatural calm. Read will attack the generality of men who want to lord it over others, but he doesn’t single out any particular individual as a rascal. He attacks “flight plans” that depend on coercion somewhere down the line, such as taxing our grandchildren to pay for our own contemporary frivolities, but he doesn’t name the coercers. He doesn’t deride or vilify. Partly his method derives from his habit of humility, but there is more to it than that. He finds that anger or belittling gets people’s backs up. They flare out in self-defense — and in doing that they cease to listen. The Law of Readiness does not work for a man who has been hurt or embittered by a jibe or a nasty epithet. Since he believes that Society is comprised of “I’s” and You’s,” Mr. Read doesn’t believe there is such a thing as “social” justice. Justice can’t be rendered to classes or groups in general, but only to each person in particular. “To each his own.” It cannot be called justice to the individual if a man’s substance is to be seized to pass on to other individuals who demand rights as a “class.” “Social justice” involves depriving others to gain one’s own ends. It depends on legalized plunder.

Organized Thievery

So Mr. Read, without ever attacking the Department of Health, Education and Welfare, gets his point across that welfare is organized thievery. In 1971 the Federal government spent $92 billion on “social welfare.” This had nothing to do with private or voluntary charity; it was $92 billion taken out of the hides of people by the compulsion of taxation or the cheating involved in inflation. The believers in social welfare and social justice would argue that modern complexities require coercive redistribution of wealth, but the world was just about as “modern” in 1960 as it is now. How does one explain, then, our population could get along on $24 billion in “social welfare” in 1960 as compared to $92 billion in 1971? Social welfare expenditures are actually twenty nine times as high in dollar figures today as thirty six years ago. Adjusted for the decline in the dollar’s purchasing power, the figure would show only a six fold increase. The need to make such an adjustment is in itself a criticism of our policies. Mr. Read does not make a direct correlation between the rise in welfare expenditures and the debasement of the currency, but he hints at the connection when he says that if the trend in expenditures continues the dollar, sooner or later, will become worthless. And then what will HEW be able to use for money?

One wishes, somewhat forlornly, that our politicians would ponder the Read Law of Readiness. Here we are on the brink of an energy shortage that has everybody yelling for the government to do something! The trouble is that government has already done too much. It has controlled the price of natural gas, thus discouraging investment that might have gone into discovery and exploitation of new sources. It has frowned on oil imports, with the result that we have no deepwater unloading arrangements for the big new tankers. It has permitted a stupid law to keep oil companies from building a trans Alaska pipeline that would cut our dependence on Arab oil in half. It has not permitted the construction of atomic energy plants. It has let the ecologists run rampant, forcing environmental protection laws that have doubled the consumption of gas in the newest cars without really helping the atmosphere. (If you burn more gas, you automatically get more pollution.)

What Might Have Been

If the Law of Readiness had been allowed to operate, plants and pipelines would have been built, spigots for deepwater tankers would have been placed twenty miles offshore with connecting pipes running to new refineries on the mainland, and the Alaskan pipeline would have been in operation a couple of years ago. Meanwhile, if the environment had suffered, we would have learned something about cleaning it up. The entrepreneurs were ready to dig up the necessary capital for new ventures, and the customers were waiting for cheaper prices.

But, alas, our negative attitude brought the crisis upon ourselves. We can blame the politicians, and they should be blamed for not having any sense of statesmanship. But we should also blame ourselves for electing them to office in the first place, and for not solving our problems without running to government.

Leonard Read’s book invites hundreds of applications of its basic thinking to contemporary problems. Mr. Read does not believe in singling out and scolding people who may be presumed responsible for creating the problems, but he surely can’t object to analysis that might cause an occasional villain to identify himself as such. When he likens the “promoters” of such public works as The Gateway Arch, Urban Renewal, or moon shots” to the “monarchs of ancient Egypt,” who used “slave labor” to build the pyramids, he may not be naming names. But some people are sure to recognize themselves as the indicated Pharoahs, which could be the beginning of wisdom for them.


THE RISE OF RADICALISM by Eugene Methvin (New Rochelle, New York: Arlington House, 1973) 584 pp., $11.95

Reviewed by Allan C. Brownfeld

For too long we have tended to group political philosophies and movements on a scale running from right to left; Communism on the outer fringe of the left with Nazism and Fascism at the extreme right.

The fact is that these movements have far more in common than they do in disagreement. All three — Communism, Nazism, and Fascism — believe that it is possible for man, whom they hold to be perfectible, to create a perfect world. All three oppose the concept of God, or a force beyond man, and place man in the ultimate position of Creator. Since man is perfectible and man is also a God, there is no reason why a heaven on earth cannot be created.

In what can only be described as an encyclopedic review of radical movements from the inception of the progenitor of them all, the French Revolution, until today, Eugene Methvin, a member of the editorial staff of The Reader’s Digest and a close observer of the subject about which he has written, places these movements in the perspective of history and traces them to their philosophical root.

Discussing the utopian fallacy which underlies modern radicalism, Methvin points out that, “Man has created centaurs, unicorns, satyrs, and mermaids—but he has never seen one. And he has created the post revolutionary utopia. But he has never seen one of those either. Yet in its name he has committed horrendous crimes.”

The radical — from Robespierre, to Lenin, to Hitler, to the variety at work today — sets out to destroy the existing world order and remake it to his own plan. “If humanity does not conform,” the author points out, “then so much the worse for humanity — he will crush it… This breed of radical turns all men into puppets for his own pleasure and gratification. And like all burners of heretics, he will destroy any sovereign soul who dares breathe free.”

Compulsive utopians, when they get serious about politics, inevitably deal with reality the way Procrustes, the legendary cruel robber giant of Attica dealt with his victims. Procrustes would lure travelers to his home and when they would lie down on his bed, he lopped off as much of their limbs as was required to make their length equal that of his bed; or if they were too short, he stretched them. Hence, the word “procrustean” has come to stand for the trait of reducing events of reality to fit preconceived forms of force or mutilation.

The Fascist and Nazi movements which came to power in Italy and Germany came from precisely the same radical root as did the Communist movement which gained power in the Soviet Union — and shared the same hostility to capitalism and to the concept of private property. Methvin notes that Mussolini, at the time of his switch from the Italian Socialist Party in 1914,”… was backing up to the point from which Karl Marx departed in the fall of 1843 when, as a young messianic philosopher… he decided ‘the proletariat’ would be the horse the intellectual could ride to glory. Mussolini, from the same point, decided that the 20th century required a revaluation and new conclusion: the revolutionary radical must ride the nationalist masses —and build nationalist ‘consciousness’ — instead. Again, no change in objectives, merely in propaganda, myths and slogans. He simply substituted the myth of national solidarity for the myth of proletarian solidarity.”

Mussolini made a virtue of having no program. Throughout his ascent to power, he experimented with slogans, always seeking the combination that would work. According to the author, “He foreshadowed the American SDS radical Mark Rudd’s famous 1968 answer: ‘First we will make a revolution; then we will find out what for’.” Mussolini in 1922 answered “Our program is simple: we wish to govern Italy. They ask us for programs, but there are already too many. It is not programs that are wanting for the salvation of Italy, but men and will power.”

The appeal used by Hitler in Germany was similar. “Hitler,” notes Methvin,” used the slogan `the broad masses’ as frequently as orthodox Marxists referred to the working class.’ This was his target audience — the same as Lenin defined in his basic works on propaganda and organization: `All classes, every droplet of discontent.’”

Hitler and the Communists felt an affinity because, like them, he was a revolutionary. Methvin notes that, “No self-styled ‘leftist’ would have trouble accepting his views of revolution.” The two revolutionary movements — Communism and Nazism — drew on the same reservoirs of recruits. Reminiscing in 1941, Hitler recalled the famed Coburg street fight of October, 1922 in which he and 800 storm troopers routed the Communists: “Later on the Reds we had beaten up became our best supporters. When the Falange imprisons its opponents, it’s committing the gravest of faults. Wasn’t my party at the time of which I’m speaking composed of 90 per cent leftwing elements?”

“There is more that binds us to Bolshevism,” Hitler declared, “than separates us from it. There is, above all, revolutionary feeling… The petit bourgeois Social Democrat and the trade union boss will never be a National Socialist, but the Communist always will.” For both Nazism and Communism, it was the “bourgeoisie” which constituted the enemy. Those who believe the roots of so called “left” and “right” wing revolutionary movements are antithetical would do well to read Eugene Methvin’s book. They would learn a far different story. 

  • 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.